Farming was significant in development of Lisbon, Menomonee and Germantown

Fred Keller
Special Contributor

There are similarities in how the townships of Lisbon, Menomonee and Germantown progressed from the earliest 1836 settlers to 1900 and beyond. 

All three adjacent townships started with oxen an important part of early operations, went to horses and started to really mechanize before the Civil War.

Settlers cleared land where they first planted wheat, but forests remained important as a source of fuel, pastureland and building materials used for homes, barns, sheds, fences and sales of firewood and lumber.

Steam- and water-driven sawmills sprung up to help process the wood. All three townships had big deposits of limestone, which required firewood to produce burnt lime in kilns. 

The fertility of the land contributed to the success of early farmers.

A good example was the earliest Lisbon land claimer, Thomas S. Redford, born July 11, 1818, in Genesee County, New York. At age 17 1/2, he walked to Milwaukee, where he arrived on April 15, 1836.

By May 15, 1836, he came to the town line between Menomonee and Lisbon, where he claimed 160 acres west of the town line (town of Lisbon) at a cost of $1.25 per acre, for a total of $200. 

In modern terms, this land is west of Town Line Road and split by Silver Spring Drive. 

Redford's first job was to take down some basswood trees (soft, easily worked wood) to make a log cabin, with mud to caulk between the cracks.

Redford dilly-dallied with jobs in Milwaukee and improving his land and planting subsistence crops, but his aim was to plant more and more wheat, which could be a money crop. 

This was true throughout Wisconsin. The state became the breadbasket of the nation with the bountiful wheat produced. 

Redford's first big crop was in 1840, when he harvested 1,100 bushels of wheat (33 tons), which he had planted by hand. He sold it for 50 cents per bushel, delivered in Milwaukee, for a total of $550. 

Once there were well over 100 barns in Lisbon and Sussex. This photo, circa 1902, shows the Herman Manke barn. A tornado destroyed the barn in 1976. Today, the location is the site of Sussex Starbucks.

Wheat was the king crop for money, and in the Civil War, if it had not been for the wheat crop of Wisconsin, the war might have ended in a stalemate, or even a loss, and the United States might have ended up three countries: the North, the South and the California-led remainder.

However, the Civil War was the end of wheat being raised in Wisconsin, because of depleted soil fertility, and the newest western-state wheat crops.

So Wisconsin and local Lisbon, Menomonee and Germantown farmers had to transition to different moneymaking methods. Dairy farming was the answer, although many resisted it initially, claiming it was women's work.

Farmers became diversified, with horses and emerging manufacturing machinery to help them, plus chickens, hogs and sheep. Almost totally missing was the use of oxen.

The men learned to embrace the dairy business to survive. Apple orchards, plums, pears, grapes, the house garden, planting potatoes and butchering livestock became a major Wisconsin and local farming practice, with sidelines of work off the farm occasionally. Big families provided a work force, and hired men also became common. Eventually, the dairy business became the king of agriculture in Wisconsin. 

Wheat nearly disappeared as a crop until the 1960s, when it re-emerged as a specialty product. It is again a major Wisconsin crop, but dairy is as big today as ever, with superfarms reigning over the greater Wisconsin farming scene.