Tobacco once an important crop for Wisconsin growers

John Oncken

Not too long ago, I received an email from Perry K. who asked this question: “Recently I witnessed tobacco harvesting near Platteville. My very old recollection was that tobacco grown in Wisconsin was specifically used as the outer wrapper for cigars. Is my memory fading? Or is this tobacco just normal cigarette tobacco? Thank you for your time, Perry K.”                                                     

Tobacco can grow tall with good weather conditions.

The answer to that question was yes, tobacco was used as cigar wrapper for a short time and we had to be very careful not to rip the leaves. Then the industry began grinding the leaves and rebuilding them into a more smooth wrapper. And as far as I know Wisconsin tobacco was never used for cigarettes – Kentucky and other southern states always raised a higher quality product. 

As for raising tobacco at Platteville? I know that a group of Amish farmers began doing so some years ago and have their own market in Pennsylvania. I have tried to get details but they would not provide any information. 

A farmer near Edgerton planted the tiny tobacco seed which grows into the plant farmers will plant. Most plants are now raised in Michigan.

Not a big acre crop

This recent email asking about tobacco raising in Wisconsin is not unusual and I’ve tried to answer questions about this rather unusual and sort of elusive crop in this column previously.

The fact that our state even raised tobacco comes as a surprise to most people and each story brings forth calls and e-mails asking the same question: “Was there really  tobacco raised in Wisconsin?"

Yes, tobacco has been grown in Wisconsin for well over a century and a half. Although never a big crop in terms of acreage, it was an important one to some farmers in Dane, Rock and Jefferson counties in the southern part of the state and Vernon, LaCrosse and Crawford counties further north and west. The crop was a major influence on agricultural development during the formative days of dairying in the early 1900’s.

Planting tobacco with a two row planter, a big advance from the traditional single row planter.

In 1919 there were some 38,000 acres of tobacco grown in the state, and today perhaps 500 acres (a guess because the state does not keep any data on the crop any longer). 

The tiny tobacco plant just put in the soil.

The Norwegians

Two Ohio transplants, Ralph Pomeroy and J.J. Heistand, were the first farmers to plant tobacco in Wisconsin. The location of that first tobacco field in 1844 is in some dispute – it was either in Walworth or Rock county. What isn't in doubt is that the major influx of Norwegians moving to southern and southwest Wisconsin at the time saw tobacco as a crop they could raise profitably. Although Norwegians had no history of raising the crop in their homeland, they became known for their adoption of the crop as their own.

Family names such as Nelson, Swenson, Larson, Erickson, Halvorson, Lund, Weum, and Jacobson are forever intertwined with tobacco raising even though they may have quit raising the crop long ago.

A cured tobacco leaf ready to be bundled.

Raised with tobacco

I was born on a Waunakee dairy farm where I spent my first seven years before my dad and his brother dissolved their 200-acre, 50-cow dairy partnership and my parents bought a dairy farm near Stoughton. I’m not sure how my dad learned how to raise tobacco but we annually grew about four acres of the crop. That’s not a big acreage but about what the small family farms of the day could handle because in that era it was mostly family labor doing the work. 

Hard work

Raising tobacco is labor intensive requiring a good bit of bending over as you go through the several cropping phases: Planting the seedlings that were traditionally grown under cheesecloth in beds and planted by two, or in later years, four people sitting just above ground level on a planter. Later it was cultivating and hoeing.

Pressing the stripped tobacco into a 50 pound bundle. Most presses are handmade.

Harvesting involves chopping each plant just above ground level and stringing the plants on lathes and hanging them in a special shed to cure. The final stage is the of stripping of the leaves from the plants and pressing them into 50-pound bundles for delivery to a warehouse. The receipts often paid on the mortgage or household needs. Today the crop is controlled by a single company who determines the acreage to be raised.

I’ll never forget my work in the tobacco field and am proud of the experience. Thanks for the note Perry.

John Oncken can be reached at