A History of Dairy in the Chippewa Valley

Driving through the rural countryside of Wisconsin, it is apparent that dairy farming is a significant part of our state’s culture and history. Between the rolling green pastures full of happy cows, creameries around every corner, and cheese curds at every gas station, it is ingrained in every aspect of our Midwest livelihood. We didn’t get the nickname “America’s Dairyland” for no reason though; early European settlers in our region came for the booming lumber industry but stayed for the farming opportunities the Chippewa Valley offered.

In the 1925 book titled History of Dunn County, Wisconsin, the Chippewa Valley region was described as an appealing location for pioneer settlers because of the steady lumber industry operating in the late 1800s. Families, some of whom traveled from as far as the East coast, put down roots and began building homesteads. Our region’s history of dairy farming cannot be told, though, without mentioning the first people who lived in our state. The Menominee, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk peoples, many of whom were forced to give up their land to European settlers in an attempt to assimilate the Native populations and remove their long-standing cultural practices, occupied this land for thousands of years before colonization began.

A large portion of the history of our region goes back to the well-known lumber company known as Knapp, Stout, & Co., which operated until 1901 utilizing the Red Cedar and Mississippi rivers to transport lumber and employing over 2,000 people. Many families settled with the idea of farming in mind but realized they could not afford it without working at least part-time in the lumber mills, on the river, or in the forests. They built huts or log homes for themselves and straw-roofed barns for their livestock, typically cows or oxen. This lifestyle was not for everyone, it was physically and mentally draining and often lonely because towns full of supplies and shops were very far away. Lumberjacks and farmers had to be strong, patient, and hearty to survive. These were the people who built the foundation for agriculture to thrive in the 1920s.

In the mid-1920s, the Chippewa Valley, specifically Dunn County, was one of the best places to pursue farming with an appealing income to match. Farmers were able to build beautiful farmhouses for their families, and so dairy farming took off. Property in Dunn County at the time was valued at over $51M, nearly all of that value coming from farms. Dairy exports hit $5.1M per year, giving Wisconsin the reputation of being the greatest dairy state. Dunn County was also the fourth-largest producer of butter in the state—the eighteen operating creameries were producing a total of eight million pounds of butter each year! This caused more and more families to venture into farming as the forests became depleted from the lumber industry.

In addition to the slowing lumber industry, the rise in farming and dairy production was influenced by the development of the Dunn County School of Agriculture & Domestic Economy. The school promoted the adoption of scientific methods and influenced the number of farmers as well as practices they used, and it likely built the foundation for the agriculture-focused community we still have.

Today, Wisconsin is home to almost a quarter of the nation’s dairy farms, 95% of which are family-owned. When you’re in the market for some delicious cheese, ice cream, or glass-bottled chocolate milk in the future, choose one of the many local dairy producers we are lucky to have nearby.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of our bi-monthly newsletter, The Morsel. If you’d like to read more stories like this one and stay up to date on the latest co-op news and events, pick up a print copy in-store on your next grocery run or find more news on our website here.

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