Hauling Grain from Baraboo to Milwaukee

Written for the Sauk County Historical Society

Oxen, grain 2.jpg

by H.H. Flynt, Ewing, Nebraska, May 14, 1914

In November, 1851, father packed his household goods at Girard, Erie County, Pa., and with mother and four boys, a team of horses and a wagon, boarded a steamboat at Erie and went by the lakes to Milwaukee, Wis., and from there overland about one hundred miles to Sauk County and located on a farm about four miles northwest of Baraboo, the county seat. Wisconsin was then a wilderness and away out on the frontier. Father had traded some Erie County property for some land in Sauk County, where he located thinking to better his condition, and where his 4 growing boys could have a chance to develop their latent talents. This country was then undeveloped, and no one knew its possibilities. Everybody was poor, and of course had to do the best they could. Some farmers thought the soil better adapted to wheat than anything else, and as fast as they got their land broke up, put it to wheat. This venture proved well as far as yield is concerned, for the yield was twenty, thirty, and sometimes forty bushels to the acre. But where was the market? Baraboo was a place of only about three hundred people. Madison, the capital of the state, was the next nearest place of any consequence, forty miles distant, and that not large enough to afford any market for our wheat, and there was no railroad there then. Milwaukee was the nearest place, one hundred miles, that provided a market for our wheat; therefore the only alternative was to haul our wheat to Milwaukee and sell it for thirty, forty, fifty, and sometimes as high as sixty cents per bushel. This was pioneering and making money with a vengeance. Thus farmers kept growing wheat until about 1858 or 1860, when the chintz bug put in an appearance and reduced the farmers’ yields down to from three to ten bushels per acre.

Real Hardships
In hauling the wheat to Milwaukee, both horse teams and oxen were used; more oxen and horses. It took from two to three weeks to make a trip, depending upon the weather and the roads. Some seasons the weather would be fine and the roads good; other seasons the weather would be rainy and the roads bad.

No settler ever indulged in the luxury of stopping at a hotel unless compelled to do so by sickness or a bad storm. The time it took and the price of grain, forbade any luxuries. I heard one settler say that his load of wheat lacked sixty cents of buying a few groceries and incidental expenses of one trip. A settler would start out with his load of grain, a small sack of flour or corn meal and would take a shot gun with which to get his meat on the way. Camping out was the alternative. At first the Wisconsin river was crossed by ferry at Portage. Portage had an eye single to the trade west of the river and after a few years erected a bridge. Later a ferry was established at Merrimack. I do not remember of hearing any settler say what the toll was at these places.

As I look back over the years that have passed, these lines of Wadsworth come to my mind:

“How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood,
When fond recollections present them to view.”

Thought They Were in the Swim
In the meantime, what is now known as the Chicago, Milwaukee, & St. Paul Railroad company had built a line of railroad from Milwaukee to Prairie du Chein, and was building a line from Milwaukee to LaCrosse, and had it built as far as Kilbourn City, sixteen miles north of Baraboo. There was also built at this time a flouring mill at Baraboo. The farmers by this time began to think they were in the swim, by having a flouring mill at hand to buy their wheat and a railroad so near.

We well remember the first load of wheat we were sent with to that mill. The price received was eighty cents a bushel. Gee! What a contrast; eighty cents a bushel, and only a four-mile haul from a hundred-mile haul and fifty cents a bushel. After our load of wheat was disposed of—boy like, we thought we would see the sights of the new mill, and on our rounds, we saw the by-products, the bran and shorts, running through a spout out of the mill into the river. On returning home, we told the home folks the price we received for the load of wheat, and we all thought we had the world by the horns, and yet our yield that year was only eight bushels per acre.

Notch Higher in Scale of Prosperity
How the farmers rejoiced over the erection of this mill. It would pay them ten cents a barrel to haul its flour from Baraboo to Kilbourn City, sixteen miles; they could haul ten barrels to a load, make one trip a day, thereby make one dollar a day for themselves and their team. Thus we thought we had raised one notch higher in the scale of prosperity.

We had in our midst at that time one very progressive farmer, Mr. N.W. Morley, who is known in the state over as one of the pioneer and successful dairymen of the state. Mr. Morley came from Mentor, Lake County, Ohio in the early ‘50’s and located in our midst. Many farmers in Lake County had entered the dairy business and were making money. Mr. Morley was a man of large views, a thorough business man, and a successful dairyman. When he first located in Sauk County, he entered into wheat growing the same as the rest. It was unsatisfactory to him, and he changed and went to growing peppermint and manufacturing it into oil. This was also too slow for him. The writer remembers him saying one day, “If the farmers of this section ever make their business pan out, they will have to change their tactics. I know the farmers in Lake County that have entered the dairy business have made money, and I believe we have every opportunity, every facility, and every condition just as favorable here for the dairy business as in Lake County.” Thus he talked and thus he worked. He began to buy cows as fast as he could, and he kept at it until he had gathered up about forty head. He commenced by making butter, but later added the manufacture of cheese. His original quarters became too small for his expanding business, and he decided to build a large stone cheese factory. He had a fine stone quarry on his farm, and out of this quarry he took the rock and erected the cheese factory on the same spot. We had the pleasure of helping dig the rock and attending the masons that built this cheese factory, and also became a patron. After he had the cheese factory built and in operation, the surrounding farmers began to gather about them a few cows and took their milk to his cheese factory to be manufactured into cheese. It was but a few years until the appearance of that community was completely transformed. The farm mortgages were soon lifted. The old log house was replaced by a large and imposing dwelling. The old straw sheds and stables gave place to large frame barns, stables, and outbuildings. Now and then a farmer would stick to grain growing, but he remained in the same old rut—no enterprise, no improvements.

(Editor’s Note—A portion of the foregoing article appeared in the Blue Valley Bulletin, Chicago, March, 1912.)