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From Milwaukee, the westward journey to Sauk County takes about two hours by car. Today, the route is dotted with Kwik-Trip gas stations, subdivisions, and Culver’s restaurants selling frozen custard and butterburgers. In between are dairy farms; fields of corn and soy; and stands of maple, ash, and the occasional oak. Many Milwaukeeans use this road to escape to the water slides and casinos in the Wisconsin Dells. But in the 1860s, during the height of the local industry, millions of pounds of hops would have traveled this way in reverse, towards the city’s breweries.
In the 19th century, Milwaukee’s breweries bought hops from New York, Germany, and California, among other places. There were fluctuations in their preferences, but also fluctuations in availability. Disruptions ranging from wars and blights to ill-timed periods of rain or drought could wipe out harvests in a given area, while in other years bumper crops saw hop dealers rushing to market, leaving sacks of hops piling up on railway platforms and in urban warehouses.
By the middle of the century, Wisconsin saw its own hop industry take hold. The time was ripe: Previously lucrative wheat crops were bringing in less and less money due to chinch bug infestations, exhausted soil, and competition with more successful regions. Farmers sought to profit with other plants, including ginseng, tobacco, sugar beets—and hops.
By the 1860s, the area was swept with a full-blown hop craze—so much so that people passing through compared it to Kent in England—but Wisconsin’s hop-growing days were not to last. Today, the only traces of that industry are a few murals, the ghosts of old hop kilns converted to barns, and countless rhizomes still thriving on the edges of fields now planted in corn and soy.
One summer day, I set out on a journey to discover remnants of that old industry for myself. After my two-hour drive, I pulled into the town of Reedsburg—once the beating heart of what was the second-biggest hop industry in the United States. I stopped at a drugstore to arm myself with garden gloves, bug spray, sharp scissors, and LaCroix. I was going hop hunting.
PICKED BY HAND Wisconsin’s lush, rural landscapes have been shaped by human action for as long as anyone can recall. The red barns and tidy rows of corn are just the most recent imprint that has been made here. Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi, Menominee, and other Native American communities tended fields and forests long before settlers imposed cattle, wheat, and other European crops and creatures on the land.
When it came to hop cultivation, one factor was constant year in and year out, until well into the early 20th century: Every blossom used to make hopped beer around the world was picked by hand. In mid-19th-century Wisconsin, those hands were more often than not the hands of young white women, like Ella Seymour, who recorded her hop picking and other chores in a diary she kept for a few years before dying in her mid 20s. As a Wisconsin newspaper reported in 1872, “The hop yards are alive with calico dresses [...] The crop is reported excellent. The weather has been favorable, and we have heard no complaints of mildew nor the hop louse.”
“Following the path of hops reveals such patterns of migration and identity. It also shows the tentacular reach of consumer tastes into the lives and landscapes of rural communities. As with any consumer good, the desire for beer shapes space.”
In California, the hop-picking hands of the 19th and early 20th centuries belonged to a much wider range of people—Chinese men, Japanese men, Filipino men, Native American families, and white families, to name the most numerous groups. There were enormous variations within the state, depending on the type of hop farming and the scale of the farm, as well as the decade in question. Rates of pay varied widely as well, often based on the racist labor practices of white farm owners and foremen.
Following the path of hops reveals such patterns of migration and identity. It also shows the tentacular reach of consumer tastes into the lives and landscapes of rural communities. As with any consumer good, the desire for beer shapes space. It produces particular landscapes and ecosystems. Urban demand for hops dramatically altered the social and physical landscapes of hop-growing regions like Kent, the Hallertau in Germany, Žatec in the Czech Republic, and Sacramento County in Northern California. Rural 19th-century Wisconsin was no different.
In 1860s Wisconsin, this thirst for beer meant clearcutting tamarack swamps to make tens of thousands of hop poles for the bines to wind around each year, and farmers abandoning their wheat crops and turning to hop roots. Those wheat crops had been planted on land that had only recently undergone a radical change beneath the plow of white settlers, tearing into millennia of prairie plant roots, shaped by fire and human presence, as well as—until 1832, according to some accounts—buffalo.
White settlers moved hop plants into the ancient floodplains of Wisconsin’s creeks and rivers, and took advantage of places like the highly variegated landscape of Wisconsin’s Driftless region—untouched by glaciers, and far more hilled and ravined than other parts of the state, which had been scraped down by massive sheets of ice. Each turn of the plow and each hop root slipped into the earth contributed to the radical alteration of lands and ecologies long shaped by Native American agriculture, horticulture, and anthropogenic fire. The crops harvested in the stark lines left by the plow flowed into nearby towns and faraway cities, quenching thirst, quelling hunger, and making money for farmers, dealers, millers, grocers, and brewers.
THE HOP INDUSTRY'S ARRIVAL There are many claims about who first cultivated hops in Wisconsin. The most popular, and least credible, story points to one Ágoston Haraszthy: a Hungarian immigrant who also played a role in the growth of California’s wine industry, and who seems to have died in a Nicaraguan river known to be populated by alligators. But the earliest Wisconsin hop cultivation that other researchers and I have found in the archives took place in Waukesha County, due west of Milwaukee.
An Englishman named James Weaver had hop rhizomes brought from upstate New York, where he had spent many years managing a hop farm, and planted them in 1837 in the town of Lisbon, Wisconsin, not far from Waukesha. The county reported 13,000 pounds of hops grown in the 1850 agricultural census, and 18,000 pounds 10 years later. That figure skyrocketed to 72,000 pounds in the 1870 census, just before the eventual hop crash. (Technically census data is collected the year before the decennial, so this is actually a figure for the 1869 harvest.)
Sauk County later eclipsed Waukesha County, but it got off to a slow start. One of the first commercial hop crops of Sauk County was a single sack of hops harvested in 1852. The leading man of Sauk County hops, Jesse Cottington, heard that his neighbor, Mrs. Van Camp, was traveling to the town of Columbus, Wisconsin with her wagon. Cottington and his wife, Rebecca, offered to accompany the neighbor with their tiny harvest. “As he had no press, the hops of the first picking were stamped by foot into a sack, the first crop yielding only 150 pounds […] After various mishaps, capsizes and breakdowns, the party reached Columbus, where the hops were sold for 30 cents per pound.”
While Cottington’s biography literally resides in the file titled “Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography Rejected Entries,” he was one of the most important figures in the development of hop growing in Sauk County in particular, and Wisconsin in general. Originally from England, he had worked in hop fields in upstate New York after immigrating to the United States. Unlike most of the hop farmers in the boom era, he actually would have possessed quite a bit of knowledge, tending to these unique plants in ways that brought him some success.
Cottington later became a prosperous hop dealer, and notably left his entire estate to his wife because, as he made clear in his will (in a statement as rare as it was accurate), she had been an equal contributor to the economic activity of the household. Just a few years later, that first sack of hops in Sauk County would have been swallowed up in the great mountains of hop sacks trundling toward Kilbourn City (today’s Wisconsin Dells), piling up at the depot, and packing the boxcars once the railroad had come through the heart of the state, carrying hop pickers into the area and carrying hops back out to their markets.
TRANSFORMATIVE TRANSPORT Like other cities, Milwaukee relied on an ever-changing filigree of transportation routes to acquire raw materials and to ship out its finished products. But it took a while to develop those routes, and even getting hops from Waukesha County to neighboring Milwaukee County was an arduous proposition before the railroad.
Until Wisconsin’s hop boom, most local brewers were more concerned with bringing hops in from elsewhere. If we compare the rise of the hop industry with that of the brewing industry, it’s clear that there was no way to meet the brewing needs of Milwaukee with the hops grown in Wisconsin in the early years. So hops were initially brought in from New York State—the dominant hop-growing state in the US for much of the 19th century—first via ship down the Erie Canal and across the Great Lakes, then later via rail, or a combination of the two. In 1853, port records held by the Bureau of Customs indicate a shipment of one ton of hops into the port, for example.
These records are frustratingly incomplete. Though there is robust evidence of imported hops, there is no way to determine exactly how many tons were brought in. But it is clear that the establishment of brewing in Milwaukee (and Wisconsin) predates the rise of the local hop industry, and that early brewers were most likely making beer with a substantial quantity of New York hops.
“Like other cities, Milwaukee relied on an ever-changing filigree of transportation routes to acquire raw materials and to ship out its finished products. But it took a while to develop those routes, and even getting hops from Waukesha County to neighboring Milwaukee County was an arduous proposition before the railroad.”
Then the tide turned. In the 1860s, Wisconsin produced more hops than the breweries of the state could consume, and the excess flowed onwards to other places—St. Louis, New York, and beyond. By 1870, Wisconsin hops reached far beyond the borders of the Badger State.
A railway line opened between Milwaukee and Waukesha in 1850, and this was one route by which workers eventually moved to the farms and hops moved towards the metropolis. As the Wisconsin Historical Society notes, “The first train ran from Milwaukee to Waukesha on February 25, 1851. By April, one passenger and one freight train ran each day.”
The track inched across central Wisconsin, not arriving in Prairie du Chien, on the banks of the Mississippi River, until 1857. This “network of railroads transformed Milwaukee into a hub for shipment of wheat from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa on such a scale that it rivaled Chicago.” Only in 1855 was there a connection between Chicago and Milwaukee. Hops and other commodity crops piggybacked on the routes built largely to transport wheat. And even after the arrival of the railroad, the stagecoach continued to be crucial to moving people out into the surrounding terrain.
BOOM AND BUST Meanwhile, the supply of hops in Wisconsin contracted and expanded, and existed very much in relation to the hop supply in New York State, but also in Germany and in England. Each of these fluctuations in markets led to tangible change in the countryside, as farmers swapped out wheat for hops, or grubbed up hop plants as the prices tumbled in the wake of a glut. In 1864, New York State had heavy rains followed by drought, as well as “clouds of grasshoppers … Under a clear sky and a burning sun the earth became parched and cracked to quite a depth … Hops were in many localities injured, and often destroyed, by an Aphis, or plant louse.” New York’s loss was Wisconsin’s gain. In 1860, Wisconsin produced 135,587 pounds of hops. In 1870, that figure was 4,738,222 pounds, a monumental increase.
Farmers in 1860s Wisconsin avidly read the newspapers for any scraps of information about the hop harvests, both domestic and international. They badgered English relatives for intel on the season’s harvest to aid in their own decision-making about when to sell, and what prices to settle for. Likewise, the hops grown in Wisconsin were sold just down the road, but also shipped to Milwaukee and beyond, the prices and destinations shaped by global instances of blight; war; and changes in beer drinkers’ habits and brewers’ preferences. In Wisconsin and California, there are only brief moments of local hop economies, but very quickly farmers in out-of-the-way places got looped into broader patterns of trade and taste.
At the peak of the Wisconsin boom, newspapers and their readers were attentive to the state of the soon-to-be-harvested crop and the early markets around the globe. There was a particularly keen awareness of New York State, and at times a similar focus on Liverpool and London. The thirsts of English beer drinkers had an effect on the farmers and fields of Wisconsin as long ago as the Civil War.
While many accounts of the industry’s eventual fall at the end of the 1860s blame a blight, the initial crash resulted instead from a combination of over-production in Wisconsin and a successful harvest in New York State. The return of New York hops led to the initial collapse, and the Wisconsin hop industry suffered further at the hands of aphids and mildew, and then the rise of the hop market along the Pacific Coast.
Week by week, farmers watched the prices for their bumper crop plummet. They had to decide whether to hold on to their hops and hope for better prices down the road, or unload all they could before prices dropped even farther. In November 1868, the leading hop expert of the day, Emmett Wells, reported the following in the Wisconsin State Journal: “The market is still very much depressed in consequence of further heavy and unexpected arrivals and our reduced quotations of last week have barely sustained. The receipts this week foot up over 100,000 bales, chiefly Wisconsins. Our Western friends could not have made a more fatal mistake than they have, by rushing their hops into this market at one time, and in such large quantities … the unprecedented heavy receipts during the last fortnight has broken the market and been the direct cause of the decline … The question naturally arises, what is to become of all the Hops? Will England take them? …The demand for American hops in London has, to a certain extent, subsided…”
To make things worse, a blight did then appear in many Wisconsin hop fields. The same newspapers that had jubilantly encouraged farmers to grow hops now printed elegies of their fortunes. The visible signs of wealth they had recounted in earlier years—the well-dressed daughters, gleaming pianos, and expensive horses—gave way to desperate auctions and the occasional fire. Many Wisconsin farmers lost their shirts, as prices plummeted from 60 cents a pound to five cents per pound. Many who jumped on the hop bandwagon in the 1860s were not great farmers, but bought into the get-rich-quick reputation of the crop, as was being promoted in the local newspapers.
“‘The receipts this week foot up over 100,000 bales, chiefly Wisconsins. Our Western friends could not have made a more fatal mistake than they have, by rushing their hops into this market at one time, and in such large quantities … the unprecedented heavy receipts during the last fortnight has broken the market and been the direct cause of the decline.’”
— Wisconsin State JournalBy the 1880s, Wisconsin’s hop boom was a distant memory. The quantities of hops consumed by Milwaukee’s breweries continued to rise, but they came from a combination of the older fields of New York, the flourishing fields of the West Coast, and some European imports. People moved on, either slipping off in search of wage labor or turning their farms—if they hadn’t lost them in the bust—to sugar beets or tobacco and, eventually and with more success, dairy cattle.
TASTE AND PLACE The summer before last, in my hunt for Wisconsin hops, I wrote to a farmer to ask if she had ever come across hops on her property. She promptly replied that, indeed, until recently a hop plant had grown up every year twined around a cherry tree on the edge of her property. The cherry tree, however, had fallen down, and she hadn’t seen the hop plant since. When I explained that it might still be there, growing out of its network of rhizomes underground, she was happy to have me come by her farm.
After I arrived, we set off together in search of this plant. We trekked down the hill to a little woodlot, technically her neighbor’s property. We stood and looked at the copse from the outside, scanning the thick growth for any sign of hop leaves, and realized we had to go into the dense grove. There are so many different vines in this world, and they can all look the same until you really start paying attention to each leaf.
After having spent so long in actual archives, both physical and digital, this little grove felt like a different kind of archive.This patch of greenery wordlessly told a story of dramatic ecological, social, and agricultural change. The thicket was nearly impenetrable, comprising blackberry canes, nettles, wild cucumber, box elder, and maybe, hopefully, a hop plant.
Finally, we found the telltale leaves of the hop plant amidst the thriving plant life. We traced the bine back toward the earth, following the way it had twined itself around previous years of growth. The farmer, well-outfitted in her rubber boots, long sleeves, and jeans, dug down into the root of the hop, and came up with a piece of it. I stowed it in the mini-fridge in my tiny cabin, and then brought it home to Milwaukee and stuck it in a pot on my porch. It did not survive (it was not an ideal time of year for hop cuttings) but I’ll go for cuttings some day soon when the shoots start to emerge from the rhizomes as the days grow warmer and longer.
That journey wasn’t my only time spent tracking the last vestiges of Wisconsin’s hop industry. Thanks to helpful archivists and librarians, as well as a Library of Congress map and the online property tax records of Wisconsin counties, I was even able to pinpoint the location of Jesse Cottington’s farm—the ostensible birthplace of Sauk County hop cultivation—and many other local hop farms.
I won’t divulge the location here, but suffice it to say that one summer day, not far from Reedsburg, Wisconsin, in Sauk County, I pulled my car into a very narrow shoulder on a country road and began scouring the exposed rock for any sign of hops. Just as I was starting to ponder giving up, a set of hop leaves emerged out of the tangle of plant life. A month later I returned to the same spot, and was rewarded with the sight of cluster upon cluster of green hop blossoms hanging from the bines that spiraled up the rock. Cottington’s hops, I presumed, the rhizomes reproducing themselves over decades and centuries. Even as Cottington lies beneath an ornamental pillar in a nearby cemetery, his hops live on.
Today, apart from errant rhizomes left to find their way on the edges of fields and streams, the primary remnants of this era are to be found only in the archives and the graveyards. Other clues can be gleaned from the surviving ledgers of some of Milwaukee’s great 19th-century breweries, including from Pabst and its various earlier incarnations, although these are incomplete, and at times simply illegible, even to the trained reader of 19th-century penmanship.
Perhaps the most important takeaway students of Wisconsin’s once-thriving, now-extinct hop industry will glean is that the agricultural landscapes we inhabit are ever-changing. They are in transition as we speak, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes abruptly and bitterly, in cataclysm or in progress. And they will continue to change, in ways not always controllable or predictable by governments, university extension offices, or farmers and farmworkers.
Words by Jennifer A. Jordan
Illustrations by Araña Schulke