Farming the Cutover

A Social History of Northern Wisconsin, 1900-1940

Robert Gough

Choice Outstanding Title

Book Award of Merit from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin

Farming the Cutover revisits a sad chapter in American agricultural history, and this time puts a human face on on it. The strength is in the narrative which weaves together the lives of many people who struggled against the environment—physical, financial, social, and political—to start new lives in the cutover.

—H-Net Reviews

“This book is valuable for readers interested in the sustainable agricultural movement, as the values of that movement are similar to the values of the cutover farmers.

—Journal of American History
See all reviews...

After northern Wisconsin was cleared by commercial loggers early in the twentieth century, enthusiastic promoters and optimistic settlers envisioned transforming this "cutover" into a land of yeoman farmers. Here thousands of families—mostly immigrants or second-generation Americans—sought to recreate old worlds and build new farms on land that would come to be considered agriculturally worthless. In the end, they succumbed not to drought or soil depletion but to social and political pressures from those who looked askance at their way of life.

Farming the Cutover describes the visions and accomplishments of these settlers from their own perspective. People of the cutover managed to forge lives relatively independent of market pressures; and for this they were characterized as backward by outsiders and their part of the state was seen as a hideout for organized crime figures. State and federal planners, county agents, and agriculture professors eventually determined that the cutover could be engineered and the lives of its inhabitants improved. By 1940, they had begun to implement public policies that discouraged farming and they eventually decided that the region should be depopulated and the forests replanted.

By exploring the history of an eighteen-county region, Robert Gough illustrates the travails of farming in "marginal" areas. He juxtaposes the social history of the farmers with the opinions and programs of the experts who sought to improve the region, and shows how what occurred in the Wisconsin cutover anticipated the sweeping changes that would transform American agriculture after World War II. Farming the Cutover is a readable story of the hopes and failures of people who struggled to build new lives in an inhospitable environment. It makes an important counterpoint to Turnerian myths and the more commonly-told success stories of farming history.

About the Author

Robert Gough is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His articles have appeared in Wisconsin Magazine of History, William and Mary Quarterly, and Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.