By the 1870s, many Wisconsin farmers turned to dairy farming and other crops (wheat farming was failing). In central Wisconsin, in addition to milking cows, many farmers have started growing potatoes. According to the USDA’s Agricultural Statistics Service, Wisconsin farmers cultivated 64,304 acres of potatoes in 1870. That number exploded to 325,000 acres in 1922.
We grew potatoes on the family farm, 20 acres of potatoes every year. We planted them by hand, hoeed them by hand, dug them by hand (with six-tine forks) and picked them up by hand. Our country school organized a two-week potato holiday in October so that all the children could stay home and pick potatoes.
Besides the potato bins in our farm cellar, we stored them in a potato cellar built into the hillside just beyond the chicken coop. Each farmer had a potato cellar where potatoes were stored in the lower part of the building and various agricultural machinery was stored in the upper part.
Potato prices were generally best in late winter and early spring, hence the reason for stockpiling. We kept a wood stove burning all winter in the potato cellar to keep the potatoes from freezing.
Potato warehouses (with potato buyers) lined the Wild Rose railroad tracks at this time. In late winter, we spent many evenings after barn chores were over, by the light of a barn lantern, sorting and dumping potatoes into burlap sacks. Dad transported them to Wild Rose with a bobsleigh pulled by our trusty crew. He chose a warmer winter day to haul the potatoes so they wouldn’t freeze during the four and a half mile journey to the village.
Travelers to central Wisconsin can easily spot these little potato caves, as many of them remain standing. These small buildings have many stories to tell.
THE OLD TIMER SAYS: Wisconsin still grows a lot of potatoes, third in the nation among all states. Idaho and Washington State rank number one and second.
Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of more than 35 books, including many on rural history and country living. For more information about Jerry’s writing and television work, visit [email protected]