Wisconsin Economic History


Books and articles free & online about: the fur trading post at Green Bay, shipwrecks in Door County, logging, dairy farming history, fur trade, Port of Milwaukee facilities, land speculation, early labor movement, lead mining, barns, paper industry, cooperatives, railroads, Milwaukee manufacturing, State Agricultural Society, agriculture history, banking history

Find the Directory for 90+ pages in this collection at History of the Great Lakes States.


Wisconsin Farm Life Collection

A number of free online books at the Internet Archive, resulting from a search for books on “Wisconsin – Farm Life”. Be patient as the page loads.

Catalogue of the First Annual Exhibition by the Milwaukee Industrial Exposition Association

of American Manufactures, Inventions, Arts, and Industrial Products. September 6th to October 15th, 1881

Milwaukee: Cramer, Aikens & Cramer 1881

“In 1881, Milwaukee, reflecting its importance to Midwest manufacturing, hosted its first Industrial Exposition, drawing exhibitors from around the country as well as the state. Milwaukee’s most prominent businessmen, including Fredrick Pabst and John Plankinton, served as officers of the Industrial Association. The exposition featured work from a variety of areas, including the decorative arts, and this catalogue lists the names of participants as well as the articles they exhibited.”
– Wisconsin Historical Society

Transactions of the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society; Vol 1, 1851

Madison: the Society 1851

The Wisconsin State Agricultural Society was established in Madison in March 1851, on instructions from the State Legislature. A main function of the Society was to organize an annual State Fair, the first of which was held in Janesville in October 1851. The first part of this volume is mostly devoted to the State Fair, including a description of it and a list of premiums (prizes) for best-in-class of a variety of farm animals, farm implements, crops, flowers, domestic manufactures, ornamental needlework, paintings, etc., Entries, owners and prize-winners are listed. Some top implements and devices are illustrated and described.

A second function of the Society was to collect ‘best practices’. The Secretary of the Society requested of prize-winners and other farmers with specialized expertise that they provide written accounts of their methods, which are reproduced here. Topics include:
Sheep raising, horse breeding, cattle raising, butter making, cheese making and hominy preparation. There are also more detailed reports from farmers with specialist skills in breaking prairie, manures, flax culture, tobacco culture, fruit growing, and gardening.

There are also reports from over 20 county correspondents of the society on the state of agriculture in their counties, and a section on meteorological observations around the state.

Books and articles about everyday life, women, ethnic groups, social issues etc. at Topics in the social history of Wisconsin

The Port of Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors, War Department, prepared
Washington: U.S. Printing Office 1940

Describes port and harbor facilities and services, including equipment, transportation to the port, and prices. Also usage statistics, maps and aerial views.

“Up and Down the Chippewa River”

The Wisconsin Magazine of History Volume 14, number 3, March 1931 pp 243-261

Boyd, R.K.
Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin

The author spent years piloting boats and log rafts on the Chippewa. The article contains descriptions of various boats and rafts used there, and the techniques that were developed for river navigation. There are a number of helpful drawings.

For works on boats and shipping, see: Navigation on the Great Lakes & the Region’s Rivers

See also: Newbert, Millard, “History of Steam Boats of Fox River Valley” in Navigation on the Great Lakes & the Region’s Rivers

Find 14 more subject pages of books and articles about Wisconsin at the History of the Great Lakes States Directory.

Wisconsin Central Railroad Lands

Colby, Charles
Milwaukee: 1885?

Many railroads were granted vast tracts of public lands from Federal and State governments that they were expected to sell to settlers and speculators to fund construction of tracks and facilities. This promotional pamphlet from the Wisconsin Central Railroad was part of its effort to sell its lands in northern Wisconsin.

“The Fur Trade and Factory System at Green Bay 1816-21”

Wisconsin Historical Collections Volume VII, 1876 pp 269-288

Draper, Lyman, ed.
Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin

The term ‘factory’ had a very different meaning in the pre-industrial era than today. In the fur trade, a ‘Factor’ was a merchant engaged in trading goods for furs, and the ‘Factory’ was his trading post. This article is about the establishment of a U.S. Government trading post in Green Bay to trade with the Indians. It consists of an exchange of letters between the Factor, Major Irwin, and his distant supervisor, Col. McKenney. They discuss the many challenges that Irwin faces in making the business a success, especially the Green Bay factory’s competition from well-established British traders. It also contains an unusual amount of detail of business operations.

See our collection of articles on the History of Medicine and of books on Medicine – History of Medicine

“Hauling Grain from Baraboo to Milwaukee”

Baraboo Daily News May 8, 1914

Flynt, H.H.
Wisconsin Historical Society

In this short reminiscence, Sauk County farmer H.H. Flynt recalls how wheat was grown, milled, and taken to market in the 1850s. He comments on the prices paid, money earned, and difficulties encountered when the chinch bug epidemic decimated wheat crops at the end of the decade. One enterprising neighbor had pulled himself out of debt by dairying, and Flynt describes how all the region’s farms were gradually won over to dairying.
– Summary from Wisconsin Historical Society site.

The Medical History of Milwaukee: 1834-1914; illustrated with portraits, photographs and original charts

Frank, Louis Frederick (Dr.)
Milwaukee: Germania 1915

The author, Dr. Louis F. Frank (1857-1918), was a General Practitioner in Milwaukee. The first half of the volume consists of biographies of physicians, organized according to the year in which they arrived in Milwaukee. A surprisingly large number of them were German. The second half of the book has these chapter headings, among others:

Contents: -Medical Societies -Medical Journalism -Hospitals -Epidemics of Smallpox, Cholera and Typhus Fever -Mortality Statistics -Wisconsin Training School for Nurses -Medical Colleges -Directory of Milwaukee Physicians 1834 to 1914

Collected Newspapers and journals in historic Wisconsin

Ships And Shipwrecks In Door County Wisconsin, Vol. 2

Frederickson, Arthur C. and Lucy F.
Clark Willick 1986       

Vol 1 is not available online. This book, originally published in 1963, contains profiles, with photos, of many ships of all types with connections to Door County, WI.

Empire in Pine: The Story of Lumbering in Wisconsin, 1830-1900

Fries, Robert F.
Caxton 1989       

“This book analyzes, from various points of view, the development of the lumber industry in Wisconsin during the exploitive stage. The arrangement is topical. The first eight chapters are devoted to the economic and geographic conditions out of which the industry grew and the changing techniques and organizations which constituted its modus operandi. The rest of the book outlines the industry’s internal problems and conflicts, the political, economic, and social forces shaping its development, and its growing influence upon the life of the state and nation.” -Author’s Preface

Contents: Introduction: The Setting – Vanguard Of Conquest – Gathering The Raw Material – From Forest To Mill – Milling And Marketing – Railroads And The Lumber Industry – The Problems Of Management – The Trend Toward Monopoly – The Mississippi River Logging Company – The Land Problem – Failure Of The Land Laws – The Labor Problem – Political And Social Influences – An End And A Beginning – – Bibliography –

“Frontier Land Business in Wisconsin”

Wisconsin Magazine of History Vol 52, No. 4, Summer 1969, 306-327

Gates, Paul W.
Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin

“The author offers a very thorough account of early land speculation as a business in Wisconsin from the 1830s to the 1870s, and the efforts to limit land speculation in the 1850s. Prominent businessmen involved in the purchase and sale of land, including Moses Strong, Cyrus Woodman, and Charles Augustus Murray, as well as those involved with stopping the practice, like Wisconsin Senator Isaac P. Walker, are described in detail.”
– Wisconsin Magazine of History

See our book collections on Railroad History and Civil Engineering and Construction

Industrial Resources of Wisconsin

Gregory, John
Milwaukee: Starr 1855

In the Preface, the author wrote that, “One of the chief objects of this book… is to point out all the natural advantages and industrial resources of this state, and show how to convert them to the best purposes for the general advancement of its people, in all those departments of industry best calculated to make them independent, and elevate their condition in the scale of society socially, morally, mentally and physically.” “Besides a wide range of statistical information on all matters connected with the state, the work contains numerous discussions of the geology, meteorology, climate…” “… of its soil, natural products, botany, and natural history; of its agriculture, trade and commerce, harbors, and navigation”. “… of its water power, fuel, machinery and handy-craft trades; of its rail, plank and common roads; of its colleges, schools, churches…” “All the towns and villages, with the surrounding districts, are described. The work concludes with instructions to immigrants.” “…the work is intended to be circulated, through England, Ireland, and Scotland, as well as through the German States…”

A detailed Table of Contents is at the end of the book, containing nearly a page-by-page list of topics covered. This book is somewhat different from those collected at the ‘Great Lakes Settlers Guides‘ page of this website. Industrial Resources of Wisconsin was not just promotional; the author tried to give an accurate report on economic conditions and the state of society at that time.

A New and Vastly Improved Edition of the Industrial Resources of Wisconsin …

containing numerous new subjects not in the first edition, such as the natural history of the State

Gregory, John
Milwaukee: Milwaukee See-Bote 1870

This version appears very different than the 1855 edition (above, on this web page). Statistical information has been updated, and numerous biographies were added. Unfortunately, no Table of Contents or Index were included in this edition.

“The Financial History of Wisconsin Territory”

Proceedings of the State Historical Society Dec. 14, 1893 vol. 39-44 1894, 131-167

Hammond, Matthew Brown
Madison: State Historical Society

This article briefly discusses the system of taxation in Wisconsin that was established in 1822, when it was part of Michigan territory, and Wisconsin’s complaints in the early 1830s of not receiving any benefits of territorial government. With the creation of a Wisconsin territorial government in 1836, a new system of taxation was adopted, which is discussed at length. One other subject is covered in detail here; the Milwaukee and Rock River Canal, which was an effort to connect Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. This began in 1834 and continued for a number of years before failing. There is also some discussion of other attempts to fund and carry out internal improvements, including harbor development and road construction.

The Paper Mill Industry in the Lower Fox River Valley, Wisconsin, 1872-1890

Heesakker, Dorothy
Loyola University 1965       

M.A. thesis. An exploration of how the river and resources of the Fox River Valley were put to use by entrepreneurs to create Wisconsin’s paper industry.

Cooperation in Wisconsin

Hibbard, B. H. and Hobson, Asher
Madison: Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of Wisconsin 1917

Wisconsin was a leader in cooperatives, with more than 2,000. This bulletin provides some concise information and statistics.

Books and articles on Local, City, and County History in Wisconsin

The History of Agriculture in Dane County, Wisconsin

Hibbard, Benjamin Horace
Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1904

A PhD dissertation.

Contents: Part 1: Early Conditions – Introduction – The movement of settlers to Wisconsin – The purchase of land from the government – Selection of land – Difficulties of early farming – The one-crop period.
Part 2: Diversified Farming – Transition from simple to complex agriculture – Hops – Tobacco – The dairy industry – The size of farms and estates – Land values – Density of population

The Jeffery Four

Thomas B. Jeffery Company
Kenosha 1915

“Thomas B. Jeffery, an inventor and bicycle manufacturer in Chicago, first began building automobiles in the late 1890s. Moving to Kenosha in 1900, Jeffery produced 1500 Rambler automobiles (the same name he had used for his bicycles) in 1902. By 1907 he was producing a wide variety of body styles and sizes, including a five-passenger Rambler that weighed 2600 pounds and cost $2500. This brochure, for the seven-passenger Jeffery Four model, describes its features, quality, and dependability, all for the bargain price of $1000.” – Wisconsin Historical Society

The Railroads of Wisconsin 1827-1937

Kaysen, James P.
Boston: Railway and Locomotive Historical Society 1937

“Wisconsin’s first railroad was chartered in 1847 and the state’s rail lines had grown to nearly 7,000 total miles by the 1930s. James Kaysen, a civil engineer, compiled these chronological records of the construction, mileage, and ownership of the rail lines in Wisconsin over a 100 year period.”
– Wisconsin Historical Society

Good As Gold: A History of Banking in Wisconsin

A Centennial Commemorative of the Wisconsin Bankers Association

Kelley, Tim
Wisconsin Bankers Association 1992       

A popular, illustrated, history of banking in Wisconsin to commemorate the 1892 establishment of the Wisconsin Bankers Association.

See our book collections on Ships, Sailing & Seamanship and Sailors & Shipping on the Great Lakes

The Rise of the Dairy Industry in Wisconsin; a Study in Agricultural Change, 1820-1920

Lampard, Eric E.
Madison: State Historical Society 1963

The first 90 pages of this 460+ page history cover the development of the dairy industry in the state prior to the Civil War.

For information about American and Canadian agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century, see: Bailey, Liberty Hyde. ed. , Cyclopedia of American Agriculture in Gardening, Farming & Forestry

Eckles, Clarence Henry, Dairy Cattle and Milk Production in Gardening, Farming & Forestry

Paper-making in Wisconsin

Lawson, Publius V.
Madison: Proceedings of the State Historical Society 1909

Reprint of an article.

Works of Fiction set in Wisconsin

“A Wisconsin Fur-Trader’s Journal 1804-05”

Wisconsin Historical Collections Vol 19, 1910, 163-215

Malhiot, Francois Victor
Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society

“A French Canadian supervising the Fond du Lac Department south of Lake Superior, wrote a spirited journal in French of the repair and rebuilding of the post and of his life and experiences with the Indians.”

The journal is actually not very long. The bulk of this article lies in the footnotes, where the editor has added very extensive historical details about the locations, business entities, individuals etc. mentioned in Malhiot’s journal.

The Fox River Valley in the Days of the Fur Trade

Martin, Deborah Beaumont
Madison: State Historical Society 1900

Brief paper describing the important role of the fur trade in the early history of the region near Green Bay.

Economic History of Wisconsin during the Civil War Decade

Merk, Frederick
Madison: Hist. Society of Wisconsin 1916

Contents: 1. Agriculture – 2. Lumbering – 3. Lumbering – 4. Mining – 5. Manufacturing – 6. Labor – 7. Banking – 8. Trade – 9. Railroad Farm Mortgages – 10. Railroad Construction – 11. Railroad Consolidation – 12. The Antimonopoly Revolt – 13. The Genesis of Railroad Regulation – 14. Commerce of the Upper Mississippi – 15. Commerce of the Great Lakes

“The Labor Movement in Wisconsin During the Civil War”

Proceedings of the State Historical Society vol. 62 1914, 168-191

Merk, Frederick
Madison: State Historical Society

See our book collections on Workers and Working Conditions and Farming and Forestry

A History of Early Railroad Legislation in Wisconsin

Meyer, Balthasar Henry
Madison: State Historical Society

This paper was originally the first two chapters of a doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin. The Table of Contents provides an outline:

Chapter 1: Wisconsin railroad history from 1836 to 1851.
1. The beginning of the railroad agitation. 2. Roads, canals, or railroads? 3. The school fund, and the Milwaukee & Rock River Canal lands. 4. Internal improvements in the constitutional conventions. State or private enterprise? 5. A proposed system of internal improvements. The Chicago convention. 6. Asa Whitney’s Oregon railroad. 7. The element of rivalry. Summary.

Chapter 2: Early railroad charters, 1836 to 1853.
1. What the charters contain. General provisions. 2. Wherein the charters differ. 3. What the charters do not contain. 4. Sources of the charters.

Appendix.
Analytical digest of early Wisconsin railroad charters.

Wood To Pulp To Paper

Northern Paper Mills
Northern Paper Mills       

A small corporate public relations booklet produced by a paper company in Green Bay, giving a photo tour of a late-20th century paper processing plant.

Wisconsin Medicine: Historical Perspectives

Numbers, Ronald L. and Leavitt, Judith Walzer, eds.
University of Wisconsin 1981       

A collection of eight papers by different authors, and an annotated bibliography.

Contents: Introduction – Frontier Medicine in the Territory of Wisconsin – From Horse and Buggy to Automobile and Telephone: Medical Practice in Wisconsin, 1848—1930 – Sectarians and Scientists: Alternatives to Orthodox Medicine – Public Protection and Self-Interest: Medical Societies in Wisconsin – From Infirmaries to Intensive Care: Hospitals in Wisconsin – One Hundred Years of Health and Healing in Rural Wisconsin – Health in Urban Wisconsin: From Bad to Bet – A Note on Medical Education in Wisconsin – Selected Sources on the History of Medicine in Wisconsin

Collection of Wisconsin Biographies & Memoirs

Directory of Corporations of Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Odell, R. H., comp.
Milwaukee: Odell & Owen 1904

Lists corporations by type of business, with officers and capitalization for each. It also contains a synopsis of corporation laws, a directory of individuals, and information about defunct corporations.

See the collection of articles on the History of Science & Technology and of books on Science & Technology

The Financial History of Wisconsin

Phelan, Raymond Vincent
Madison: 1908

This was initially a PhD dissertation. The author states that he sought to make this interesting for readers with a general or personal interest in Wisconsin history, as well as for readers with an interest in public finance. For the former group he emphasized the ‘personal element’ as much as possible.

Some of the topics from the Table of Contents are:

Finances and the Constitution
Public Credit and State Credit
Sale and Management of State Lands
The General Property Tax in the Territorial Period and in the State of Wisconsin
Local Taxation and Local Extravagance
State Taxes for Education (including free high schools, county training schools, schools for deaf mutes, and the one mill tax for common schools)
Taxes on Railroads and other public service corporations (i.e. telegraph, streetcars, electric companies)
The Milwaukee and Rock River Canal

“Letters of Joseph V. Quarles”

The Wisconsin Magazine of History Volume 16, number 3, March 1933 pp 297-320

Quarles, Joseph V.
Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin

Letters of 1837 from Joseph Quarles, recently arrived on farm land somewhere on the Fox River and preparing to buy more. The letters are concerned mainly with the business of farming, including the characteristics of available land, operating costs, crop prices, etc.

Also see: Taylor, Jefferys, The Farm: or a New and Entertaining Account of Rural Scenes and Pursuits in Gardening, Farming & Forestry

Lumbermen on the Chippewa

Rosholt, Malcolm
Rosholt, WI: Rosholt House 1982

A history of logging in the Chippewa River Valley. Numerous photo illustrations.

Contents: – The River – The Camp – The Woods – The Drive – End Marks and Bark Marks – Sawmill Operations – Mill Sites Remembered – A Sawdust War – “Tan Bark” Peelers – Rafting Lumber to Market – The Little Falls Dam – Journal of a Dam; – Brave on the Bridge – Tragedy at Little Falls – Keel Boat to Steamboat – Weyerhaeuser’s Ditch – Railroad Logging – The Melting Pot – The Chippewa Trail; – Letter from Irvine to Weyerhaeuser – First up the Dore Flambeau; – By the Light of the Fire – Trade Tokens

The Wisconsin Logging Book, 1839-1939

Rosholt, Malcolm
Rosholt, WI: Rosholt House 1980

An illustrated history of logging and lumbering in Wisconsin.

Contents: – Daylight in the swamp – In the woods and “on the haul” – Chain loading – “Ginpole Johnson” and the woods jammer – The “hoisting machine” – Birth of the cant hook and peavey – The crosscut saw – Of sleds and sleighs – The icing tankers – The “Lima Shay” engine – Railroad logging – Life in camp – No talking at table – Sunday in camp – Thermometers abolished – The company town – The skidding tong – Rivers for transportation – The Wolf River drives – Bay boom – The “Chippeway” drive – Beef slough – The boom companies – Famous log jams – A river myth – The river rafting days – Making of a raft – The risks they took – Pilot fees and charges – Whipsaw to up- and- down saw – Circular saw to bandsaw – The bull slide – The greening of Wisconsin

Also see the collections of articles at Articles on U.S. History until 1800 and Articles on 19th Century U.S. History

The Wisconsin Lead Region

Schafer, Joseph
Madison: State Historical Society 1932

Joseph Schafer (1867-1941) received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin and went on to 16 years’ service as the chairman of the History faculty at the University of Oregon. In 1920 he returned to Wisconsin to serve as superintendent of the State Historical Society, where he remained until his death.

The lead region of Wisconsin comprises the counties of Grant, Iowa and Lafayette. This history focuses on the industry of lead mining as well as agriculture in that region. Among the appendixes is an interesting table showing the origin countries for all persons living in every town in the region in 1870.

“Logging in Northern Wisconsin”

The American Magazine Vol 37, 1894, 496-502

Stead, W. H.
NY: Frank Leslie

With photos and drawings.

200 Years Of Agriculture: A Bicentennial Salute to America’s Dairyland

Steeves, John A.
Arlie Davison 1976       

A 68-page popular history of Wisconsin farm life.

Contents: Clearing The Land – The Year of The Golden Harvest – The Water Wheel Turneth – The Hop Craze – Plow To Cow – The Maple Tree – The Apple Tree – The Honey Bee – The Cheery Cheery Cherry Tree – Cranberries, Wisconsin’s No. 1 Fruit – The Cabbage Patch and Sauerkraut – The Tobacco Story – The University Of Wisconsin College of Agriculture – The Grange – 4-H Clubs

Recollections of a Long Life, 1829-1915

Stephenson, Isaac
Chicago: Donnelley 1915

Isaac Stephenson began lumbering in New Brunswick, Canada logging camps at age 11 and at 14 moved with his family to Maine, where he learned to drive oxen through the forests to the river. At 16 one of the company owners offered him 160 acres, a house and farm equipment if he would accompany him to Wisconsin as a lumberman. Isaac would make a fortune in Wisconsin during the Civil War. He later owned vast tracts of real estate in Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as other places in the Great Lakes. He was also elected a U.S. Senator.

Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Vol. 19

Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed.
Madison: The Society 1910

This volume contains four titles:

– Mackinac Register of Baptisms and Interments; 1695- 1821 – A Wisconsin Fur- Trader’s Journal; 1804- 1805 – The Fur- Trade on the Upper Lakes; 1778- 1815 – The Fur Trade in Wisconsin; 1815- 1817

The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin; a study of the Trading Post as an Institution

Turner, Frederick Jackson
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins 1891

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) was one of the best known historians in America, based at the University of Wisconsin until 1910, and then at Harvard. In this long paper Turner first discusses Indian trade throughout all regions of America, then focuses on Wisconsin. Included are the eras of French, British and American fur traders in Wisconsin, as he follows the story through about 1820.

Barns for Wisconsin Dairy Farms

White, Frank M. and Griffith, Clyde I.
Madison: Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of Wisconsin 1916

A short guide in non-technical language to assist farmers in planning the construction and interior features of cow barns. Illustrated.

Turning Points in Wisconsin History: The Birth of the Labor Movement

Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society

Online books, articles, manuscripts and images from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Turning Points in Wisconsin History: Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin

Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society

Online articles from historical journals and newspapers, plus a book, images and manuscripts about lead mining from the 17th through the 19th century.

Turning Points in Wisconsin History: Logging and Forest Products

Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society

Online articles from historical journals and newspapers, plus books, images and manuscripts about Wisconsin logging and forest products in the 19th and 20th centuries.

See also:Pinchot, Gifford, A Primer of Forestry in Gardening, Farming & Forestry

Please visit our collection of 2,000+ selected online magazine and newspaper articles on 40 subjects, plus online map & vintage photo collections, at Century Past History Resources

Turning Points in Wisconsin History: The Rise of Dairy Farming

Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society

Online articles from historical journals and newspapers, plus books, images and manuscripts about Wisconsin dairy farming and cheese-making in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Turning Points in Wisconsin History: Mining in Northern Wisconsin

Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society

Online articles from historical journals and newspapers, plus books, images and a manuscript about pre-historic and 19th century mining in northern Wisconsin.


We have many more books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries on topics such as manufacturing, engineering, agriculture, business management, transportation and home economics. Visit the Subject Directory on our Century Past Free Online Library.


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