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Kinney, Thomas P. / Irish settlers of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, 1840-1860

Irish arrive in Fitchburg,   pp. 28-41 PDF (6.3 MB)

Page 36

States government at the Milwaukee land office to buy property,
usually at $1.25 per acre. Because the federal government had
taken so much actual cash out of Wisconsin from land sales,
people lacked bills and coins, so they turned to a barter system
in which a person might work all day in a neighbor's field and
receive butchered pork instead of dollars. To put the scarcity of
money into perspective, one person was said to have worked at
various jobs all summer before he had saved enough coins
to pay the 25 cents postage on a letter waiting for him at the
post office.
Not all Irish families had enough money to buy land when
they arrived in Fitchburg. A few of them became tenant farmers
or renters. But many chose to "squat" on unclaimed land and
try to raise the money over a few years to purchase it by grow-
ing wheat or other cash crops and doing such work as splitting
rails for neighbors' fences. A difficulty with squatting was that
someone with money could buy the farm from the government
and try to force off the squatter. In 1841, a law protecting
squatters' rights was passed, and protection groups sprung up
around southern Wisconsin, including the Fitchburg Mutual
Protection Society It is said that claim jumpers would have
their heads plunged into holes chopped into the ice in Lake
Barney until they agreed to relinquish their deeds. Luckily,
claim jumpers did not have to face the County MM "hanging
tree," which served as a deterrent for horse thieves and worse,
according to tradition. (The location of the hanging tree is no
longer known.)"3
After a few years, with a lot of hard work and perhaps
some help from frontier justice, a landless laborer in Ireland
could own a good farm in Fitchburg. The pioneer farms gradu-
ally expanded in size between 1840 and 1860, although many
of the Irish farms were smaller than the Yankees' at first, since
the Irish often had less cash with which to buy land. Most land
purchases were of tracts either forty or eighty acres in size. By
1860, the average farm for both the Yankee and the Irish was
120 acres. The majority of farms had over forty acres cleared
and tilled by 1850, and about eighty acres were put to the plow
by 1860. Farm growth began to slow and stabilize after that
year since a good share of the land that was not too wet or
steep to be cultivated was already being used for raising Indian
corn, oats, timothy, and wheat.84 Homesteaders sometimes
bought strips of marshland even if it was a couple of miles
away from their cabins because marsh hay was a good source
of food for the livestock. Irish farmers owned most of the Byrne
Road marsh and part of Nine Springs Marsh.
Wheat was the leading cash crop raised on most Fitchburg
and Dane County farms from the 1840's to the early 1870's.
Pioneers of the frontier states preferred to raise wheat during
their early years in the wilderness because it usually supplied
quick profits. In 1847, wheat became easier to harvest when
Joseph Vroman bought the first reaper to be used in Fitchburg.
Farmers hauled their wheat to market by ox-team and wagon
along the old lead trail to Milwaukee.
Wheat did not always produce profits for the farmers. In
some years, the trip to Milwaukee cost more than the amount
for which the wheat sold, and farmers only came out ahead by
giving immigrants a ride west from the Lake Michigan docks or
by bringing back dry goods to local stores. The need for the
long journey to Milwaukee was eliminated when wheat could
be delivered to the new railroad depot in Madison in 1854 or to
McFarland in 1856. Even more convenient were the Syene and
Oregon depots of 1864.
Pioneers grew wheat not only to raise cash but also to
make bread for their families. According to the writings of early
settlers, the nearest grist mills for grinding wheat kernels into
flour in 1843 were located at Ridgeway in Iowa County,
Columbus in Columbia County, and Beloit in Rock County.
Closer mills were built at Verona in 1844 and Stoughton in
1848. As the local population increased, grist mills sprang up
east of Lake View in the 1850's and near the intersection of
Whalen and Fitchburg roads in the 1860's.15
While bread was crucial to the pioneers' diet, many other
important food items were produced from the gardens, woods,
and lakes. The leading vegetable grown by both the Yankees

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