University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
The State of Wisconsin Collection

Page View

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

Irish arrive in Fitchburg,   pp. 28-41 PDF (6.2 MB)

Page 39

the money to buy their own farms. Young women worked
as housekeepers for neighboring families as they, too, saved
money. A large part of the young laboring class consisted of
grown children of the older Irish families, friends from Ireland,
and, often, soon-to-be in-laws.
Laborers were needed not only to work in the fields but
also for new cash-raising projects. For example, sawmills were
appearing in Madison and farmers hauled their wood to supply
the building boom there. An additional money-making project
was  he planting of orchards. Remnants of these orchards can
be seen today by watching for apple blossoms in the spring at
abandoned homesteads. Orchard produce was sold in Madison
in the 1860's along with other market crops.8
In the 1870's, many farmers gave up planting wheat since
the soil was becoming exhausted, wheat prices were falling,
and insects and disease continued to devastate the crop. Farm-
ers had already begun increasing their number of pigs and
chickens. Stock farming became popular, and additional sheep
and cattle began to appear on hillsides and meadows. By 1880,
the first dairy herds were forming in Fitchburg and in many
other places in southern Wisconsin.9 Milk from dairy cows has
provided a principal form of income for many of the state's
farmers to this day
While success of the family farm was an essential priority
to the early Fitchburg residents, an important matter during the
winter season when there was less outdoor work to be done
was the education of the children. The Irish immigrants as well
as the Yankees advocated the prompt establishment of schools.
Before the school buildings were erected, neighborhood chil-
dren were taught in family homes. When the township govern-
ment was organized in 1847, school construction was a top
priority. Twelve school districts were eventually developed in
Fitchburg, usually without regard to the differing ethnic origins
of the pupils. For instance, the 1848 Lake View School was
about half Irish. The only division of the twenty-four pupils
by Pennsylvanian schoolteacher Andrew Kurtz was that the
boys sat on one side of the aisle and the girls on the other.90
Unlike Kurtz, most instructors did not have a home in the area
where they taught, and they boarded at residences around the
Some Irish parents were illiterate and therefore especially
motivated to insure their children receive an education.
Although literacy statistics were not recorded on the 1860
census for Fitchburg, the same federal census revealed that one
in five Irish heads of households in Milwaukee was illiterate. In
central Fitchburg, an educated man visited neighboring home-
steads on Sunday afternoons to read the newspaper to local
families. Parents would hush their children when they saw the
man coming over the fields with a newspaper under his arm.91
Other goals of pioneer families besides education were the
building of churches and the upgrading of their homes. In the
1850's, the Irish succeeded in establishing St. Mary's Catholic
Church and a Presbyterian meeting house. One of the most
visible symbols of frontier success was a stone, brick, or clap-
board house to replace the log cabin. For the most part, Yan-
kees were quicker to build new houses than the immigrant
Irish. They had left their similar homes on the East Coast and
came west on a mission to make money and civilize the wilder-
ness. Homesteading was a speculative venture for many Yan-
kees because they intended to break fields, build barns, and
replace their log cabins with solid houses so that they could
sell their improved properties for good capital gain, then move
on and do it all over again. The Yankees' Puritan work ethic
helped insure profits from the village businesses that some
of them operated alongside their farms. A number of Greek
Revival brick or frame houses were built by the Yankees in the
1840's and 1850's. The south wing of the red brick Pritchard
House at Oak Hall and the Helms House near the southwest
corner of Fish Hatchery and Whalen Road intersection are
two of the few remaining examples of that architectural style
in Fitchburg.
In contrast, most of the Irish did not come from long-
established East Coast families. Only a few Irish households
had earned sufficient funds to build new houses by the 1850's.

Go up to Top of Page