Monday, August 25, 2014

The Ghost Hops of Delhi

If you had traveled west from Oshkosh 150 years ago and made the 13 mile trip to the Village of Delhi, you would have encountered something extraordinary. You’d have seen acres of spiraling hop plants growing high and ripe in the late summer sun. The air would have been spiced by the resinous aroma of mature hop cones that would soon be harvested. But if you were to make that same trip to that same point today, you wouldn’t guess that such a place as Delhi had ever existed.

Delhi was the dream of Luke LaBorde. He was born in Green Bay in 1810, the son of a French/Canadian fur trader. LaBorde went to Fond du Lac around 1840 then came to Winnebago County in 1846 when he purchased a trading post on the north side of the Fox River. He moved the trading post across the river and a small community began growing around it. Located approximately halfway between Omro and Eureka, the settlement was first known as LaBorde’s Landing. In 1849, LaBorde created an official plat of the village and renamed it Delhi. In the summer of that year, LaBorde went seeking recruits for his hamlet.

An advertisement LaBorde placed in the Oshkosh Democrat of August 10, 1849 has him singing the praises of his aspiring community. “This site for a village in point of beauty of location and commercial and trading advantages is unsurpassed by any other upon the Fox River, or indeed the State… there is every prospect that in short time a large and flourishing village will grow upon this site… The Proprietor now offers to give any person wishing to locate here, a lot 66 by 132 feet on which to build, upon a condition that a building shall be erected thereon within six months from the time of making the agreement.”

The giveaway attracted takers. On September 27, 1850 the Democrat reported that upon a recent visit to Delhi, “We saw several large, nice buildings, one large store, one public house, besides a number of dwellings, a steam sawmill and preparations for more buildings.” At the close of 1850, Delhi had its own Post Office, another sawmill, two hotels, and a ferry crossing the Fox that would be replaced by a float bridge. The village was thriving. By 1853, Delhi was home to 150 people with more than 30 dwellings having been raised on LaBorde’s plat. And it’s probably about this time that the farms surrounding Delhi began growing the crop the village would be known for – hops.

The exact year that hop farming began near Delhi isn’t documented, but it’s likely to have occurred in the 1850s. We know that Yankee hop farmers had introduced the crop to Winnebago County by this time. Productive hop farms usually take several years to establish and Delhi’s prominence in the field suggests that hops had taken root there early on. In any case, hop farming in Delhi grew to be extensive. The small village reaped the benefit.

During the annual harvest in late August and early September, Delhi would flood with people who had come to pick hops. The American House in Delhi would grow so crowded that some guests slept in the hallways and attic of the hotel. The pickers were paid by the box sometimes earning as much as 40 cents for a box that would hold 40-50 pounds of hops before they were dried. After drying in vented barns with slatted floors, the hops were processed in Delhi, which had three hop mills and a hop press. The hops would be bound in large bales that weighed as much as 200 pounds. The bales were then delivered by boat to Oshkosh for use by breweries there and beyond.

A Typical Hop House of the 1860s
The price of hops increased through much of the 1860s as New York State, then the largest producer of hops in the nation, suffered a blight of failed crops due to aphid infestation. As prices rose and demand spiked, some Wisconsin farmers grew rich. Luke LaBorde may have been one of them. LaBorde had taken to farming and had built a hop house on his property that was nearly 100 feet long and used for drying his crop. One report indicates that LaBorde’s hop yard consisted of 30-40 acres. In its time, that would have been a very large hop farm.

As prices rose, more farmers turned to hops. An inevitable glut ensued. By 1869 hop growers were forced to sell their crop at a loss. Many of them abandoned the crop. The decline in hop farming appears to have been concurrent with the decline of Delhi. And the failure of Delhi was presaged by the death of its founder.

There are conflicting dates given for the death of LaBorde, but it occurred in either 1868 or 1869. He was buried on his farm on land that had previously been used by Native Americans as a burial ground. The crash of the hop market and the death of LaBorde weren’t the only problems to have beset Delhi. The village had never attracted the number of residents LaBorde had hoped for and with the railroad having bypassed Delhi in favor of Omro, the village had been put at a disadvantage. After both Eureka and Omro built bridges better than the float bridge at Delhi, the village’s decline became unavoidable.

A Portion of LaBorde's Land as it Now Appears
Delhi’s demise seems to have occurred somewhat rapidly. In Richard J. Harney’s 1880 History of Winnebago County, Delhi is already described as “long since depopulated.” Today it’s a ghost town where the only reminder of its existence is the road bearing its name that runs between Waukau and the vanished village on the river.

A portion of the land once farmed by LaBorde is cross cut by County Road E. Much of it is now untended and overgrown. I’ve been there a number of times recently hunting for remnants of the hops LaBorde once grew. Hops are a notoriously durable plant and will often continues growing wild after cultivation has ceased. So far, I haven’t been able to find hops growing in the area. Delhi keeps her ghosts well hidden.

2 comments:

  1. What type of hops were grown in Winnebago County in the 1860s? I'm assuming EKGs or Nobel Hops (that are tough to grow here now!

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    1. Hard to say what type of hops they were growing, but if I had to guess I’d say Cluster. That was one of the more commonly grown varieties at the time, especially in Wisconsin.

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