Monday, August 29, 2016

The Hinman Hop Yard in the Town of Clayton

Winnebago County once had a vibrant hop culture. Following the arrival of Yankee farmers in the late 1840s, hop farming spread across the county in the 1850s. In the 1860s, it turned into a craze. During the boom year of 1865, the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern commented, “Hereafter (hops) will constitute a very important item in the production of this county.”

It wasn’t to be. The hops market gradually collapsed in the 1870s. The county’s hop culture began winding down. By the end of the 1880s, all of it was gone.  With it went the memory of what had been so vital. Most of those who made it so were forgotten.

We have a few of their names. There was Silas Allen in Allenville. Luke LaBorde in deserted Delhi. And John Braley in Oshkosh. Another name to add to that list is Lorenzo Hinman. His hop farm in the Town of Clayton was said to be among the largest in the county.

Hinman was a Yankee, born on January 4, 1823 in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He was a direct descendent of Sgt. Edward Hinman, an English puritan who migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1650.  For nearly 200 years, Massachusetts was where the Hinmans remained. But Lorenzo Hinman went wandering.

Hinman first went to New York. Then pulled by the lure of abundant and cheap land, he headed west. He may have been among the Hinman clan that in 1845 travelled from New York to Chicago by sailing ship then journeyed north by ox team to Wisconsin. 1846 saw Lorenzo Hinman settled in Walworth County. A couple years later, he was back on the move.

On September 1, 1848 at the federal land office in Green Bay, Hinman purchased 360 acres in Winnebago County. The deeds Hinman received were signed by the 11th President of the United States, James Polk.

The largest contiguous piece spanned the townships of Clayton and Vinland. The 320 acre parcel is bisected by the current Breezewood Lane. It’s bordered on the east by Center Road. Here’s an 1855 map of Winnebago County with the Hinman property blocked in red (click the image to enlarge it).

Hinman sold the Vinland portion to his father. He kept the SE ¼ of Section 33 in the Town of Clayton for himself. This is where he would stay. He cleared the land, built a home and established a farm. Here’s a recent satellite view of the area with Hinman’s property framed in yellow. We're looking at the northwest corner of Breezewood Lane and Center Roads .

Hinman was among the first settlers to what officially became the Town of Clayton in 1849. It’s unlikely he arrived there with thoughts of hop growing in mind. There is some indication of hop culture in the northern part of Winnebago County in the late 1840s, but it appears the plant's spread into the Town of Clayton came later.

The 1850 Wisconsin Federal Census doesn’t enumerate hop production among the township’s agricultural output. A less formal survey of agriculture in Clayton made by the Oshkosh Democrat in 1851 also makes no mention of hops. But by the mid-1850s, hops had arrived.

Perhaps inspired by the success of hop culture in bordering Vinland, Hinman and other farmers in Clayton began putting down rootstock. The 1999 book The History of the Town of Clayton suggests that hops had taken hold in the township by 1856. That date corresponds with the initial spread of hops in Winnebago County.

It’s not known when Hinman’s yard began bearing hop cones, but the crop obviously served him well. At least in the beginning. By 1860, Hinman had begun his rise. The 37-year-old listed his net worth as $4,430.00 or about $130,000.00 in today’s money. It was just the start.

An 1862 map with the Lorenzo Hinman farm framed in yellow
Hinman, like other farmers in the area, was swept upward by the momentum of rising hop prices. How much of his land he devoted to the lucrative crop is another unknown. The History of the Town of Clayton states that Hinman had in excess of 300 acres devoted to hop production. That would have been impossible.

During Hinman’s time, hops were picked by hand. It would have taken more than 2,000 people a month to harvest a crop of that size. There’s just no way. More likely, Hinman’s yard comprised 10-20 acres. Even a yard of that acreage would have required nearly 100 pickers or more for the August/September harvest.

The Roblee farm, just north of Hinman’s property provided temporary residence for at least some of the itinerant pickers who found their way to the Town of Clayton. According to Century Farms of Wisconsin, Volume 1, the Roblees built a frame house that became a dormitory for hop pickers during harvest season. “Girls and young men from nearby were hired to harvest the crop. The girls slept in the north part of the house, and the men slept in the south part.”

Meanwhile, Hinman amassed wealth. Over the course of the 1860s – boom years for hop growers – Hinman did well. He bought more land. In 1870 he posted a net worth of $21,550, or about $404,000.00 in today’s money. He was at his financial peak.

Grand Entrance to the former Hinman Farm, circa 1950
The Grand Entrance Today
But the good times were just about over. As the price of hops plummeted in the 1870s, hop farming in Winnebago County dried up. Many of those who had vested heavily in the crop lost their farms. Hinman didn’t. But he doesn't appear to have come out unscathed.

When Lorenzo Hinman died on September 16, 1896, he still had his farm. But much of his wealth had been erased. While he owned more than 320 acres of land, he had less than $700 to his name. Hinman died land rich and cash poor.

Hinman's modest headstone in Allenville Cemetery
The Hinman land in the Town of Clayton remained with the Hinman family until the end of the 1940s; a century after Lorenzo Hinman arrived here. One of the few remnants of his hop yard were the old hop poles stacked by an outbuilding near the house. Hinman had saved them. They were still there in 1933.

I’ve been out to see what used to be Hinman’s farm. I was hoping to find wild hops growing. Some feral legacy of Hinman from the land he poured his life into. A progeny of one that endured the uprooting after everything went to hell. So far, there's been none of that to be found.

There's more on the Hinman hop farm here.

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