Sunday, August 21, 2016

Winnebago County Hops, 1876 and 2016

Late summer always makes me wonder what it must have been like to travel through Winnebago County in the 1870s. In those years, hops were still a cash crop here. As the month of August waned you’d have come across farm after farm with densely thatched hops fields about to be harvested.

Hop farming began early in Winnebago County. By the late 1840s, Yankee settlers to the area were already putting in hop fields. The boom years were the 1860s. But hop prices fell after the tremendous harvests in the latter half of that decade. The glut forced farmers here to eventually abandon hops for more lucrative crops such as wheat.

Here’s a snapshot of hop farming in Winnebago County, just as hop production here was ebbing. This is the total reported acreage of Winnebago farm land given over to hop cultivation in 1876. The map shows it broken down by township (don’t be thrown off by Manchester, it’s a misprint; that should actually read Winchester).

Algoma: 4 acres
Clayton: 32 acres
Neenah: 4 acres
Omro: 1 acre
Poygan: 9 acres
Rushford: 8 acres
Vinland: 59 acres
Winchester: 11 acres
Winneconne: 10.5 acres

For a grand total of 138.5 acres. That’s down 12 acres from 1875. The decline would gather momentum. By 1880, hop production in the county was reduced to just 33 acres. And with the close of the 1880s, commercial hop farming in Winnebago County came to an end.

Few remnants of our old hop culture survive. The most tangible link are the hops growing wild on what used to be the hop farm of Silas Allen in Allenville. You can see them if you walk up the WIOUWASH Trail just north of County Road G. Keep your eyes trained on the woods that border the east edge of the trail there. Growing among the trees are vining hops. This time of year you'll see the grape-like cones they produce each summer.

Commercial hop farming has yet to be revived here. In the meantime, there are plenty of us keeping the spirit of Winnebago’s hop culture alive. Gardeners in every part of the county grow hops for their own use. The most elaborate setup is Tim Pfeister’s. You can follow Tim’s progress on his Pfeister Pfarm Facebook page.

Bare Bones Brewery has gotten into the act, too. The brewery has hops growing over the pergola in the beer garden just outside its room.

I also grow them. This year’s crop is taking a bit longer than usual to develop, but they’re coming along. Here’s a picture of my plants taken Saturday morning after the rain storm.

In the middle of that mass are hops I transplanted from the old Silas Allen plot. Not surprisingly, that plant is the hardiest of the bunch. It’s pumping out the cones this year.

If Silas Allen were alive to see my urban hop yard, he’d probably scoff. At least until he got up close. I’m sure those pungent cones would bring a smile to his face. Maybe he'd even recognize their genesis.

For more on the history of hop farming in Winnebago County, visit the pages here, here, here & here.

No comments:

Post a Comment