Tuesday, August 28, 2018

When Hops Were King in Allenville

Hopyards once flourished in Winnebago County. From the 1850s until 1880, the county was among Wisconsin’s most productive hop-growing regions. This at a time when Wisconsin was a leader in U.S. hop production. It all came undone in Winnebago County after a devastating series of market upheavals and crop failures in the late 1870s. Farmers here plowed their hops under. They put cows and corn where the towering bines had grown. Silas M. Allen was there to see it all.

Born in 1867, Allen was raised on a hop farm in Allenville, just north of Oshkosh in the Town of Vinland. Allen's grandfather, also named Silas, appears to have been the person who introduced hop culture to Winnebago County. Silas the elder died in 1859. His hopyard survived, tended by his son Timothy, the father of Silas M. Allen.

Silas M. Allen was 13 when his family abandoned hop farming. It continued, however, to be a point of interest for him. A railway mail clerk by profession, history was Allen’s obsession. It led him to seek out and conduct interviews with early residents of Winnebago County. The information he gleaned helped flesh out his own memories of the emergent county.

In 1931, Allen’s store of knowledge about 19th-century life in Winnebago County was made public through a series of articles he wrote for the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern. Among them was a lengthy piece on farming. The piece was dominated by memories of the days when hops were king in Allenville. It's an invaluable record. The hop-related portions of it are excerpted below.

Allen’s history of hops was written some 50 years after the peak of hop farming in Winnebago County. It came at a time when, thanks to Prohibition, beer had been illegal for more than a decade. And five months after it was published, Silas M. Allen passed away at his home in Oshkosh. Following his death, the Daily Northwestern mentioned that Allen "was in a position to know more of the early history of the county than almost any other individual."

Time for me to get out of the way and let Allen have his say. I've included a number of captioned illustrations that I hope will benefit Allen's text. Aside from those intrusions, what follows is the writing of Silas M. Allen.

Allenville Hopyards Form an Interesting Background For Present Day Farm Methods

No person under 50 years of age has ever seen a hopyard in what is now the Allenville community, but from 1850 to 1880 hopyards in that section were a common sight.

From the Libby farm, now Hauler's, on route 41, to Tennis Miller's, near Lake Winneconne and from Albert Hinman's, west to Gillingham's corners, south to the Christian Boss farm, were a score or more of those fields or yards.

The highlighted area illustrates the hop-farming sections Allen references.
When Silas Allen settled there in 1846, he is supposed to have had a barrel of hop roots in his emigrant wagon.

He was soon followed by his father, Timothy Allen, by his brother, George, and by his brother-in-law, Frank King. They had come from Madison county, New York, and were hop growers there.

Timothy Allen was a dignified gentleman of the old school, one v,-ho, in traveling or going to church, rode on horseback ahead of the family conveyance. Being a strict Presbyterian, he did not, while living at Allenville. take an active part in the work of the Free-Will Baptist church. He died in 1856.

Hops are still raised in central New York, and our cousin, George Allen, of Brookfield, N. Y., was the largest single hop grower in that country. His last crop was raised in 1921, and consisted of 45 acres. The yards in Vinland were hardly over 10 acres each.

We do not know exactly the year hops were first planted there, but it must have been soon after Silas Allen's settling. He lived there only 13 years, dying from a sunstroke on July 16, 1859. (Note- July 16 of this year, 1931, was one of our hottest days.)

Riverside Cemetery, Oshkosh.
At his death, he owned the farms now known as the Sidney Smith farm, the Grimm, Jones, and Harry Allen farms, the 80 acres south of Allenville station, 120 acres next west of the J. S. ("Till") Cross farm, 40 acres of timber - west of that, and 80 acres of marsh in section I. town of Winchester, where he died.

This land was paid for by wheat and hops. Yet this man, hustler that he was, never had a horse-rake, mower, nor reaper, let alone a hay-loader, horse-fork, binder or sulky plow, nor did he dream of the great later inventions and improvements, milking machines, paved roads, automobiles or electric power.

Botanically speaking, hops belonging to the nettle family, are really catkins. The leaves and stems are rough to the touch.

The catkins consist of several acute bracts or leaves and these leaves are attached to the stem in such a way as to form a cone. A bunch of these cones looks very much like a bunch of green grapes. The base of these leaves is covered with a yellow powder, which is the active principle of the plant.

The acreage, price, and production vary greatly from year to year. The state of Oregon is the great producing state now.

Hops contain 75 percent of water, and are dried down to 15 percent at 140 degrees of heat. Hops have many pests to damage them, lice and mildew being the greatest. About 20 million pounds are raised annually in the United States.

The soil most suitable for hops is the same as that for corn. A field of hops is called a hopyard. In setting out a yard, first the land was marked as if to be planted to corn by hand, the rows being four feet each way. In every second row. in every second mark, four roots were put, making the hill longer north and south. The hops roots looked- something like our modern vegetable oysters. The remaining hills were planted to corn, and as the hops grew the first year to only four or six feet, they did not interfere much with cultivating and harvesting the corn.

In the fall, after the corn was off. a large forkful of manure was placed on each hill of hops. This was both for protection against the cold of winter and for fertilizer the next year.

If it were the first hopyard, you went to the cedar swamps for hundreds of small cedar trees about four inches in diameter at the base and 16 feet long, the large end to be sharpened like a fence post.

In the spring, after the frost was out, these covers on the hills were removed and at each end of these hop hills, north and south, two holes were made with a hop spud, an iron bar like a crow bar with the ground end enlarged.

A hop spud, also known as a hop bar.
Into these holes the cedar poles were set by raising them in the air as high as your chin and plunging them into the holes.

As hop vines are climbers, going around with the sun, most of the young vines soon found the poles and began to climb. But some were unruly and some would be loosened by strong winds, so they had to be helped to find their places on the poles. This was a boy's job. All winter the women had been saving the legs of worn-out hand-knit woolen stockings This soft yarn ravelled made an ideal string to tie up the tender hop vines.

One wound the vine around the pole with the sun, then fastened it with a length of yarn with a twist of the ends, the kink in the yarn tightening it enough to hold the vine to the pole until it started growing around again.

By the middle of July the vines would have reached the top of the poles and branched out in all directions. At that time, a 10-acre hopyard was a very pretty sight.

As the hops began to form, they took on an appearance of bunches of green grapes, but with some leaves growing in the clusters. There are a number of farms in Vinland where the hop-houses are still standing, though in most cases the buildings have lost their distinguishing feature, the high end where the kiln was located. On the Albert Hinman farm is still standing a tepee-like stack of hop-poles.

A hop barn typical of the era.

The Hinman farm as it appeared in about 1880. The hop barn with its cone-shaped roof is seen at the center of the image.
 About Sept. 1 the hops were ready for picking. Girls were employed for this and they were usually secured from Poygan and Winchester. We usually had about 20 or 24 pickers but my mother used to tell me how, in her first year of married life and housekeeping in 1865, living in a log house, for four weeks they had 75 girls to cook for and to lodge in the big barn equipped with hand-made bedsteads, the bedticks filled with straw from the previous fall garnering.

The picking force was augmented by one man to tend box for each eight girls, that is to take the poles down and then stack them up after the hops were picked.

An 1880 photo taken at a Columbia County, Wisconsin hop farm.

The hops were put into boxes. The boxes were about six feet long, two and a half feet wide and two and a half feet high. They were divided into four compartments, each compartment holding seven bushels and the girls were paid 24 cents a compartment. A real live girl would pick four of them a day. At each end of the box two of the side boards were extended to make handles by which when the boxes were empty, two men could pick them up and carry them around.

On each end was a strip upright with a notch in the top. Across the box in these notches was a light pole on which the poles of hops were laid while the hops were picked. Thirty-six hills or 72 poles was a setting, after which the box would be moved to another setting. When a compartment was filled, the hops were emptied into a jute sack, the box-tender dipping the hops out by hand, while two of the girls held the sack.

Each night these sacks of hops were hauled to the hop-house. The kiln part of the hop-house consisted of a large high room on the ground floor in which were generally four large cast iron stoves long enough to take in four-foot wood. Above this was a floor made of slats covered with burlap on which the hops were placed to about two and a half feet in depth.

Fires in the stoves were kept up six or seven, hours, the hops being gently stirred during this time. During the last hour of the drying. brimstone was placed on the tops of the stoves, the fumes circulating through the hops above and giving them a rich yellow color. After drying, the hops very light and brittle, were gently pushed off the kiln floor into the storage room, which usually was the rest of the building, as the light dry hops took up much space.

It was quite a lively time in the neighborhood during hop picking time as there were then within a radius of two or three miles probably from 100 to 150 extra girls picking hops. Each yard was supposed to give at least one dance during the time. These dances were usually held on the lower floor of the hop-houses. So many girls made it necessary that all the men, young and old, should take part.

Even barefoot boys of 8 or 10 years, like myself, were drafted, and if a bashful boy held back he would probably be picked up and carried on the floor by some active young woman. The music would be a violin played by one of the men among the box-tenders. One violin was enough music for a hop dance and the fiddler generally called off the dance changes. All the dances were square dances.

After the picking and drying was over, generally on a rainy day, the hops were pressed into great bales The press was a huge box-like affair relined for each bale with burlap. Into this press the hops were poured, two men inside treading them down.

"Treading them down."

When the press had been filled, a four by four or eight by eight bar of strong wood, called a follower, with levers at each end was put on and the hops pressed down until the edges of the burlap met. The sides of the press were removed and the edges of the burlap sewed together with very strong cord threaded in a large needle with a curved point.

Caps were then sewed on the end of the bales. These bales were about five leet long, 30 inches wide, and 20 inches thick, weighing about 200 pounds.

It was considered quite a feat of strength to shoulder a bale of hops and only a few men could do it. Among those I can remember were Andrew Anderson, afterward living on the Jerry Vosburg farm. William Stannard and William Moran of Butte des Morts. Charles R. Allen, and my father Timothy Allen, all very powerful men.

Soon after the hop growing was well started there moved into the community several families and single men direct from Kent, the great hop district of England. They were excellent hop men and were a valuable addition to the industry.

First came Jesse Britcher, Edward Carl with some of the Richardson brothers, followed afterward by other Richardsons, the Weller brothers, George and Alfred, and Fred Brann.

By 1880 hop growing had declined so much that but a few yards were left. These were on the Cronkhite, Allen, Samuel Pratt, David Maxwell farms and the farms owned by Caroline Allen Bates and Louise Allen Vosburg, now the Sidney Smith and Grimm farms.

A 1932 map of the Town of Vinland. Green highlights indicate farms Allen mentions in his article.

All these soon disappeared on account of the damages by pests and The difficulty of getting pickers. Girls could not be induced to come, so the last year or two only elderly women with their nephews or grandchildren could be secured.

The last yard on the Allen farm was where the Allenville store now stands. The railroad cut right across it taking a strip 100 feet wide. The inconvenience caused by this broke the back of the industry in this section.
Silas M. Allen
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, September 19, 1931

The photo above was taken at Allenville in the early 1900s. The white building with the awning is the Allenville store referenced in the article. Below is a recent photo of that same area. 

Hops still grow wild at the site of the last of the Allen family's hop yards. The photo below was taken there last week.


  1. Terrific blog post! Any plans at Fox River Brewing this fall for another fresh hop brew using "Allenville" hops?

    1. Thanks, Leigh! I believe Fox River is going to do another fresh hop beer this year with Allenville hops in mix. I'm sure I'll have something on the blog about it when it happens.

  2. Lee, My 2nd great grand uncle Samuel H. Pratt [1818-1908] grew the hops that you mention in your article. He owned a farm on the east side of Maxwell Road. His brothers Lemuel and Harvey also lived in the Allenville area. Do you have any information and pictures of the Pratt Family? Lee Fahley Pratt Family historian