Milwaukee County Used to Be Covered in Farmland

The farm in this 1880s photograph is an example of the hundreds that filled the area surrounding the city.

Milwaukee has been a city for so long that we forget it was ever anything else. As difficult as it may be to picture now, our entire region was a wilderness for millennia before we got around to polluting the rivers and paving the roads. Although wetlands were abundant, most of Milwaukee County was covered with maple trees and other hardwoods, forming a canopy so dense that the sun was seldom seen in high summer. 

Those trees posed a definite challenge for the would-be farmers who began to arrive in the 1830s, claiming land that had belonged to a succession of Native American tribes, like the Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Menominee, before the U.S. government evicted them all. The newcomers did not embrace the greenery. Christian Wahl, a prominent German immigrant, described the typical settler’s attitude: “To a man who has to raise corn and pork to feed his family, a tree is looked upon as a mortal enemy, whom to subdue means the hardest kind of labor.” 



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The primeval forest yielded slowly. In 1860, a quarter-century after the first land claims were filed, the average Milwaukee County farm covered 65 acres, only 37 of them cleared and cultivated. In neighboring Racine County, by contrast, where prairies and park-like oak openings prevailed, the average farmer owned 116 acres and had cleared 97. 

The Milwaukee County farm in this 1880s photograph (its specific location is unknown) is a suitable example of the hundreds of others that filled the area surrounding the city. Cleared of its native hardwoods by the unrelenting labor of a single family, the land was transformed to agricultural use, probably beginning with wheat and progressing over the decades to dairy cows. Like every other rural homestead, it was ultimately engulfed by the growing city. Today, only a handful of vintage houses remain as mute evidence of Milwaukee’s farming heritage.


  1. Water pumps were usually located close to a home’s kitchen entrance. This one had its own shelter.
  2. Before the advent of durable paint, many houses looked weather-beaten before their time.
  3. Even in the 1880s, many Milwaukee County fields were still dotted with the stubborn stumps of the original forest.
  4. Large families guaranteed ample farm labor. The mother in this family was evidently an early tree-hugger.



This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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