The Manufacturing Frontier: Pioneer Industry in Antebellum Wisconsin, 1830-1860
Margaret Walsh, 1972

Margaret Walsh is Professor of American Economic and Social History at the University of Nottingham in England. She has written extensively about the nineteenth century. In the introduction of this, her first book, Walsh said the resource-frontiers (farming, mining, lumbering, “even the military frontier”) had been well covered by previous histories, but the “development of an urban and a manufacturing frontier...begun contemporaneously with the cultivation of land” had not. These were mainly “primary processing industries -- lumber planed and sawed, flour and grist milling, brewing, leather tanned and curried, and meat packing -- industries whose existence have been ignored, or have been dismissed as being merely ‘pre-industrial,’ even though they were of major importance.” She noted (and this was important), "There was no clearcut dichotomy between an industrial East and an agrarian West. The existence of new and relatively quick modes of access to other parts of the country, using first the seasonal water routes and then the year-round railroad, meant that the frontier no longer needed to be a series of self-sufficient communities, nor did it have to go through cumulative stages of growth. A more complex process of economic growth ensured the co-existence of several kinds of economic activity."

In Wisconsin, Grant County lead mining began in 1826, peaked 1845 at 54.5 million pounds. Grant County... was settled at an earlier date than other parts of Wisconsin,  and often by Southerners traveling up the [Mississippi] river. Other crops cultivated in [[Wisconsin]] -- corn, oats, barley, wool, and tobacco -- served mainly for local consumption either directly or indirectly, as did the small amount of dairy and cattle production.”

Wisconsin grew quickly. “In 1840 those counties south of a line drawn from [[Green Bay]] to the [[Mississippi River]] contained 85.2 percent of 1850 the percentage was 93.1...and in 1860 it was 82.7 percent.” The growth in German population in the northern part of the state happened after the Civil War. Importantly, rivers and the lake meant that “even before the construction of railroads in the 1850s, most settled areas of Wisconsin were able to reach outside markets.”

Jefferson County, located in the heavy wheat-growing region of southeastern Wisconsin, might be regarded as typical of many western pre-railroad counties. The main resource was land, the main occupation was farming. Yet the region also developed a remarkable range of small-scale manufacturing. Wheat production “provided a basis for industrial the stimulus given to the primary processing industries, notably flour milling and, to a lesser extent, tanning, meatpacking, brewing, and wool carding. But agriculture also functioned as a market as well as a source of inputs.” Farming quickly became commercial, meaning farmers needed specialized tools and needed to buy the things they no longer made at home.  The market remained relatively local, and “Even when the railroad came, it merely brought merchandise manufactured in other places.” How, then, did the Jefferson County farmers pay for this merchandise? “There was little room for the development of even a rudimentary kind of division of labor. Most firms in Jefferson County were very small operations, employing one or two skilled artisans.” For example, “Within [the] processing group flour milling contributed the largest share -- almost 40 percent of the value added -- and lumber planed and sawed furnished 20.6 percent. Jefferson County was concentrating on processing its local products.” Manufacturers like furniture-makers worked “often in exchange for lumber or farmers’ produce. But cabinetmakers...did not enjoy a monopoly, for by 1847, retail merchants...were advertising ready-made goods at competitive prices.” Did the difference between cash and farm-produce markets keep some of these little guys in business?

Racine and Milwaukee became urban and industrial very quickly, to support the agriculture of their neighbors. By 1850, Racine, “well-placed for the development of...[an] industry focused on the prosperous wheat-growing region,” was making a third of the state’s farm machinery. The market expanded, and “By the mid-1850’s [J.I. Case’s] threshers were known throughout the West, especially in Iowa and Minnesota, and in 1860 he even shipped six machines to California.” This was bad news for blacksmiths, who “in Racine County...were ceasing to be regarded as manufacturers. They either took on general service and repair functions or began to specialize...the more ambitious turned to other craft trades, such as making plows or wagons.”

Milwaukee’s population was “20,061 in 1850 and 45,286 in 1860.” Its industry was uncharacteristically (for Wisconsin) diversified. “In 1850 six branches of manufacturing -- flour milling, clothing, construction materials, iron, furniture, and boots and shoes -- were responsible for half the county’s value added,” Walsh said. She continued, “Several large firms...employed from fifty to eighty workers, often using machinery to fabricate articles for mass consumption. But at the other extreme there was a proliferation of shops run by owner-operators or craftsmen and their one apprentice.”

“The manufacture of lager beer, was the third leading processing industry in the county in the antebellum years and indeed was the fourth-leading industry in Wisconsin. Its origin and steady growth lay not so much in the accessibility of agricultural crops...but rather in the presence of an ethnic group -- the Germans -- both as producers and consumers.” Wisconsin beer found a ready market nearby. “Consumption...was high among the working class of Milwaukee, and especially among the German element, which formed about one third of the city’s population...Most of the successful brewers were German [and] were experienced in the business.”