Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Wisconsin Hop Craze

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

The first time Joann and I came across a hop field, it was winter and we had no idea what we were looking at. All we saw were rows of tall poles. It was a relatively small area, and pretty close to the farm buildings, which were quite far back from the road. We puzzled about it a little, but then forgot about it.

The next time we thought about hops was on a Christmas bird count, again in Sauk County. As we drove past a farm, I mentioned to Joann that I had seen one of the buildings on a Wisconsin Historical Society list of hop houses in Wisconsin.

After photographing that hop house, which was now used to store farm equipment, it made me curious about other hop houses in Wisconsin, so I searched the Internet for more information. That’s when I found a photo of an old stone building that we had taken pictures of numerous times over the years, thinking it was a stone barn. As it turns out, it also was a hop house!

Hops were first introduced in Wisconsin in Waukesha County around 1837. The first hop farms appeared in Sauk County in 1842 and the county later became the center of the Wisconsin hops industry. In 1860, Wisconsin produced about 135,000 pounds of hops (roughly 1% of the nation’s total). This was a small amount compared to New York, which was the leader in hop production at that time. New York’s production that year was well over nine million pounds of hops (roughly 88% of the nation’s total).

The “Wisconsin Hop Craze,” which is a term often used to describe the feverish increase in hops production, lasted only from 1860 to 1870. It was fueled by several factors, including failed crops in New York and Wisconsin soldiers returning from the Civil War.

In the early 1860s, as the Civil War devastated our country, the New York hops industry also suffered major devastation from a bug known as the hop aphid, which ravaged the crops. Then sooty mold attacked the hop plants and finished off the crop. The shortage created by this caused prices to increase as much as 700 percent.

In 1865, as the Civil War ended, 40,000 soldiers returned to their farms in Wisconsin and were looking for ways to make money. When they left for the war, they were simple wheat farmers. But the decade before the war saw a decrease in the price of wheat as the yields and quality diminished due to depleting soil health. There was also strong competition from neighboring states. Also in the 1860s, the Wisconsin wheat crops were devoured by cinch bugs.

When soldiers returned from the war, many decided to try growing hops and became prosperous hop plantation owners. By 1867, the state’s annual production had climbed to over 6 million pounds.

It took about 900 hop seedlings to plant an acre with a cost to farmers of $15 to $25 ($460 to $770 in today’s dollars). Hop poles were in great demand. Poplar poles would only last for two or three years. Oak poles sold for as high as $15 to $18 per thousand ($460 to $550 in today’s dollars), and tamarack made the most lasting poles. Seedlings were set at each pole; then the seedlings were trained to grow around poles 12 to 15 feet high.

Picking time began in early fall. Homes became boarding houses and gangs of men, women, and children traveled from hop yard to hop yard. The women and girls stayed with the family in the house while the men and boys slept on the hay in the barn. Young men were pole pullers, who stripped the vines and divided them among the pickers. Pickers pulled the ripe hops and filled boxes. They were paid by the box and an average picker could fill two or three boxes a day.

The most expensive part of hop farming was the hop house. There are only a few identifiable hop houses left in Wisconsin. Many others probably still exist but have been modified for other uses. Once a farm changes hands, oftentimes the historic use of the building is, unfortunately, lost.

In 1865, so many farmers in Sauk County were raising hops that the yield for the year was approximately 4 million pounds, or one-fifth of all the hops raised in the United States. The county farmers were paid a total of 2 million dollars (over $31 million in today’s dollars) for their crops that year. Seeing no end to their good fortune, they paid their bills from that year’s crop and then spent money building big block and stack houses, buying touring cars, and treating themselves to other luxuries. Unfortunately, they didn’t see the end coming.

The next year, hop production doubled in Sauk County. But in 1868, Wisconsin had an unfavorable growing season and the hop aphid arrived in the state. At the same time, the New York hop growers recovered, and that year the New York market was glutted, with prices plummeting. Some Wisconsin farmers held back their crop hoping the next year would be better and planted another crop. In 1869, however, the market was as bad or worse, and some farmers sold their crop for only half of what it had cost to grow.

Once again, Wisconsin farmers needed to find another source of income, so they turned to dairy. Interestingly, many of the farmers who settled in Wisconsin in the decades before the Civil War were from New York, which was the leading dairy producer at the time. As the dairy industry grew, Wisconsin (once considered “America’s Breadbasket”) became the Dairy State and hops disappeared from the landscape.

But now, with the push to use locally produced crops, and home and craft brewing, hops are making a comeback. The hop yards we’ve found have been small, but it is so nice to see them returning to the countryside.

If you want to be guaranteed to see a hop yard or garden, visit the New Glarus Brewery in New Glarus, Wisconsin. Their hop garden is right at the entrance. Otherwise, if you’re driving the backroads, keep your eyes open and look for a small field of poles with vines growing up them. Chances are, it will be a hop garden!

Happy Shunpiking!


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  1. Very interesting, Ruth! We have seen some of those hops crops while driving Wisconsin back roads and didn't know what they were!

    1. On the backroads, let curiosity be your guide! :-)

  2. I've learned a lot reading this great blog post! Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Jean. This blog has been in the works for quite some time due to the need to educate ourselves first. It's all so very interesting, especially the revival of hop-growing that is now in progress.

  3. I was pleased that you mentioned the "Block & Stack" Houses, since my mother Jane Eiseley was the one who did the Honey Creek Historical District that has most of the "Block and Stack" Houses in it. We actually typeset and printed brochure on it. :)

    1. Stephanie, please thank your mother for her work. We picked up that little booklet to learn about the block and stack houses in that area. In fact, the house photo we shared was on a farm with a hop house and it was located in the Honey Creek Swiss Rural Historic District. And thanks for your work on printing it!