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Farming the Cutover

A Social History of Northern Wisconsin, 1900–1940

Robert Gough

300 pages, 15 photographs, 4 maps, 6 x 9
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-0850-8, $40.00

Book Cover ImageAfter northern Wisconsin was cleared by commercial loggers early in the twentieth century, enthusiastic promoters and optimistic settlers envisioned transforming this "cutover" into a land of yeoman farmers. Here thousands of families--mostly immigrants or second-generation Americans--sought to recreate old worlds and build new farms on land that would come to be considered agriculturally worthless. In the end, they succumbed not to drought or soil depletion but to social and political pressures from those who looked askance at their way of life.

Farming the Cutover describes the visions and accomplishments of these settlers from their own perspective. People of the cutover managed to forge lives relatively independent of market pressures; and for this they were characterized as backward by outsiders and their part of the state was seen as a hideout for organized crime figures. State and federal planners, county agents, and agriculture professors eventually determined that the cutover could be engineered and the lives of its inhabitants improved. By 1940, they had begun to implement public policies that discouraged farming and they eventually decided that the region should be depopulated and the forests replanted.

By exploring the history of an eighteen-county region, Robert Gough illustrates the travails of farming in "marginal" areas. He juxtaposes the social history of the farmers with the opinions and programs of the experts who sought to improve the region, and shows how what occurred in the Wisconsin cutover anticipated the sweeping changes that would transform American agriculture after World War II. Farming the Cutover is a readable story of the hopes and failures of people who struggled to build new lives in an inhospitable environment. It makes an important counterpoint to Turnerian myths and the more commonly-told success stories of farming history.

"A tender elegy to yeoman farming and to the American dream that it represented for centuries. Gough sets forth a tenacious indictment of those who fancied themselves the best and the brightest, who wrought the destruction of that dream. His achingly sad account teems with tantalizing implications for our understanding of our history as a rural society and of our fragile future as a capitalist nation."--Michael Zuckerman, author of Almost Chosen People: Oblique Biographies in the American Grain

"Gough has an ear for the telling anecdote. He really knows the cutover and demonstrates an admirable affection for it."--David Danbom, author of A History of Rural America

"A meticulously researched analysis of one of the sadder episodes in the rural history of the United States that is informed by both the new rural history and an understanding of environmental and policy issues."--Hal S. Barron, author of Those Who Stayed Behind: Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century New England

"An engaging history."--John Gjerde, author of The Minds of the West

ROBERT GOUGH is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His articles have appeared in Wisconsin Magazine of History, William and Mary Quarterly, and Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.

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