The pigs know…it’s all about dirt

September 23, 2009

A friend of mine just started farming his parent’s land and he invited me out to help dig potatoes last weekend.  Before we got down on hands and knees in the dirt to unearth the tubers, he said the pigs needed a shower.

The three dudes, as he calls them, were weighing in around 200 pounds after about 8 months of eating. On Sunday, when I arrived, they were lumped together in the shade. Pigs don’t sweat, my farmer friend told me. When he got the hose out, they came trotting out in a hurry to splash around and get their snouts down in the newly created mud puddle.

As I spent the next hours harvesting purple, red, and gold potatoes, all found like prizes hidden within the rich soil, I thought about Will Allen.

Will Allen is a very successful farmer in urban Milwaukee. Will inspires people to garden, to grow food, and to improve their landscapes and lives. And he says, with impressive conviction, that to grow food in poor or tainted soil is irresponsible.

His main message is this: It’s all about the dirt.

Will Allen bought the last parcel of agricultural land in Milwaukee and, back in 1993, connected with teens from the surrounding neighborhood to provide work restoring the soil and the greenhouses to grow food. It was an area of the city where people needed jobs and that offered residents no other options for fresh veggies. That was the beginning of Growing Power.

To hear Will go through a brief history of the past sixteen years is jaw-droppingly inspiring. Now he travels the world sharing his techniques for creating huge quantities of high quality soil, putting it to high-density use, fertilizing it with worm castings, and changing the landscape for the better.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council brought Will Allen to Madison last week as a pre-event for the Wisconsin Book Festival (October 7-11 in Madison). The room at the Goodman Community Center was overflowing with fans, followers, and some new faces (now known as the recently converted). Forget about fire code, people were crammed in there! By the end of his talk, Will had everyone happily yelling “Soil!” when he asked, “What is the key to feeding everyone healthy food?”

And what do soil, dirt, and farming have to do with the a statewide cultural organization like the Wisconsin Humanities Council?

Dena Wortzel, the director of the WHC, may have said it best when she explained, “For our part, what we hope to do is help folks in Wisconsin use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone.”

The event was planned to bring people together to talk about what’s going on, what people are excited about, and how new ideas can be realized. This conversation, on-going and building, is part of a history, heritage, and legacy in Wisconsin.

“I don’t know if it is in the air, the water or the soil,” Dena continued, “but for more than a hundred years, Wisconsin has been home to visionaries of land and community, from John Muir to Aldo Leopold, to Will Allen – as well as less publicly known, but equally passionate people like all of you.”

I’m with Will on this one: it must be in the soil!

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

Owteno Viola Award

August 29, 2009

I have a love/hate relationship with awards. Sometimes I find them silly; simply attend an event and you receive an award. Sometimes I find them totally frustrating; the criteria so subjective you have a greater chance of winning the lotto then bringing home the “prize’. And occasionally, they are so appropriately awarded that you breathe a sigh of complete satisfaction. Some awards are handed out for a body of work already completed; the touted lifetime achievement awards. They leave me wondering if the person is now off the hook. They never need accomplish anything else in life. Some awards are given in out in anticipation of greatness yet to come. It is for everyone to see if the artist can ever achieve enough to live up to the award. And occasionally, the award does both, it sings of what the artist has already accomplished while speaking to the potential which still lays within.rhythm-and-bows

Recently a friend, neighbor,  and colleague of mine, Randy Sabien, was presented with the 2009 Owteno Award from The Viola Foundation, an award that caused me to sigh with great satisfaction and marvel at it’s intent. The Owteno Award is given out to “the applicant most likely to positively impact the viola community at large.” The award is the use of a viola and bow for life, hand selected for the recipient. So why is this award so interesting…It’s because Randy is not a violist. He’s a jazz violinist, a renown jazz violinist and music educator. So why a viola award. In presenting the award, the Viola Foundation stated, ” With your recent appointment as the Chairman of the String Department at McNally Smith College of Music and your long and constantly evolving use of the violin, we believe you are in the best position to advance the viola and its role in alternative music in the years ahead.” How perfect an award is that. It rewards what Randy has already accomplished during a lifetime on the violin and then challenges him to take the potential they see and do it all again with the viola. It’s so beautiful I wish I had thought of it myself.

Just recently Randy picked up his Brian Derber viola and Hartmut Knoll bow from the Claire Givens Violin Shop in Minneapolis. Now I’m waiting for the day when he walks on stage with not one instrument but two. My guess is, I won’t have long to wait.

Dayle Quigley

The Public Option

August 10, 2009

Historically-minded people often discern similiarities between events past and present and can’t resist the temptation to share them.  So be warned, here’s one now.

The current debate over the expansion of the federal government’s role in providing health insurance to Americans resembles the discussion–to put it mildly–that occurred in the mid-1930s on whether the United States should fund the extension of electrical service to rural areas unserved by investor-owned utilities.  It was the 1930’s version of the familiar public-versus-private debate that is as old as the republic.

The need was obvious. Ninety percent of the six million American farmsteads did not have electricity. Basic amenities that urban Americans had enjoyed for decades–modern lighting, running water, indoor toilets–were absent, as were “luxuries” like radios, refrigerators, automatic hot water heaters and kitchen stoves that did not burn wood.


In the 1930s, standards of living on American farms lagged far behind those in cities. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

That was in the farm house. In farm yards, barns, sheds and shops, electrical power would save labor, make for a better-lighted, safer working environment, increase productivity and boost income. An electric water pump meant a farmer had only to turn the handle on a faucet to water his livestock instead of pumping hundreds of gallons by hand or relying on a windmill that did not always spin. Electric motors could also power the numerous choppers, grinders, mixers and loaders that were vital to handling everything from shelled corn to shredded silage. Electricity would bring American farming into the 20th Century.

In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Rural Electricification Administration. The following year, Congress appropriated $100 million and charged the REA to make low interest loans to public and investor-owned utilities to run power lines in rural areas.

Then the debate began. The power companies said that if they borrowed the entire $100 million they could extend power to another 200,000 farms–maybe. That would leave about 5.2 million unserved. A dismayed Senator Frank Norris, the prairie progressive from Nebraska, succeeded in amending the REA legislation to require that loans  be made only to organizations  agreeing to extend power to all consumers in their service area. Norris’s “all-inclusion” provision prevented the power companies from using taxpayer dollars to “cherry pick”  their customers. Obliged to serve both the big farm on the county highway and the hardscrabble homestead up the hollow, the power companies passed on the loan program.

Farmers themselves stepped up. Often led by university-extension county agents, they organized cooperatives that collected membership fees as low as one dollar per farm, established local distribution systems, and purchased power from the investor-owned utilities.

In Wisconsin, two cooperatives lay claim to the honor of being the first to deliver power to farmer members. On or about the same day in May 1937, Richland County Electric Cooperative and Columbus Rural Electric Cooperative energized their first power lines.

1950s Iowa farm kids, part of the first generation of rural Americans born on farms with electrical power.  Photo: Author.

1950s Iowa farm kids, part of the first generation of rural Americans born on farms with electrical power. Photo: Author.

Cooperatives spread and today there are over nine hundred rural electric cooperatives serving forty-two million people in forty-seven states. There would be more had the private utilities not responded as they did. Faced with competition from the “public option” they discovered that they really could extend service to millions–not just thousands–of farmers.

As a result, electrical power came to rural America. It was a precondition for the transformation that occurred in the countryside in the years after World War II.

What would a public option as real as the rural electric cooperatives mean for American health care today?

–Michael Goc

Gone Fishin’

July 21, 2009

Work before play was the ethic of the Victorian era, but not everyone subscribed.

A Wisconsin Central Railroad train at the depot in Colby, Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

A Wisconsin Central Railroad train at the depot in Colby, Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Take the fellow known to Ashland County historians only as  “Mr. Merrill of Prairie du Chien.” A few months after the first cars of the Wisconsin Central Railroad reached the Lake Superior shore in spring 1877,  he traveled halfway across the state to board  the train running north from Marshfield to Ashland.  At a spot in the forest yet to be disturbed by logger’s axe or farmer’s plow, but where the locomotive was obliged to stop, Merrill hopped off the train and headed down the trail running due west.

Leaves were already turning in the softening September light. Canoe birch to bright yellow, soft maple in the lowlands to scarlet, hard maple on the uplands to burnished gold. White pine needles stayed green but added a wintry caul of dusky blue.

After a trek of about five miles, Merrill reached his destination, Butternut Lake. One thousand acres of gravel bars and rice beds, rocky dropoffs and reedy shallows, all overlain with a flawless mirror of clear water capturing images of the sky.

He set to his task, but not to work. He laid no traps to extract beaver pelts,  chipped no rocks in search of copper or iron ore, appraised no trees for their content of lumber in board feet,  stretched no chains to mark forties for farms or town lots for sale, scooped up no soil to assess its capability for corn.

He went fishing. In waters yet to be sullied by logging slash or camp debris, or marred by farm runoff, wetland drainage or village trash.  All that and more would come to Butternut and thousands of other virgin lakes in the north, but not in 1877.

Only Merrill of Prairie du Chein, who did very well with his hook and line. The Ashland Press reported that he caught “eighty pounds of musky.”  He probably hooked as much or more of walleye, pike or perch, but even in 1877, the tiger fish of the north was the catch most coveted.  He lugged his haul out to the railroad, packed them in a barrel full of ice and shipped them home to Prairie du Chien where they enlivened the catfish-rich dinner tables of his family and friends.

“Time is the pool I go fishing in,” wrote another lake lover thirty years prior to Merrill’s expedition to Butternut Lake.  For Henry David Thoreau, how we use our time on this earth was the elemental question.

In September 1877, Merrill of Prairie du Chien fished in the pristine pool of Butternut Lake. His choice was well-timed. 1878 would have been too late.

 issued by the Land Department of the Wisconsin Central Railroad in order to promote the sale of railroad-owned land in northern Wisconsin.

An advertisement issued by the Wisconsin Central Railroad promoting the sale of railroad-owned land in northern Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

–Michael Goc

A Photographic Mystery

April 24, 2009

A few years ago, Paul Beck, Special Collections Librarian at the UW-La Crosse’s Murphy Library, accepted a donation of six hundred glass plate photographic negatives. A La Crosse alumnus had acquired them at a farm auction in Indiana. No one there knew much about the negatives except that they had come from Wisconsin and, as scribed on many of the images, they were made by the “Taylor Bros., Adams, Wisconsin.”

Photo: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections,

Photo: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections,

Beck attempted to learn more about the negatives and the photographers with little success. The Adams County Historical Society had a collection of Taylor Brothers prints, but did not know much about the brothers themselves. Impressed by the quality of the images and the subjects they depicted, Beck had them scanned and added to the Murphy Library’s Digital Collection. All nine-hundred plus images may be viewed at

In the last year or so, researchers in Adams County have learned more about these two men who, while they plied the photographer’s trade, created fine photographic art.

Born in the 1880s, Leon and Eugene Taylor grew up on their parents’ farm in the Adams County town of Monroe, about a mile east of what is now the Petenwell Flowage of the Wisconsin River. Soil scientists list the sand soil here as among the poorest in the state. Their findings were supported by farmers like the Taylors who, after a single generation of hard-earned failure, parked the plow and sought other means to make a living. Eugene and Leon thought they could make a go of it in the photographic line and, about 1910, acquired a heavy box camera, tripod and hood, cartons of glass negatives, plus trays, chemicals and paper to process and print “pictures.”

Photo: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections,

Photo: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections,

To make a living in sparsely settled country, they had to hit the road, first by horse and buggy, then by auto. They covered the territory from Columbia and Marquette counties west to Juneau, Jackson and La Crosse. Group shots were popular and potentially profitable: students at rural and village schools, entire church congregations lined up on the lawn, National Guard units in camp, Ho Chunk gatherings, settler families proud of their kin and their kine.

Public buildings of note, Main Steet shops, grain mills, steam excavators, train depots, bridges, even cemeteries, any image that might garner interest and a sale was worth capturing. They had no eyes for landscapes or nature, no forests primeval, rock-strewn bluffs or river views. Instead, when the North Western railroad created the village of Adams, the Taylors set up a tent near the tracks and chronicled the birth of one of Wisconsin’s last railroad boom towns.

Yet they had a gift. As their portraits make evident, the Taylors could capture the humanity of their subjects and transfer it to the photo plate. They were especially adept at depicting people and animals together, able to calm the discomfort, ease the shyness, settle the fears of man, woman, child and beast for the long seconds required to make the picture. A boy stands between two work horses and cradles his pet dog in his arms. A smiling woman transcends the dull chore of the chicken coop to pose with her children and her poultry. A young couple sits, house-proud in their new front yard, while the hired hand holds their prize horse and the cow dog watches, poised at his master’s side.

Photo: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections,

Photo: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections,

Rare it is to find a face blank, frozen or empty of expression in a Taylor portrait. The subjects smile, grimace, turn a profile or look straight back at the lens, invariably speaking to the camera in a visual language acquired from the photographers.

The Taylors continued to make photos until the 1930s. Eugene died in 1952. His obituary does not identify him as a photographer. Leon’s death notice has yet to be found. We do not know how the glass negatives got to Indiana.

–Michael Goc