The Manufacturing Frontier

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

This is an interesting book which isn't read enough by American Environmental Historians, possibly because the author is neither an American nor an Environmental Historian. In her introduction, British Economic Historian Margaret Walsh says resource-frontiers such as farming, mining, lumbering, “even the military frontier” have been well covered by historians, but the “development of an urban and a manufacturing frontier...begun contemporaneously with the cultivation of land” has not. Exceptions she notes are Richard C. Wade,
The Urban Frontier and James D. Norris, Frontier Iron (v). The industries she's talking about on the manufacturing frontier 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 ʻpre-industrial,ʼ even though they were of major importance” (vii). She notes:

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. (viii)


For example, Grant County lead mining began 1826; peaked in 1845 at 54.5 million pounds. (2) Grant County "was settled at an earlier date than other parts of Wisconsin, and often by Southerners traveling up the [Mississippi] river.” (70) "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.” (5) “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.” (7) So apparently the growth in German population in the northern part of the state (see Gannett maps from 1910 census) happens 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.” (8)


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 there also developed a remarkable range of small-scale manufacturing (in a note on her selection of counties, Walsh summarizes central place theory, 31). 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.” (38) Farming quickly became commercial, meaning farmers needed specialized tools and the things they no longer made at home.

The market remained relatively local, Walsh says, and “Even when the railroad came, it merely brought merchandise manufactured in other places” (39). I'm not sure this distinction makes sense to me. Manufactured elsewhere but sold by a local merchant still seems significant. But maybe the question she's pointing at has to do with how did the Jefferson County farmers pay for this merchandise? Unless sheʼs saying they sold agricultural products outside the county, but not manufactures. “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.” (42) “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.” (46) ...for local consumption... Manufacturers like furniture-makers worked “often in exchange for lumber or farmersʼ produce. But cabinetmakers...did not enjoy a monopoly, for by 1847, retail merchants...were advertising ready-made goods at competitive prices.” (63) Did the difference between cash and farmersʼ-produce markets keep some of these little guys in business?

Racine and Milwaukee became urban and industrial very quickly, in Walsh's story. By 1850, Racine, “well- placed for the development of...[an] industry focused on the prosperous wheat-growing region,” was making a third of the stateʼs farm machinery. (150, 142) The market expanded, and “By the mid-1850ʼs [J.I. Case] threshers were known throughout the West, especially in Iowa and Minnesota, and in 1860 he even shipped six machines to California.” (155) 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.” (169)

Milwaukeeʼs population was “20,061 in 1850 and 45,286 in 1860.” (171) 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 countyʼs value added.” (172) “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.” (176)

“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.” (185-6) “Consumption...was high among the working class of Milwaukee, and especially among the German element, which formed about one third of the cityʼs population...Most of the successful brewers were German [and] were experienced in the business.” (187)

Lots to think about here. Given that Walsh wrote well ahead of others such as Cronon and Steinberg (William Cronon cites her work pretty extensively in
Nature's Metropolis, as a matter of fact), it's too bad Walsh's books aren't more widely read by Environmental Historians.