Gough, Robert
Farming the Cutover: A Social History of Northern Wisconsin, 1900-1940.
University of Kansas Press
Original Date

Review by Joseph E. Taylor, III (Iowa State University), in Environmental History, Vol. 4, #2, April 1999, p. 284:

Robert Gough's Farming the Cutover is a valuable book for environmental historians. Like most histories of agriculture, it necessarily considers the efforts of farmers to use and remake the natural landscape. But Gough moves well beyond any simple consideration of farming practices and ecological change. Instead, he offers a thoughtful, nuanced account of the economic, technological, and especially the cultural factors that shaped the fate of agriculture in northern Wisconsin. The result is a book that creates a useful model for environmental historians to emulate.

Traditionally, the story of farming the cutover is a tale of poor land, unrealistic expectations, and ultimate failure. Farmers first came to northern Wisconsin in the wake of the nineteenth-century logging boom. They found a landscape devastated by the actions of lumbermen, what had nce been a vast forested region had become instead a place stripped of its timber and littered with piles of brush and discarded logs. Amidst the devastation, however, local promoters and settlers alike saw opportunities, a chance to create a wold of small-scale farms and comfortable, self-sufficient communities. Unfortunately, such dreams remained out of reach. The land of northern Wisconsin, apparently, proved better suited to growing trees than agricultural crops, and farmers struggled for decades with unproductive soils and lingering poverty. Finally, by the 1950s, the region turned increasingly to reforestation and tourism as a means of economic survival.

According to Gough, the story is more complicated than this simple narrative suggests. Farmers in the cutover, he insists, were not destined by nature to fail. Rather, the lacked the political and social resources necessary to succeed. Those shortcomings were part of the legacy of lumbering in northern Wisconsin. Logging had not only altered the physical landscape, but it also encouraged people to view the cutover as a single, cohesive region, a penchant that initially fostered and then undermined the practice of farming. To the boosters, politicians, and agricultural experts who sought to lure farmers to the region at the turn of the century, agriculture seemed the next logical step in the transformation of the cutover from wilderness to civilization. Their faith in this "natural" process combined with a short-term desire for profit to discourage a careful assessment of the land. By the 1940s, on the other hand, years of economic depression had created an impression of the cutover as an impoverished region of backward immigrants making a hardscrabble living.

It is this shift in people's assessment of northern Wisconsin that will most likely interest environmental historians. Gough argues persuasively that both views were overly simplistic. The cutover was neither a farmer's paradise nor a barren, unusable land. Nevertheless, these ideas proved powerful enough to create an agricultural tragedy. Gough's acount of the farmers themselves is often poignant. But equally important, in demonstrating that their fate depended as much on conceptions of nature as it did on natural resources, he also creates a convincing portrait of the complex interplay between people and the landscapes in which we live.

  • UW Madison/Wis Hist Soc