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The Northern Moraine

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The Northern Moraine region, the most geographically varied in the state, sits just to the south of the “tension zone” dividing the coniferous and mixed forests to the north from the deciduous forests and savannahs to the south. Communities along the Lake Michigan shore recall New England maritime towns, yet just a few miles inland, the landscape exemplifies America’s Dairyland. Cities to the south form the western fringe of a manufacturing belt, while the forests of the Kettle Moraine, the wildlife of the Horicon Marsh, and the quaint towns of Door County offer a respite from city life.

Prior to European American settlement in the 1840s, the landscape looked much different from the way it does today. South of a line between Sheboygan and Appleton stood deciduous forest in the east and oak savannah and prairie in the west. North of this line, the land was virtually covered by mixed forest with some giant stands of pine. The former contained some of the state’s best agricultural land. Settlers cleared almost all of the forest and drained most swamps to make way for agriculture. Agriculture in the 1840s was mainly for subsistence, but by 1870 many farmers in eastern Wisconsin prospered by growing and selling wheat. For numerous reasons wheat production declined dramatically during the 1880s and 1890s, forcing farmers to turn to different agricultural products. The state’s dairy and cheese industries, in particular, grew during the 1890s, although dairying had been long established in eastern Wisconsin and remains strong. The first commercial cheese factory opened in Sheboygan County in 1858, and nearby, in Plymouth, the Cheese Board of Trade was established. The Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association was founded in the Dodge County community of Watertown in 1872 by William D. Hoard, and from 1974 until 1997, the National Cheese Exchange was located at Green Bay.

The forests in this region and those to the north of the “tension line” provided resources for the burgeoning lumber industry and contributed to the rise of several urban centers. By 1860 Sheboygan, Manitowoc, and Kewaunee had forty sawmills cutting pine for the Milwaukee and Chicago markets. The entire region from Ozaukee County to Door County was cut over by 1875. The Wolf and Fox rivers were particularly important for carrying logs from the rich pineries of northern Wisconsin to such milling centers downstream as Oshkosh and Fond du Lac. Both were boomtowns, and they became the state’s second- and third-largest cities by 1870. Oshkosh, a small village in 1852, grew in a decade to become one of the greatest lumber manufacturing centers in the Old Northwest. Nicknamed the “Sawdust City,” because of the many acres of swamp that were filled in and reclaimed by sawdust, Oshkosh briefly spawned hopes of rivaling Chicago as a midwestern metropolis. Several blocks of the city are still supported by foundations of sawdust and slabs from Oshkosh’s golden age.

Downriver from Oshkosh, through Lake Winnebago, the Lower Fox River was ideal for milling. Between Lake Winnebago and Green Bay it drops 170 feet, at one time over numerous rapids. By the middle of the nineteenth century this natural energy was being harnessed by locks and dams. There was some lumber milling and considerable flour milling, particularly in Neenah and Menasha. With the decline in flour production as a result of the westward movement of wheat farming in the 1870s, the flour industry turned to paper milling. New technology at this time allowed paper to be made from wood pulp, and lumberman John A. Kimberly began a company that led the way in its development. Until the early 1900s northern Wisconsin forests supplied much of the nation’s newsprint, but with their depletion—coupled with competition from Canada and the southern United States—Fox Valley paper producers lost their hegemony. In the 1930s companies turned to making specialty and high-quality papers. Wisconsin led the country in paper production in the 1950s and has held a prominent position ever since. But the industry that made the river famous also created one of America’s ten most polluted rivers by the 1970s. The Clean Water Act of 1972 made significant strides in improving water quality, and Environmental Protection Agency projects have overseen cleanup of some PCB-contaminated sediment hotspots. Today the Fox Valley is among Wisconsin’s fastest-growing regions, led by Appleton and Green Bay. Nowhere else in the world is there a greater concentration of paper mills than this “Paper Valley.”

The communities that stretch from Port Washington to Washington Island along the Lake Michigan shore have always engaged in Great Lakes trade, and they maintain a maritime identity. This is especially true in Door County, perhaps because railroads did not penetrate the peninsula until the twentieth century. The lake was the main transportation artery during the formative years of most of these towns. Consequently, the harbor was the focal point of activity, and the lighthouse was a welcoming beacon. During the nineteenth century, lighthouses were not only essential to trade and shipping; they were also civic markers. Ten lighthouses remain in Door County today, some still in use. The maritime character of Lake Michigan communities stems also from the activities that shaped their development. Before the 1930s, commercial fishing was integral to the economy and culture of Port Washington, Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Two Rivers, Kewaunee, Algoma, and all of Door County. Since then, Wisconsin’s commercial fishing industry has declined due to overfishing, invasion of exotic species, industrial development, and pollution. Charter fishing, however, is still popular, especially in Sheboygan and Door County’s Sturgeon Bay. Fishing shanties from a bygone era can be seen along Sheboygan’s riverfront, although today they are mainly facades for restaurants and specialty shops catering to tourists.

Several lake port cities were also principal centers for shipbuilding. Wooden sailing ships were built at Manitowoc, Two Rivers, and Sturgeon Bay from the 1840s until the 1880s. Metal shipbuilding began in the 1870s and was bolstered by World War I. Manitowoc and Sturgeon Bay were the primary shipyards by this time, employing six thousand workers and building ocean freighters, rescue crafts, tugs, and harbor minesweepers for the war effort. The Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company alone built thirty-two ocean freighters. During World War II, shipbuilding became Wisconsin’s largest single wartime industry, when the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company employed seven thousand workers to produce twenty-eight submarines. One submarine is on display at the Manitowoc Maritime Museum. Peterson Builders, Inc. of Sturgeon Bay produced military craft until it closed in the 1990s, but most of Sturgeon Bay’s shipbuilding today focuses on ship repair, dredges, and luxury pleasure craft.

The economies of the Lake Michigan communities diversified during the twentieth century. Fabricated metal production and, more recently, plastics drive the economy around Sheboygan. The Kohler Company, west of Sheboygan, is a leading producer of plumbing and enamelware products and is among the leading employers in Wisconsin. The Manitowoc and Two Rivers area is a regional manufacturing leader in metal industries, especially of aluminum products. In recent years the model village of Kohler, designed by Olmsted Brothers in 1913, has become a weekend destination for affluent visitors, who enjoy the village’s golfing, first-class restaurants, and elegant accommodations. The towns of Door County attract visitors from throughout the region who flock to what has been called the “Cape Cod of the Midwest.”

The region has long been home to many ethnic groups. When the first European, Frenchman Jean Nicolet, arrived in Green Bay in 1634, he was reportedly met by the Menominees, who have lived in Wisconsin for more than five thousand years. The Potawatomis were present along the lakeshore at this time, and several other Native American groups—such as the Oneidas, the Mohicans of Stockbridge-Munsee, and the Brothertown tribes—were relocated here from eastern states during the nineteenth century. Germans were the largest group of European immigrants to settle in the fertile lands of eastern Wisconsin. Lutheran sectarians seeking religious freedom established their first settlement, Freistadt, in 1839 in Washington County and later founded Germantown, Thiensville, and Kirchhayn. German Catholics from the Rhineland arrived in the 1840s. Many settled in northern Sheboygan County and in northeast Fond du Lac County, an area locally known as the “Holy Land” because of the many communities named after their Catholic churches. Northern Germans arrived later and established Kiel in Manitowoc County, New Holstein in Calumet County, and other towns.

Immigrants from the Netherlands came to Wisconsin in the 1840s, settling primarily in southern Sheboygan County, Outagamie County, and western Fond du Lac County. In the 1850s, Belgians settled along the southwestern base of the Door Peninsula while America’s largest Luxemburger settlement was in Ozaukee County. The Belgians’ small roadside chapels are still a part of the vernacular landscape. Bohemians have been important in Kewaunee County since their arrival in 1854, evidenced by the hamlets of Pilsen, Krok, and Sloven. Scandinavians in the mid-nineteenth century founded communities such as New Denmark in Brown County, the rural Norwegian settlements in northern Manitowoc County, and the small Icelandic community on Washington Island. The 1870s and 1880s were marked by waves of Polish immigration. Northwest of Green Bay, as in Pulaski, Sobieski, and Krakow, the cultural imprint of the Poles can be seen in the many shrines next to farmhouses, the stovewood buildings, and the elaborate Catholic churches.

Mexicans have always been the largest Spanish-speaking group in Wisconsin. Many came initially as migrant workers early in the twentieth century and then after World War II. Mechanization of crop harvesting during the 1960s and 1970s reduced the number of migrant jobs, which led many to settle and work year-round in the factories of eastern and southeastern Wisconsin. Sheboygan was the largest Mexican settlement in this region until the Latino population began blooming in Brown County in the 1990s, though larger Latino communities flourish in southeastern Wisconsin. Other arrivals to the region have come from southeast Asia, especially from the northern hills of Laos. The Hmong, who fought with the United States during the Vietnam War, fled their homeland after the American withdrawal. The U.S. government promised to relocate them in this country, and a campaign of sponsorship by Wisconsin church groups, coupled with chain migration, has made the Hmong one of the state’s fastest growing immigrant groups. In this region their numbers are greatest in Green Bay, Appleton, and Sheboygan.

Writing Credits

Marsha Weisiger et al.

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