The Oak Savannah region is best known for its rich agricultural landscape, dotted with prosperous farms and tidy villages. It was settled early in the nineteenth century and contributed significantly to southern Wisconsin’s early reputation as a major wheat-producing region. Later it led the transition to a more diversified agricultural economy. The region also contains three important cities: the state capital at Madison and the Rock River manufacturing centers of Janesville and Beloit.
The region’s eastern portions are glaciated, presenting a mixed landscape of rolling hills, elongated drumlins, morainic ridges, and flat outwash plains. Drainage is often sluggish, and marshlands and lakes are common. The western portions of the region mark the beginnings of Wisconsin’s unglaciated driftless area. Here the landscape is heavily dissected by streams and has a much more pronounced vertical dimension. The terrain is broken into flat-topped uplands and ridges separated by deeply incised, V-shaped stream valleys. The southern half of the region is drained to the southeast by the Sugar, Yahara, and Rock rivers. The northern part is drained mostly to the west by the Wisconsin River, although the headwaters of the northeast-flowing Fox River are also found here, and the short distance between the two drainage systems, easily portaged, has been historically significant. Originally the region was largely covered with an oak savannah vegetation, in which grasslands and deciduous forest intermingled. There were also large and fertile open prairies, especially in the south but also in the northeast.
The region was occupied at the time of European contact by elements of the Ho-Chunks, who ceded their lands to the United States in treaties of 1825, 1828, 1832, and 1837. The region was surveyed, platted, and settled by Europeans and European Americans in the waves of land booms and speculations that occurred from the 1830s to the 1850s. Occupation of the land was intense as settlers were attracted to the region’s fertile soils, the favorable climate, and the readily available fuels and building supplies of the open savannah and prairie landscapes. Wheat was the staple frontier crop. By the 1860s, Rock, Dane, and Columbia counties each had hundreds of thousands of acres in wheat production and were among Wisconsin’s largest producers of wheat. By the 1870s, however, soil exhaustion, disease, and competition from new wheat lands farther west led to experimentation with specialized crops and eventually a diversified regime that combined dairying with the production of hogs and fodder crops. The rolling eastern portions of the region became part of an extensive area of fluid milk production that extended eastward to the lake counties around Milwaukee. The western driftless area came to focus more on the production of cheese and hogs.
One specialized crop that made a significant imprint on the built rural landscape is tobacco, introduced in the 1860s. It flourished particularly in the southeastern parts of Dane County and neighboring districts as a cash crop companion to dairying. Norwegian immigrant farmers, especially, adopted the crop. Because of the long post-harvest treatment of tobacco leaves, the area is known for its long, narrow tobacco sheds where the leaves are hung. Adjustable panels on the sides allow air to circulate through the sheds to dry the leaves. The historic presence of tobacco is also visible in the local market towns, such as Stoughton, Edgerton, and Evansville, where cream-colored brick tobacco warehouses still line the railroad tracks.
Particularly in the southernmost counties, “Yankee” settlers from New England and upstate New York became the largest landowners. They platted villages, organized commerce, education, and politics, and established themselves as the social and cultural elite. They named many of the places after themselves or after places in the eastern United States. At Cooksville, Albion, and Paoli, they laid out their towns as New Englanders did with central village greens. The region is also known for English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Norwegian, Danish, German, and Swiss settlements. Norwegians are most numerous in southeastern Dane County (named for Nathan Dane of Massachusetts, who helped draft the Northwest Ordinance promoting settlement of the Northwest Territory), southwestern Rock County, a portion of southern Columbia County, and an elongated zone along the driftless districts of western Dane and Green counties. The Norwegian community at Koshkonong Prairie in southeastern Dane County was one of the largest in America and served as a gateway settlement for many new arrivals to Wisconsin. Germans are strongest in northern Dane County and in Sauk and Columbia counties. Green County is notable for its concentration of Swiss immigrants, the largest in the United States and visible today, especially in the village of New Glarus, where residents maintain Swiss-style chalets, museums, and restaurants and put on annual celebrations to commemorate their Swiss heritage.
The region has experienced to some extent the kinds of industrial development usually associated with the towns and cities of the state’s eastern regions, especially in agricultural processing such as brewing, milling, and meatpacking, including giant meatpacker Oscar Mayer. The most important industrial centers are Janesville and Beloit, longstanding outliers of the U.S. manufacturing belt. The automotive industry has been particularly important in the modern industrial economy of the Rock River Valley; General Motors had an assembly plant in Janesville from 1919 until 2009, when it was mothballed.
One city, however, dominates the region. Madison is home to Wisconsin’s state government and the flagship campus of the University of Wisconsin System. Madison was designated the capital of the Wisconsin Territory in 1836 and the state capital in 1848. Its downtown skyline today is dominated by the dome of the current capitol building, built in 1917 on a site in the center of the isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona and occupied by two previous capitol buildings. The university was established in 1848 and stretches along the spine of the long glacial moraine ridge that delimits the southern shore of Lake Mendota. The State of Wisconsin, through the university and its various agencies based in Madison, is today the city’s largest employer and focal point of the local economy. As the state capital, Madison has always been a place of relative wealth and importance. It is known for its parks and lakes, extensive arboretum, historic homes and residential districts, and geometrically laid-out Capitol Square and downtown area. The city is also known for examples of buildings and homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
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