Immigrants from the eastern U.S., Germany and Switzerland created a vibrant rural community, which was dispersed in 1942. Their history remains on the land and in their stories.
European Americans from the eastern states began arriving at the Sauk Prairie to claim arable land in the wake of the 1837 treaty forcing the Winnebago/Ho-Chunk people into exile. These settlers were joined by a growing number of immigrants from Germany and Switzerland. Using the resources already present—fertile prairie soil, accessible stone, woods, and water–they established a successful farm community. Wheat was their cash crop, with oats, corn, and hay for animal feed.
After the Civil War, they developed dairy and stock-raising farms that survived until they were displaced by the Badger Ordnance Works in 1942. Sauk Prairie farmers ranked in the upper middle of Wisconsin farmers in terms of productivity and income. In many ways, Sauk Prairie was the idyllic Wisconsin family farm community, comprised of farms small enough for one family to work with labor for special tasks shared among neighbors.
This family farm community was approaching a tipping point in 1942. The decades-long decline in the number of family farms throughout America was just beginning. The innovations in machinery, fertilization, pesticides, and plant and animal genetics that transformed agriculture in the years after World War II was starting to appear on the Sauk Prairie when Badger Ordnance brought an abrupt end to about one hundred of these idealized family farms. It took longer in other places but the era of family farms and farm communities like Sauk Prairie’s would soon end.
Initially, the United States Army took 10,500 acres of land for the “Works” (later reduced to 7,300 acres). Nearly all of it was on farms. Federal Land Bank appraisers hastily assessed over 120 parcels and the Army used their evaluations to make purchase offers to the landowners. All but a handful of the landowners refused to accept the offers. They organized and rallied the Wisconsin agricultural community to support their efforts to preserve their farms. They resisted until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. Then they fought for the “just compensation” guaranteed to them by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. When the federal government initiated condemnation proceedings, they had no choice but to give up their land, but they used the process to increase the compensation they received for their property by an average of 25%. Even so, the landowners had about two months to find a new place to live and farm. Like draftees in the military, they had no choice but to sacrifice in order to serve their country in times of war.
Histories and stories of this community are preserved in the Badger History Group archives and museum, including dozens of interviews with those who were displaced, the video Powder on the Prairie, and the book Powder, People and Place. Remnants of many farmsteads are still hidden on the landscape, often marked by old or fallen conifers and shade trees, as documented in the Explore the Badger Lands interpretive App. In 2001, members of the Don Kirner family created a small park and erected a granite monument at the Hwy 12 entrance to the property so the sacrifice of the Sauk Prairie farmers will not be forgotten. In 2014, The Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance launched the Badger Apple Corps. Volunteers searched the former farm sites looking for surviving apple trees or their offspring growing there. Nurtured, and eventually propagated and transplanted, these heirloom trees are another—living—memorial to the farm community, as documented in the video Of Connection and Renewal.