At one point in history, a great deal of tobacco was grown in Wisconsin. Otherwise known as "America's Dairyland" the reputation of Wisconsin tobacco was worldwide and well respected. According to some historical documents, as many as 30,000 acres of Wisconsin cropland was planted with tobacco.
The Wisconsin River acted as a dividing line between the northern tobacco growers and the southern growers. The Wisconsin tobacco was classified as cigar binders. Northern growing counties included Vernon, Crawford and Trempealeau Counties, while the southern tobacco growing counties were Dane, Rock and Columbia Counties.
Edgerton, Rock County, Wisconsin was once known as the Tobacco Capital of the World with over 50 warehouses. Buyers came from all over to bid on and purchase Edgerton tobacco. As mentioned earlier, most Wisconsin tobacco was classified as cigar bindings. Several tobacco businesses and warehouses operated in Edgerton.
Not to be outdone, the Bekkedal Tobacco Warehouse operated in Viroqua, Vernon County, Wisconsin. Martin H. Bekkedal came from Norway to Vernon County 1880s. Using his contacts with fellow immigrants to wholesale tobacco, he become the largest tobacco wholesaler in the region by the turn of the 20th Century. The tobacco warehouse he built in Viroqua in 1906 was one of the largest and most modern in Wisconsin.
Most of the tobacco farmers in Vernon County were of Norwegian descent. After the World War, tobacco prices began to drop and by 1921, prices dropped enough that tobacco farmers created the Northern Wisconsin Co-op Tobacco Pool in an attempt to control prices. The Northern Wisconsin Co-op Tobacco Pool was incorporated in 1922. Southern growers who joined the co-op also sent their harvests to the Northern Co-op. The Co-op bought the building from Bekkedal.
There was a great deal of conflict between the coop and tobacco buyers, including litigation. Sales of tobacco dropped off during the depression and in 1936, the southern growers were released from the contract. Some sources report that the co-op was dissolved in 1936, however, there are other reports that the co-op was still operating as late as 1939.
In the following years, government subsidies dried up and the cigar industry found another way to bind their product, causing tobacco production in Wisconsin to plummet.
Today, Wisconsin still boasts about 1,000 acres of tobacco planted. Today's tobacco crop, mostly in Rock and Dane Counties, mostly ends up in chewing tobacco but according to some reports, some tobacco grown in Wisconsin today goes into Phillip Morris products. Wisconsin grown tobacco has a reputation for lower content of carcinogens than southern grown tobacco. Perhaps it is because of Wisconsin's shorter, and cooler, growing season with long sunlit days. (At the height of summer, the sun rises as soon as 5:00 AM and daylight can last well past 9:00 PM.)
Even though the heyday of tobacco farming is long past, Wisconsin's tobacco heritage lingers on. Edgerton has hosted "Edgerton Tobacco Heritage Days" every year since 1972.
What was left behind by the tobacco growers and wholesalers indicates how big the industry was in Wisconsin, as well as lucrative. The giant parapets on the Bekkedal warehouse in Viroqua are such an indication. Another co-op warehouse is immediately behind the Bekkedal warehouse, and a third wholesaler's building is further to the north, across from the old railroad depot.
Growing tobacco is a long part of, but little known component of, Wisconsin's agricultural heritage.