Story

The Milk Strikes of 1933 Were the Worst Year for Wisconsin Dairy Farms, and Culminated in a Farmer's Death

Image courtesy of H. Russell Austin in 'The Wisconsin Story: The Building of a Vanguard State.'

Image courtesy of H. Russell Austin in 'The Wisconsin Story: The Building of a Vanguard State.'

Dairy’s rise began in earnest when natural forces cleared the field. Wisconsin was originally known as a wheat producer. Land, labor and customs revolved around the annual wheat cycle. Then in the late 1870s and 1880s wheat crops suffered several bad growing seasons and bouts of grain rust. To make matters worse, the soil was exhausted. The final blow came when chinch bugs invaded, sucking the life out of remaining crops and crippling the once dominant wheat industry. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Dairy’s rise began in earnest when natural forces cleared the field. Wisconsin was originally known as a wheat producer. Land, labor and customs revolved around the annual wheat cycle. Then in the late 1870s and 1880s wheat crops suffered several bad growing seasons and bouts of grain rust. To make matters worse, the soil was exhausted. The final blow came when chinch bugs invaded, sucking the life out of remaining crops and crippling the once dominant wheat industry. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Edward Berner of Two Rivers is credited with making the first ice cream sundae at his ice cream parlor in 1881. A July 2, 1939, Milwaukee Journal report recounts how a customer suggested adding some chocolate syrup to his order of ice cream. Berner warned the customer the syrup might ruin the treat, but the customer loved it and Berner knew he had a hit on his hands. Ice cream parlor competitor George Giffy of Manitowoc came in to Berner's shop to complain that adding flavoring to a 5-cent dish of ice cream would put them all out of business. Then he tried it. Soon after, Giffy was serving the dish in his shop. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Edward Berner of Two Rivers is credited with making the first ice cream sundae at his ice cream parlor in 1881. A July 2, 1939, Milwaukee Journal report recounts how a customer suggested adding some chocolate syrup to his order of ice cream. Berner warned the customer the syrup might ruin the treat, but the customer loved it and Berner knew he had a hit on his hands. Ice cream parlor competitor George Giffy of Manitowoc came in to Berner's shop to complain that adding flavoring to a 5-cent dish of ice cream would put them all out of business. Then he tried it. Soon after, Giffy was serving the dish in his shop. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

University of Wisconsin gave us America’s first dairy school. Instruction was held in this building in 1890. Soon after, state farms saw progress in dairy herd care. The building was torn down in 1950. Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin.

University of Wisconsin gave us America’s first dairy school. Instruction was held in this building in 1890. Soon after, state farms saw progress in dairy herd care. The building was torn down in 1950. Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Gov. W.D. Hoard (circa 1900) led the successful transition from wheat to dairy farming in the late 1800s. Hoard was also one of seven founders of the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association in 1872. The association established quality standards, set prices, arranged rail transportation and implemented refrigeration technology. He's often called the father of American dairying. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Wisconsin Gov. W.D. Hoard (circa 1900) led the successful transition from wheat to dairy farming in the late 1800s. Hoard was also one of seven founders of the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association in 1872. The association established quality standards, set prices, arranged rail transportation and implemented refrigeration technology. He's often called the father of American dairying. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

The oleo wars have a long history in Wisconsin. This stoneware margarine crock from the early 1900s reflects the margarine-butter controversy in its slogan: “The Spread that Betters the Bread.” Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

The oleo wars have a long history in Wisconsin. This stoneware margarine crock from the early 1900s reflects the margarine-butter controversy in its slogan: “The Spread that Betters the Bread.” Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

University of Wisconsin bacteriologist Harry Luman Russell (circa 1910), worked with Stepehen Babcock to develop the cold-curing process for ripening cheese, a technique that enabled Wisconsin to become the nation’s leading cheese producer. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

University of Wisconsin bacteriologist Harry Luman Russell (circa 1910), worked with Stepehen Babcock to develop the cold-curing process for ripening cheese, a technique that enabled Wisconsin to become the nation’s leading cheese producer. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

In 1884, the first glass milk bottles were patented. Two years later, the automatic bottle filler and capper joined the production lines. Two female employees of the Waukesha Milk Co. are shown working alongside four bottling machines (circa 1915). Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library.

In 1884, the first glass milk bottles were patented. Two years later, the automatic bottle filler and capper joined the production lines. Two female employees of the Waukesha Milk Co. are shown working alongside four bottling machines (circa 1915). Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library.

Circa 1919: Milkman Harry Pardun with his covered dairy delivery wagon and horse. The Wm. R. McKowen dairy business was at 67th Street and National Avenue. The dairy existed between 1913 and 1925. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library.

Circa 1919: Milkman Harry Pardun with his covered dairy delivery wagon and horse. The Wm. R. McKowen dairy business was at 67th Street and National Avenue. The dairy existed between 1913 and 1925. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library.

In 1922, Wisconsin's dairy industry was celebrating its 50th year. The January 29 edition of The Milwaukee Journal featured several stories outlining its success. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

In 1922, Wisconsin's dairy industry was celebrating its 50th year. The January 29 edition of The Milwaukee Journal featured several stories outlining its success. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

In 1923, UW professor Harry Steenbock came up with a technique for irradiating food. The process increased vitamin D content, thereby helping to curtail rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency. In 1925, Steenbock was influential in the formation in of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). He donated the irradiation patent to WARF and proceeds were funneled back to the university to futher other advancements. Professor Steenbock is shown in his laboratory (circa 1924). Image courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

In 1923, UW professor Harry Steenbock came up with a technique for irradiating food. The process increased vitamin D content, thereby helping to curtail rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency. In 1925, Steenbock was influential in the formation in of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). He donated the irradiation patent to WARF and proceeds were funneled back to the university to futher other advancements. Professor Steenbock is shown in his laboratory (circa 1924). Image courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Milwaukee saw its then worst recorded snowstorm on Feb. 4-5, 1924 when 20.3 inches blanketed the city. Despite the weather, milk sleds from Waukesha delivered product to Gridley Dairy on 8th Street and Sycamore Street the day after the storm. Image courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Milwaukee saw its then worst recorded snowstorm on Feb. 4-5, 1924 when 20.3 inches blanketed the city. Despite the weather, milk sleds from Waukesha delivered product to Gridley Dairy on 8th Street and Sycamore Street the day after the storm. Image courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Circa 1926: In 1890, a butterfat tester developed by UW-Madison professor Stephen Babcock gave farmers, creameries and cheesemakers a simple and fast way to determine the quality of milk. Babcock is shown with his electric butterfat tester. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Circa 1926: In 1890, a butterfat tester developed by UW-Madison professor Stephen Babcock gave farmers, creameries and cheesemakers a simple and fast way to determine the quality of milk. Babcock is shown with his electric butterfat tester. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

In 1924, milk wagons were still in demand. A worker in the carpentry shop of L.V. Gridley Dairy Co. (1897-1942) assembles wooden frames for future horse-drawn milk wagons. The dairy became part of Borden Co. in 1942. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library.

In 1924, milk wagons were still in demand. A worker in the carpentry shop of L.V. Gridley Dairy Co. (1897-1942) assembles wooden frames for future horse-drawn milk wagons. The dairy became part of Borden Co. in 1942. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library.

Circa mid-1920s: Significant contributors to Wisconsin's agriculture and dairying industry are from left, Prof. W. A. Henry, first dean of the Wisconsin college of agriculture, Dr. Thomas C. Chamberlain, who was president of the university from 1887 to 1892, and Dr. Stephen Moulton Babcock. The three are shown looking back to the earliest operations of the famous Babcock test, which was perfected in 1890. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Circa mid-1920s: Significant contributors to Wisconsin's agriculture and dairying industry are from left, Prof. W. A. Henry, first dean of the Wisconsin college of agriculture, Dr. Thomas C. Chamberlain, who was president of the university from 1887 to 1892, and Dr. Stephen Moulton Babcock. The three are shown looking back to the earliest operations of the famous Babcock test, which was perfected in 1890. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

As the Great Depression took hold in the late 1920s, many farmers saw their milk prices drop and by 1933, prices were less than half what they had been just three years prior. Farmers reacted with milk strikes, and the protests often turned violent. This is the scene after a crowd of pickets stopped a Soo Line freight train near the city limits of Burlington by throwing ties across the tracks and firing shots. The pickets broke open seven cars and dumped the cans of milk along the tracks. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

As the Great Depression took hold in the late 1920s, many farmers saw their milk prices drop and by 1933, prices were less than half what they had been just three years prior. Farmers reacted with milk strikes, and the protests often turned violent. This is the scene after a crowd of pickets stopped a Soo Line freight train near the city limits of Burlington by throwing ties across the tracks and firing shots. The pickets broke open seven cars and dumped the cans of milk along the tracks. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1933: A group of milk strike pickets formed lines with stones and clubs. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1933: A group of milk strike pickets formed lines with stones and clubs. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1933: A group of Wisconsin dairy farmers upset with the falling price of milk and their declining percentage of revenue during the Great Depression spent the night picketing. The farmers are shown on Highway 26 north of New London as they huddled around a fire. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1933: A group of Wisconsin dairy farmers upset with the falling price of milk and their declining percentage of revenue during the Great Depression spent the night picketing. The farmers are shown on Highway 26 north of New London as they huddled around a fire. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

A crowd of several hundred milk strike pickets are shown in 1933 crashing the gate of the Electric Co. freight yard in Waukesha with the intention of dumping a trainload of milk headed to Milwaukee. Officials called in the Waukesha Fire Department to control the crowd with water hoses. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

A crowd of several hundred milk strike pickets are shown in 1933 crashing the gate of the Electric Co. freight yard in Waukesha with the intention of dumping a trainload of milk headed to Milwaukee. Officials called in the Waukesha Fire Department to control the crowd with water hoses. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1933: Not all of the milk produced in counties surrounding Milwaukee during the milk strike was dumped on the highways, run through picket lines or fed to hogs. Many thrifty farmers churned the milk into butter and offered it for sale at roadside stands. At the Clausing farm on Highway 141, near Mequon, Eleanor (left) and Laura resurrected the churn their grandmother used in Germany 100 years earlier. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1933: Not all of the milk produced in counties surrounding Milwaukee during the milk strike was dumped on the highways, run through picket lines or fed to hogs. Many thrifty farmers churned the milk into butter and offered it for sale at roadside stands. At the Clausing farm on Highway 141, near Mequon, Eleanor (left) and Laura resurrected the churn their grandmother used in Germany 100 years earlier. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1933: A group of milk strike pickets are held at bay after being taken out of a farmhouse near Durham Hill. Image by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1933: A group of milk strike pickets are held at bay after being taken out of a farmhouse near Durham Hill. Image by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1935: A uniformed man carries two containers of ice cream to a vintage Bendfelt Ice Cream refrigerated truck. Bendfelt started in 1917 when Walter H. Bendfelt took over the Standard Ice Cream Co. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library.

1935: A uniformed man carries two containers of ice cream to a vintage Bendfelt Ice Cream refrigerated truck. Bendfelt started in 1917 when Walter H. Bendfelt took over the Standard Ice Cream Co. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library.

By 1940, fortunes were again turning for the dairy industry. Billboards like this one near 5th Street and Wisconsin Avenue touted the importance of milk to a child’s growth and development. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library.

By 1940, fortunes were again turning for the dairy industry. Billboards like this one near 5th Street and Wisconsin Avenue touted the importance of milk to a child’s growth and development. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library.

1942: With the Depression on the wane, milk found a new market when the first federal milk program for schools was implemented in two low-income neighborhoods, one in Chicago and the other in New York. The price to children was 1 cent per half pint. Children unable to pay were given milk for free. The penny milk program was also instituted in 32 public elementary schools in Milwaukee. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1942: With the Depression on the wane, milk found a new market when the first federal milk program for schools was implemented in two low-income neighborhoods, one in Chicago and the other in New York. The price to children was 1 cent per half pint. Children unable to pay were given milk for free. The penny milk program was also instituted in 32 public elementary schools in Milwaukee. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Circa 1945: The Golden Gurnsey Milk Jug on Blue Mound Road in Waukesha originally housed a restaurant and the large milk jug was an actual working barn. The building was open from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Circa 1945: The Golden Gurnsey Milk Jug on Blue Mound Road in Waukesha originally housed a restaurant and the large milk jug was an actual working barn. The building was open from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1948: After WWII, the Milk Marketing Board created the Alice in Dairyland spokesperson to promote its products across the country. Miss Margaret McGuire of Highland was the first to hold the position. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1948: After WWII, the Milk Marketing Board created the Alice in Dairyland spokesperson to promote its products across the country. Miss Margaret McGuire of Highland was the first to hold the position. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

In the 1950s, milk gained in popularity when cartons began to replace glass bottles making it possible to use vending machines for milk. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

In the 1950s, milk gained in popularity when cartons began to replace glass bottles making it possible to use vending machines for milk. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1950s: Cheese manufacturing continued to do well. This image shows what happens to milk when rennet is added. Rennet separates curd (solid) from whey (liquid). The curdled milk can then move to the next step in becoming cheese. Image courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

1950s: Cheese manufacturing continued to do well. This image shows what happens to milk when rennet is added. Rennet separates curd (solid) from whey (liquid). The curdled milk can then move to the next step in becoming cheese. Image courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

The marketing message for milk was simple and clear in 1966. Alice in Dairyland, Miss Kathy Kenad of Rosendale, waved to the crowd in the annual Milk Day celebration in Harvard, Ill. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

The marketing message for milk was simple and clear in 1966. Alice in Dairyland, Miss Kathy Kenad of Rosendale, waved to the crowd in the annual Milk Day celebration in Harvard, Ill. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

In 1967: Jody Hartl of Loyal (Clark County) pointed to the world's largest cow, which she named "Chatty Belle." Jody received 100 pounds of butter as a prize in the contest to name the 16-foot symbol of Wisconsin's dairy industry. Image courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

In 1967: Jody Hartl of Loyal (Clark County) pointed to the world's largest cow, which she named "Chatty Belle." Jody received 100 pounds of butter as a prize in the contest to name the 16-foot symbol of Wisconsin's dairy industry. Image courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Gunder Felland had finished work for the day on his dairy farm outside Madison. It was Oct. 27, 1933, and he planned to spend the evening at the Pumpkin Hollow social in the schoolhouse about a mile away.

Shortly before leaving, his brother Andrew and a neighbor showed up and pressed him into changing plans. They were going to visit pickets, most of them dairy farmers, who had been gathering every day in Sun Prairie as part of a milk strike. 

Struggling to survive with milk prices half what they had been three years earlier, the pickets were stopping trucks and cars bound for Madison, trying to intercept shipments of fresh milk. Similar blockades encircled the capital city in an attempt to choke off supplies to dairy processors until farmers could get a better price.

A crowd of several hundred milk strike pickets are shown in 1933 crashing the gate of the Electric Co. freight yard in Waukesha with the intention of dumping a trainload of milk headed to Milwaukee. Officials called in the Waukesha Fire Department to control the crowd with water hoses. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

A crowd of several hundred milk strike pickets are shown in 1933 crashing the gate of the Electric Co. freight yard in Waukesha with the intention of dumping a trainload of milk headed to Milwaukee. Officials called in the Waukesha Fire Department to control the crowd with water hoses. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

Felland had lived all of his 60 years in the Town of Burke and served two terms on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. A former candidate for sheriff, he had chosen not to participate in any of the strikes, but his sympathies were with the farmers.

Around 8 p.m., he, Andrew and the friend packed some coffee and food for the pickets, some of whom had been on the line since 5 a.m.

None of the three could have imagined what they were getting into. 

***

The dairy industry through the generations has been marked by volatile prices, staggering losses, even violence. Today, there are no strikes, no blockades. But dairy farmers are struggling with a down cycle in milk prices that has lasted nearly five years. Hundreds of farmers, emotionally and financially depleted, have left the business. Many are barely hanging on.

Yet no year was worse than 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression.

Early that year, Walter M. Singler, president of the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool, told The Milwaukee Journal: “Farmers are just waiting for some organization that has the guts to take action, and they will flock to it.”

Singler called for five days of withholding milk from all markets in Wisconsin, beginning Feb. 15. Strikes had already been launched in other states, including Iowa, where 3,000 farmers marched on a jail in Council Bluffs demanding the release of their fellow strikers.

Singler wanted to ease into it a bit.

“There is to be no picketing during these five days," he said. "After that, if we are not successful, watch out.” 

When farmers' demands weren't met, creameries and cheese factories across the state were vandalized and pickets nearly succeeded in blockading Milwaukee's dairy plants. But they lost ground as milk shippers found alternate routes and other farmers' groups failed to throw in their support.

The strike ended in an uneasy truce on Feb. 22.

***

When nothing improved, farmers called for another action in May. This one had more backing and tempers flared quickly.

In Shawano County, 30 people were injured when National Guardsmen, sworn in as sheriff’s deputies and charged with keeping the roads open, “engaged in a pitched battle” in front of a dairy plant. “The strikers won the skirmish, dumping the milk and driving the deputies to cover by throwing back their own tear gas bombs,” the Milwaukee Journal reported.

As the Great Depression took hold in the late 1920s, many farmers saw their milk prices drop and by 1933, prices were less than half what they had been just three years prior. Farmers reacted with milk strikes, and the protests often turned violent. This is the scene after a crowd of pickets stopped a Soo Line freight train near the city limits of Burlington by throwing ties across the tracks and firing shots. The pickets broke open seven cars and dumped the cans of milk along the tracks. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

As the Great Depression took hold in the late 1920s, many farmers saw their milk prices drop and by 1933, prices were less than half what they had been just three years prior. Farmers reacted with milk strikes, and the protests often turned violent. This is the scene after a crowd of pickets stopped a Soo Line freight train near the city limits of Burlington by throwing ties across the tracks and firing shots. The pickets broke open seven cars and dumped the cans of milk along the tracks. Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives.

In what became known as “the battle of Durham Hill,” National Guardsmen took on 300 to 400 pickets on Highway 36 in southeastern Waukesha County. They barraged the pickets with tear gas and charged at the crowd with bayonets.

Near Brillion, a raiding party of 50 farmers vandalized cheese factories and poured kerosene on more than 600 pounds of newly made cheese. Farmers blocked roads with barricades of logs, crates and their own bodies to stop milk deliveries. 

Opponents of the strikes feared that someone was going to get killed, yet backers urged pickets to hold their lines at all cost. 

The second strike ended May 19 with Gov. Alfred Schmedeman agreeing to appoint a farmer-controlled committee to study the milk pricing system.

Again, nothing changed.

The third strike began on Oct. 21, and there was no pretense of peacefulness.

***

Felland, his brother and neighbor had barely pulled up near the pickets when a truck drove through the blockade, followed closely by a Pontiac automobile. A picket threw a stick at the truck, breaking its headlight.

The vehicles initially continued on toward Madison, but within minutes had circled back. Three brothers — one from the truck, two from the car and all in their 20s — confronted the pickets.

Felland was walking toward the ruckus when one of the brothers, Frank McCorison, began waving a .38-caliber revolver. The farmers collectively stepped back, but McCorison fired a shot into the crowd. 

The bullet sliced the left side of Felland’s neck and penetrated his spine. He died on the road in his brother’s arms, the first casualty of the milk strikes.

The brothers sped off but were captured later that night. 

Felland left behind a wife and four sons. His funeral procession stretched for three miles and passed the spot where he was gunned down. Hundreds of grim-faced farmers attended the services, at which the Lutheran pastor warned that "vengeance was the Lord's."

***

Following Felland's death, a National Guardsman in Racine County shot two teenagers, killing one of them. In Ozaukee County, a farmer in his 50s died when he fell or was pushed from the running board of a milk delivery truck after it left a strikers' roadblock. 

On Oct. 31, a cheese factory in Outagamie County was bombed; two days later a cheese plant in Ozaukee County was blasted with dynamite. Several creameries were bombed and milk was dumped at sites around the state.

Near Manitowoc, a fiery cross was planted at a farm because the owner was supplying milk to local dairies. In the same community, H.M. Clark, president of the White House Milk Condensery, lost an eye in a tear gas attack. 

The third milk strike of 1933 was called off before Thanksgiving. Newspapers reported that farmers lost $10 million, a staggering amount during the Great Depression.

Striking farmers were described as "skinny and ragged" but "fierce."

In the end, they were outnumbered by others with competing interests, a 1951 Wisconsin Magazine of History article by Herbert Jacobs noted. Among those interests: moonshine liquor-makers who wanted unfettered access to rural roads leading into towns and cities 

Jacobs wrote that as Milwaukee County sheriff deputies cleared a path for one bootlegger's truck, one said: "The mail, the milk and the moon must go through."