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.
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.
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."
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