Arlington Experimental Farm
This bulletin was prepared on the occasion of the dedication of the Rudolph K. Froker Memorial at the Arlington Farm on July 7, 1970. The Arlington Farm was a major accomplishment of Dean Froker during his tenure as dean of the College of Agriculture from 1948-1964.
This document has been prepared to acquaint you with the Arlington Experimental Farm of the University of Wisconsin and to relate some of the background and evolution of the Farm. Located on the rich Empire Prairie, its 2,037 acres are a large outdoor laboratory for the study of agricultural science.
It seems appropriate in the first two chapters to describe the original prairie and its settlers, since the soil and the people have been important to the development of the Farm. A third chapter is a narrative of the history and development of Arlington Farm through its first 15 years.
The Arlington Prairie- A Gift of the Glaciers*
In the southern half of Wisconsin there were once great areas of fertile prairies-gently rolling, treeless lands carpeted with prairie grasses. One of the largest of these areas was the “high prairie” located in southern Columbia and northern Dane counties.
Land lying immediately west and south of Arlington has often been called Arlington Prairie. In the township of Leeds, settlers from New York- the Empire State- picked the name of Empire Prairie. This name became a fixture when, as the years passed, it appeared on a crossroads store and was in turn applied to other business places in the area. Still later, the Soil Survey gave the name Empire Prairie official recognition.
Empire and adjoining prairie areas owe much of their rich fertility to the glaciers. About 10,000 years ago the last of these great glaciers moved over much of Wisconsin. Creeping irresistibly along, they ground the rock beneath them and carried on their surfaces or enclosed within their ice fine dust which was released and deposited with the melting of the ice. Prairie lands further benefited by the organic matter left in the soil by abundant growths of prairie plants native to the area. Fires set by lightning or by Indians trying to increase buffalo range played an important role in maintaining prairie vegetation.
The chief area of this prairie soil, formerly called Carrington silt loam, not Parr silt loam, lies south of Poynette and east of Lodi, reaching east for about 20 miles, and extending about an equal distance south into northern Dane county.
Records kept for many years at the U.S. Weather Bureau in Portage show that in the area the average annual rainfall, about 31 inches, is heaviest during the growing season, and that the average length of this season is 150 days. This mean temperature is 45.6 degrees, with the last killing frost on May 3 and the first on October 4. The winters are rather long and sometimes severe. There are few streams and springs but good water is available at a moderate depth.
Pioneers found the early prairie a veritable flower garden. Wild grasses and sedges grew in profusion. In places the wild prairie had the appearance of cultivated fields of grain. Flowers included goldenrod, wild asters, daisies, black-eyed Susans, orange and purple milkweed, red lobelia, orange prairie lilies, gentian, and Greek valerian.
The only forest growth was confined to the edges of the limestone hills and ridges which rose above the glacial drift. Timber growth consisted of wild cherry, plum, oak, hickory, and other hardwoods. In the spring, violets, adder’s tongue, Duchman’s britches, Jack-in-the-pulpit, anemones, trillium, and wild columbine bloomed in the fringes of woodland. Hazelnut, dogwood, blackberry, wild grape, and raspberry were abundant.
Deer inhabited the timberlands edging the prairie. Rattlesnakes, fox, rabbit, and wolves were common. There were two kinds of wolves, the large timber wolf and the smaller prairie wolf. Panthers, lynx, polecats, wild cats, and catamounts were numerous. There were also wild fowl- partridge, quail and prairie chicken.
In certain season, swarms of mosquitoes, the “gallinippers,” made life almost unbearable for man or beast. At times, exposed skin became smeared with blood. The atmosphere was almost alive with them.
By 1870 the Empire Prairie had changed from the early pioneer homestead to a settled agricultural community. The first settlers broke the land with wooden plows, sowed their crops of grain by hand, harvested them with cradle and scythe, and threshed them with flails on wooden floors.
The prairie fires were a very real menace, which often occurred annually. Sometimes they were set purposely to give the fresh grass an earlier start in spring. Some of the fires were quite injurious to life and property.
For many, the open prairie was bleak and lonely. The first settlers clung to the wooded fringes and from these sheltered vantage points reached out into the prairie proper. As the cradle and the scythe gave way to the reaper, the binder and flail threshing to horse power and then the steam engine, the dashed churn to the barrel churn, so changes came in many other ways.
Highways and railroads crossed the prairie. Rail travel from the Empire Prairie was chiefly from Arlington, Morrisonville, DeForest, or Columbus. Churches and schools were built.
As changes came in living conditions, homes and transportation, so changes came in the agricultural economy. The first subsistence crops gave way to wheat, apples, and tobacco along with corn, potatoes, and beans. Hops became a staple crop. Sheep were grazed, and hogs and cattle were bred. Hay, chiefly red clover and timothy, became important. Farms stabled many horses. Cabbage, canning peas, and hybrid corn grew in importance in the 1930’s and 1940’s. By mid-20th century, many of the state’s most modern farms occupied this area.
For more than 100 years, the lands of the prairie had been tilled and cropped by practical, sturdy farmer folk who worked effectively with sun, seed, and soil to produce in abundance, to feed, clothe, and in other ways benefit themselves and those who bought their products.
People of the Prairie
The early history of the population of Columbia county, like the history of all peoples, is a study of movement: migrations, wars, peaceful interludes, and more migrations. Early records show that the Empire Prairie was people by the Maskoutenec, or Mascouton, Indians.
Some authorities claim that the name was derived from Maskoutenec, a prairie, and therefore can be interpreted as the “prairie people”. The Mascoutons had numerous villages in the region now comprising Green Lake county, and their hunting grounds extended into Empire Prairie.
Columbia county was first visited by the white man in 1673. Men such as Father Marquette, John Kinzie, and Peter Pauquette visited or lived in the vicinity of old Fort Winnebago. The fort was built by Major E. Twiggs and completed in 1830. Contact with the outside world was made by stagecoach from Chicago via Mineral Point, or by horseback from Galena. As late as 1835 there were no cross country roads.
In 1844 there was a tide of settlers from New England. These early settlers gave many place names to the region: Otsego for Otsego county, New York; Leeds and Hampden for the English cities of those names, and of course Empire Prairie for the Empire state. News of “cheap” land spread across the ocean, bringing settlers from many other lands.
Most early settlers reached Empire Prairie from New York by way of the Erie Canal to Buffalo and thence by boat on the Great Lakes to Milwaukee or Chicago. From these cities, some walked along Indian trails. Others traveled by train to Watertown, then by wagon or on foot to Lake Mills, Sun Prairie, and Leeds. Those with means could hire ox teams and wagons.
Then began the task of clearing the land and preparing it for cultivation. Settlers preferred to build their cabins in the shelter of the woodlands, but liked the high prairie for plowland because it was well drained and did not require clearing of timer. Breaking the prairie was trying work for both man and beast. Some of the settlers had no previous farm experience.
In 1848 Wisconsin became a state, and the first decade following this event brought many new settlers to the Empire Prairie and its neighboring townships. German and Scotch settlers arrived. Pioneering activity came to a close after the second decade.
The Arlington Experimental Farm
The Empire Prairie in Columbia County continues today as a productive agricultural area of Wisconsin, just as it has since white men settled it 150 years ago. But today 2,037 acres of the prairie serve a new purpose for agriculture.
In the heart of this prairie lies the Arlington Experimental Farm “outdoor laboratory” for agriculture at the University of Wisconsin. The Farm was part of the dream and plan of R.K. Froker, late dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
The plan was first conceived about 1952 as university people saw the city of Madison sprawling westward and starting to encroach upon the 600-acre Hill Farms and other areas where agricultural research had been done for 50 years. They could see that the Hill Farms would soon be gobbled up by roads, shopping centers and residential areas, with increasing problems of transportation, sanitation and compatibility with the city. The solution was to move the farms out of the city before the problems became severe.
The Arlington area was chosen because it was only 20 miles north of the campus on a main highway, yet far from the city to function without metropolitan problems. The area is ideal for agriculture with rich, black prairie soil on rolling land uniform enough for precise agricultural field experiments. Yet the area also had a variety of grassland, wild land, small woodlands, and wetlands.
Looking to the future needs of university agricultural research and Wisconsin’s total agriculture, University planners decided to secure some 2,000 acres in incorporate into a single farm. In 1952 plans for buying all or parts of 13 farms on the border or just north of the Dane-Columbia County line began, with plans for selling the Hill Farms and releasing the Eagle Heights Farm and University Marsh in Madison to other university uses.
Acquisition of farms for public use is usually a long and complicated process, and this project was no exception. Proceedings for buying and consolidating the land began in 1953, and by 1955 the new Arlington Farm of approximately 1,800 acres was ready for occupancy by the University of Wisconsin.
Disruption of farm families was kept at a minimum because almost three-fourths of the purchased land was in farms that were leased to somebody else by their owners. Thirteen percent of the land was bought from owners who wished to retire because of age or failing health, and only 14 percent of the land came from owner-operators.
Seven of the 13 farms bought in the area were 80 acres- a size too small for general livestock production or economical use of large modern machinery. Land was not condemned, but purchased by common agreement.
When private land goes into the public domain, the tax structure of the local government unit usually suffers. In Arlington and Leeds townships the Arlington Experimental Farm took over parts of five school districts. To compensate for this loss of private tax money, the University now pays all taxes assessed for school purposes in the Farm area. School taxes make up two-thirds of the total property tax. By 1958, after the Farm had been operating three years, total property tax in the area had gone up less than 2 percent as a result of tax exemption on state-owned land.
Good land conservation practices are an important part of farming today, and plans for conservation began even before land was bought.
In 1954, before the University took possession of the Arlington Farm, an agreement was made with the Columbia County Soil Conservation District to plan conservation practices for the entire area. In 1955, the old line fences of eight adjoining farms were taken out, and conservation practices began on a 1,100-acre area. Terraces and contour strips swept across the acreage and by the end of the year more the 7 miles of terrace, diversions and grass waterways had been built.
In 1956 nearly all of the land to be used for the Farm had been acquired and consolidated, and livestock was moved from Madison where farm research was being closed out. In the first crop season about half of the new Farm was planted to corn and oats for livestock feed, and the rest of the area was planted to soybeans. The following year the move to the Farm was completed and special research projects began.
While the entire Arlington Farm is managed as a unit, special parts of it serve specific agricultural interests. Some of the units within the 2,037 acres are:
Dairy Cattle Center- milking barn for various breeds of dairy cattle
Beef Cattle facilities- feeding, housing, and management experiments at two locations
Sheep and Swine facilities
Agronomy Center- including crop drying and storing structures
Horticulture Farm- a 160-acre area for orchards and gardens
Entomology Farm- field building for insect studies
Natural areas- acreages of land left undisturbed to attract wildlife, including unplowed original prairie vegetation.
Another 200 acres of the Arlington Farm were acquired in the early 1960’s with the purchase of the Bussain farm. This acquisition brought with it an historical site. In a small house on this farm Wisconsin’s late Governor Oscar Rennebohm was born in 1889. The original house still stands. At the time plans for the establishment of the Arlington Experimental Farm were being made, Governor Rennebohm was serving as a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin.
Early planners of the Arlington Farm tried to anticipate all possible future needs of the farm for experimental research. One of the important concerns of the 1950’s and 1960’s was the maintenance of environmental quality through management of pesticides on farm lands. To give a “pure” area for comparison, about 20 acres were set aside which had not been treated with pesticides and which would be maintained as an untreated preserve in the years ahead.
In the same way a strip of virgin prairie has been preserved to show how the Arlington area looked in the days of the Indians. On the Horticulture Farm an orchard was planted and has since come into full production. Other permanent plantings are elm trees of various types to test resistance to Dutch elm disease.
The Arlington Farm took over many existing buildings of the old farms to use, but many new buildings were constructed too. The heart of the Arlington Farm is the Farm Center, consisting of all new facilities, including a headquarters building, residences, and a number of auxiliary buildings. Numerous other buildings on the Farm have been renovated and remodeled to meet the needs of agricultural research.
Some 30 people are permanent employees of the farm, working as herdsmen, secretaries, farm crewmen and technicians. Another 8 or 10 seasonal employees are hired for planting and harvesting activities.
With research underway in all areas of agriculture, the Farm is solving many of the specific problems of agricultural and rural life for Wisconsin and some of the general problems of the north central region of the United States.
Currently, nearly 500 different agricultural research projects are being carried on by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Many of these projects are wholly or in part conducted at the Arlington Farm.
A sampling of studies that can be observed at Arlington Farm are as follows:
Comparison of hybrid strains of corn, grain and forage crop growth
Fertility-population-variety trials of crops
Evaluation of disease resistance and control on Wisconsin vegetables
Genetic and environmental influences on beef cattle production
Collection of weather and climate data with radar equipment
Planting of tree windbreaks and Christmas tree management
Measurements of soil and water movement
Biological and pesticidal control of crop insects
Minimum tillage of corn
Dairy cattle housing studies
Forage management and storage
 *The first two chapters were prepared from bulletin 520, “The Prairie and Its People,” Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Wisconsin, Madison, May, 1956, Martha S. Engel and Andrew W. Hopkins; and from information furnished by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Rural Population Laboratory.