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Wisconsin Farmers Once Waged War Over Milk Prices
May 14, 2016

Eighty-three years ago, war — with bombs, bullets, bayonets and tear gas — was waged in Wisconsin.  The war was over milk prices.

By 1933, the price that farmers were getting for milk had dropped by more than half of what they had received three years earlier, the result of consolidations in the dairy industry and a collapsing American economy.

With struggling farmers desperate to get more for their milk, but manufacturers unwilling to give it to them, the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool, one of several groups representing dairy farmers in the state, called for a statewide milk strike on Feb. 8. The idea was to block supplies from getting to dairy plants until farmers received better prices for their milk.

“Farmers are just waiting for some organization that has the guts to take action, and they will flock to it,” Walter M. Singler, president of the Milk Pool, told the Journal in its front-page story on Feb. 8.

The year’s first milk strike began Feb. 15, with Singler calling for five days of nonviolent withholding of milk from all markets in Wisconsin. “There is to be no picketing during these five days,” Singler said on Feb. 14, according to a front-page story in the Feb. 15 Journal. “After that, if we are not successful (in getting higher prices), watch out.”

Although it was fairly quiet in southeast Wisconsin, clashes elsewhere were more prevalent. In Outagamie County, the Journal reported Feb. 18, it was particularly “tense,” with hundreds of farmers “swarming over the roads…dumping truckload after truckload of milk and roughing up the drivers” and shutting down a number of plants in the area.

But even as the February strike spread — the Journal reported Feb. 20 that pickets had nearly succeeded in blockading Milwaukee — it lost steam, as shippers found alternate routes and other farmers groups failed to throw in their support. An uneasy truce was announced Feb. 22, ending the strike.

But when nothing new materialized, the Milk Pool called for another strike. This time, it was different: The Journal reported on April 12, 1933, rival farmers organizations, including the influential Farmers’ Holiday Association, would join them in blocking dairy products from getting to market.

The strike took effect May 13, even though the Holiday Association dropped its support at the last minute.

Tempers flared quickly.

In Bonduel in Shawano County, the Journal reported on May 15, 30 people were injured when National Guardsmen, sworn in as deputies charged with keeping the roads open, and pickets “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 Journal reported.

Although the worst of the clashes were in Shawano County, southeast Wisconsin also began to boil over.

In Milwaukee County, 40 to 50 pickets were arrested on May 16 at Loomis and Center roads and charged with inciting a riot (the Journal said the men were not farmers and were believed to be outside agitators).

And 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, following a tear gas barrage with a bayonet charge into the crowd.

Strike No. 2 ended May 19, with Gov. Alfred Schmedeman agreeing to appoint a farmer-controlled committee to study the milk-pricing system.

Still, throughout the summer and into fall, nothing changed, as state officials waited for federal action that didn’t materialize. So the Holiday Association, which had sat out the fight in May, called for another milk strike for Oct. 21.

The third strike, which lasted for four weeks, was more violent than the first two, but no more successful in bringing about higher dairy prices for farmers.

A 60-year-old farmer from Dane County was shot and killed Oct. 27 while on a picket line east of Madison. On Oct. 31, the Journal reported, a cheese factory in Outagamie County was bombed; two days later, a cheese factory in Belgium in Ozaukee County was blasted with dynamite. Several creameries elsewhere were also bombed, while milk was dumped at sites around the state, including Cedarburg.

Wisconsin’s third and final milk strike of 1933 was called off Nov. 18, in part because of the increase in violence and because, as the Milwaukee Sentinel reported Nov. 19, strike leaders “could not muster enough pickets to effectively disrupt transportation of food supplies from farms to markets.”

In addition to Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel archives, this story also drew from a useful account of the 1933 Wisconsin milk strikes in “The History of Wisconsin: Volume V — War, a New Era, and Depression, 1914-1940” by Paul W. Glad, published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

By: Chris Foran
Source: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel


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