WISCONSIN'S 1933 MILK STRIKE
ON THE STATE'S EDITORIAL PAGES

Bob Schuster
May, 1999


The editorial pages of Wisconsin’s newspapers record the significant events in the state's history as well as the motivations that shaped them. Many of these pages survive in the collections of the State Historical Society and are a unique textbook, written by those who directly observed and in many cases contributed to the issues that have helped to define the character of the state and its people.


In 1933, several years into the great depression, the prices paid to dairy farmers for their milk production had fallen dramatically, while production costs continued to rise. In response, in an effort to get Washington to deal with the milk pricing problem, the Farmer's Holiday Association and the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool called for their members to withhold milk production in a series of strikes in February, May, and October-November of 1933. As the year wore on without any significant assistance, the strikes grew increasingly confrontational.

The initial strike involved farmers primarily in Rusk and Price counties in northwestern Wisconsin and in Shawano, Outagamie, Winnebago, Fond du Lac, Dodge, Washington, Ozaukee, Waukesha, and Milwaukee counties in eastern Wisconsin. Participants blocked roads in Shawano and Milwaukee counties and trains in Ozaukee and Waukesha counties. Shots were fired during a confrontation in Washington County.

As the spring progressed without response from Washington, the second round of strikes spread throughout the eastern half of the state, and Governor Schmedeman called out guardsmen to restore order. While 5000 strikers marched on the Capitol in Madison, guardsmen fired tear gas into crowds of strikers in Shawano and Appleton.  In the Milwaukee area, police arrested 40 strikers. In Saukville, a striker was killed when he fell from a truck during a confrontation. In Racine, guardsmen shot one young striker, and in Walworth County they charged picketers.

By October, tempers were running high, and the strike spread throughout the state. Only the northernmost tier of counties and those in the far southwest were not centers of strike activity. In Dane County, a striker was shot to death by a trucker. In Racine County, deputies fired shotguns. In Oconto County strikers attacked and beat a dairy owner. In Clark County, 31 picketers were arrested, and a similar number were arrested in Marathon County. Before the third strike was finished, eight cheese factories had been bombed, and several creameries had been burned.

During the last of the strikes, the headlines said it all. That of the October 26 LaCrosse Tribune read:

STATE MILK POOL GIVES SUPPORT TO FARM STRIKE

Two days later, on October 28, the Tribune's headline was:

MADISON MAN CHARGED WITH MURDER OF FARMER
Fires Gun at Gathering of Idle Farmers

The next day, the Wisconsin State Journal proclaimed:

STRIKING FARMERS GIRD FOR 'BIG PUSH'
Travelers, Halted on Road, Arm Cars

On October 31, the Tribune's headline reported:

CHEESE FACTORY BOMBED AS MILK STRIKE STARTS
Picket Lines Begin Moving to Milwaukee
UNITS OF GOVERNMENT PLAN TO KEEP ROADS OPEN

On November 2, the Wausau Daily Record-Herald's headline was:

"NO COMPROMISE"--FARMERS
Strike Enters Violent Phase as Bomb Wrecks Fourth Cheese Plant
in State; Marathon County Deputies Arrest 28

The same day, Oshkosh's Daily Northwestern, published the following headline:

CHEESE FACTORY IS BLOWN UP
Many Arrests after Truck is Destroyed

Also on November 2, the Green Bay Press Gazette headline was:

VIOLENCE FLARES IN BADGER FARM STRIKE
Ozaukee County Cheese Factory is Bombed

The next day, the Press Gazette headline read:

DYNAMITE 2 CREAMERIES IN SHAWANO CO. STRIKE
Blasts Wreck Krakow and Zachow Plants

Pitched Battles Between Deputies and Strikers Reported in Wisconsin

During these intense confrontations between frustrated farmers and Wisconsin's business community and  law enforcement agencies, editorials were most conspicuous by their absence. Those that were printed were conservative, cautiously worded, and carefully not incendiary. As the third strike faltered without achieving any imminent relief for the farmers, most of the editorialists who did address the issue called for a quick end to the strike action regardless of accomplishment, counseling farmers to exercise patience. In this, they contrasted sharply not only with their own headlines, but with earlier generations of the state's journalists. A selection of the editorials related to the last of the milk strikes follows.

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The Green Bay Press-Gazette
V. I. Minahan, Editor (October 28)

   We are not disposed to add to the heady weight of advice the farmer has borne for several years concerning the best means of returning agriculture in all its many phases to a basis of fair profits.
   Let us assume instead that the milk strike will be extensive enough in area so that, if fairly effective as regards the percentage of milk kept from entering the market, it is likely to produce beneficent results.
   Even so it must, and certainly will, fail unless violence is stopped.

   We venture the prediction that no program in America, however otherwise sound, can possibly bring benefit or relief, if inaugurated or attended by extensive violence.
   Neither a farm strike nor a labor strike can succeed without general public support, simply because the country is bigger than either labor or the farmer. And the country will not sit back and tolerate violence.
   For a while the violence can be blamed onto a few hoodlums or attributed to a lack of understanding or of organization. But only for a while. If it persists the public will conclude that it is part and parcel of the strike program and the leaders actually favor it, however much they may say the contrary.
   And when the country comes to that conclusion it is goodbye to your strike.
   We have no doubt that the farm organizations are sincere. We think too that the public should support every honest and commendable effort upon their parts aimed at the purpose of regaining their feet, but they must be reminded that time, patience and earnest effort are the essentials, and particularly patience. Results are not going to pour in at the snap of a finger. Agriculture cannot be brought out of the depths in a day nor a month.

The Wisconsin State Journal
(October 29)

"By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
     Their flag to April's breeze unfurl'd;
Here once the embattl'd farmers stood,
     And fired the shot heard around the world."

   Thus Emerson immortalized the first shot in the Revolutionary war that gave America its birth. It was the "embattl'd farmers" that at Bunker Hill gave the "Red Coats" the first notice that in America freedom was to have a new birth.
   A single pistol shot, in the Balkans, let loose the flame of the World war.
   Is it possible that again a single pistol shot will signalize a new victory for the "embattl'd farmers"?
   Is it possible that the shot alleged by the state to have been fired by Frank McCorison, which spelled the doom of Gunder Felland may be a shot heard in New York, Boston, and Washington, and cap the climax of a new rebellion in which the American farmer insists on recognition from the powers that be?
   Sometimes a man becomes a martyr without intending to do so.
   Gunder Felland was a highly respected law-abiding and industrious farmer. When the milk strike came he felt himself "called to the colors," and although he was well along in years, he responded for picket duty.
   It is true that some of the acts of the farm strikers are not "according to law," but neither are all the acts of NRA, for instance, "according to law." It is true that the murderer may have been disturbed in some of his rights, but the fact that after the incident had passed he returned, armed, to the scene of his attempted interruption and took a human life, certainly is not "according to law." Someone murdered Gunder Felland.
   The slaying of Gunder Felland is a sad thing, and the sympathy of the whole county goes out to his worthy family. But already it has had one compensation, and perhaps it will have another far greater, maybe historic.
   The alleged murderer of the Sun Prairie road tragedy was pursued and arrested in an hour and one-half after the crime. Before 9:30 the next morning he was charged with first degree murder and held for preliminary hearing. Justice could not have been swifter. This a notice to Dane county farmers that their legally constituted county officers can be depended upon.
   But the greater thing that this killing may accomplish is national. If Gunder Felland's slayer sent a bullet into the heart of a target in Washington at which America's farmer-world has been aiming in vain for over three years, his victim's death will not have been in vain. The Atlantic coast and Washington have never understood the farmer. The greatest weakness of the government is its failure to act effectively in the farm emergency. The whole purpose of the farm strikes has been to arrest the attention and secure the understanding of Washington, and so compel the administration to do something.

The Green Bay Press-Gazette
V. I. Minahan, Editor (October 31)

   The Dane County farmer who was shot and killed while standing among some pickets on a public highway exemplifies the fate so common to the innocent bystander. He had done no wrong. He had violated no laws. He had been acting the part of a good samaritan in bringing coffee and lunch to those who had elected to patrol the highway.
   Yet this tragedy, when viewed in the light of all its facts, cannot be called unexpected. Indeed, the surprising thing is that we have not had many more such shootings.
   The McCorison brothers were proceeding along the highway where they had a perfect right to be. No one on the face of the earth had any more right to be there. The pickets attempted to make them stop. The pickets had a right to request them to stop but beyond that their rights ceased. They had no right to force them to stop nor to attempt harm to them when they chose not to stop.
   Pickets have been searching vehicles by force and in violation of natural and elementary laws. A continuance of this conduct will always beget resentment that will smoulder more deeply and more bitterly with time.
   The news stories tell us that when the McCorisons refused to stop, a picket with a baseball bat smashed a headlight on their truck and thus became the aggressor in violence. Some men placed as the McCorisons were might shrug their shoulders and let it go. Others would become furious and the more they thought of it the more furious they would become. Unhappily the McCorisons seemed to be so constituted and they turned around and returned to the scene of battle. Unnecessarily, they shot. And as a result another mound in a cemetery is prematurely raised.
   As one reads the details of the picketing and views the photographs printed of obstructions built upon highways, milk poured into gutters, etc., one is led to ask whether or not such pickets know what they are about, whether they are responsible citizens or merely hoodlums. Can it be they are so bereft of common sense not to realize that their acts must defeat a cause, however otherwise just? Do they really think they may block highways, rummage people's property, destroy with adulterants or by dumping something of value belonging to another, and get away with it?
   Picketing is permissible only when peaceful. Its purpose is to permit persuasion. It is not suitable to highways upon which cars are passing because there is so little opportunity to utilize its purpose without materially transgressing the rights of others. Its origin had to do with industrial plants where men went and returned on foot, and the pickets engaged them in conversation and discussion for the entirely proper purpose of attempting to align them with their own side.
   As applied to a milk strike it is more or less worthless, particularly because of the manner adopted. If the strike is to continue the picketing should be altered by making a direct and friendly appeal to each farmer on his own doorstep.
   This may appear like a clumsy system, certainly it will take more time.
   But is there any other way out?

The LaCrosse Tribune and Leader-Press
R. L. Hangsberg, Managing Editor (November 1)

   Walter Singler, militant leader of the Wisconsin Co-Operative Milk Pool, is authority for the statement that this group will "go it alone" now that the Farmers' Holiday strike has been called off on the promise that the governors' conference will carry the farm relief program to the president.
   As things shape up today the Milk Pool will continue on strike at least until Friday when a conference, out of which plans for future action will come, is to be held at Madison.
   Mr. Singler, had he so chosen, similarly could have taken action more timely to salvage for Wisconsin what remains of its milk market, lost in the early days of the strike. The fact remains that dairymen in other states are not striking. Creameries and condensaries throughout Minnesota are running and farmers are delivering their milk. Markets hitherto supplied from Wisconsin are filling their needs from Minnesota.
   That this is a dangerous situation for the Wisconsin dairy industry to face goes without saying. The loss of established markets, which our dairy  industry has been geared to supply, would be a body blow.
   When the dairy farmer is fully impressed with the fact that he is carrying the whole burden of the strike, while making money hand over fist for the processors, he may be able to talk down Mr. Singler at the conference this week-end. Dealers in dairy products are reaping a handsome harvest as a result of the strike, and as Leo T. Crowley observed, in an address before farmers at Madison, "the farmers could not do a more complete job for dealers in the products of the farm if that was what they started out to do."

The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern
(November 1)

   Forecasts that the Wisconsin farmers out on strike would be left "holding the bag" in the final situation seem to have been thoroughly verified. Declaration of leaders of the National Farm Holiday association that the embargo in this state had been called off, so far as that association's participation was concerned, left the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk pool "up in the air," with its militant leader, Walter Singler, endeavoring to keep the strike going at least until Friday, when striking farmers are scheduled to meet at Madison.
   He said it was up to the farmers themselves to decide whether the withholding demonstration is to continue.
   In several of the states where strike strength had been expected, no forceful picketing or other activities have been general or pronounced for several days. Much depends on the success of the program for farm relief formulated by the conference of governors at Des Moines, which will be presented to President Roosevelt.
   The milk pool did not enter the strike until Tuesday, the intent being to wait until assured that the holiday association would "fight to a finish." It now looks as if the milk pool is "out on a limb," as some observers put the situation.
   In Winnebago county and a number of other counties of the state anti-strike sentiment has been growing in the last few days and some groups of farmers have threatened to arm and fight back if pickets try to stop them from reaching their markets.
   These conservative and peaceful citizens realize that they are in danger of losing their markets if strike agitation and action continue to upset existing conditions.
   At the courthouse here last night between 500 and 600 farmers opposed to the strike held a meeting, with the important result that they formed the Winnebago County Farmers' Protective league, choosing officers and planning to fight for "peaceful marketing of all farm products."
   Striking farmers attempted to argue the question at the session, but the intense feeling prevailing at the outset subsided. The young brother of Walter Singler was booed down when he attempted to talk about what the strike was hoped to accomplish.
   A petition asking the county authorities to afford protection to the anti-strikers against strike activities was signed by about 300 farmers who registered their disapproval of the strike methods pushed by the state milk pool leaders.
   It was a momentous gathering and clearly showed that the substantial farmers of the county, while far from satisfied with conditions and prices, are opposed to the strike instrument; wish to go to market unmolested; revolt at the thought of possible bloodshed; propose to support county authority in putting down forceful picketing, and are willing to be patient with the government while it endeavors to solve the farm problem as a national issue.
   It was pointed out that the peaceful farmers have no desire to arouse ill-feeling or ill-will of the urban people, who are not to blame for the plight of the farmers.

The Wausau Daily Record-Herald
J. L. Stortevant, Editor and Publisher (November 1)

The farmers' strike is not over, but the public will watch the development of events within the state with even keener interest and anxiety than before. Can Wisconsin farmers afford to continue "holding the bag," while other states grab our markets? And certainly, on the other hand, farmers can not afford to sell their milk for the prices they have been getting.

The Shawano County Journal
Milton R. Stanley, Editor (November 2)

   There is nothing that our country needs to much as a very decided betterment of the condition of the farmers. We want them to have higher prices. This writer wants that more than he can express in words. We believe that if it were possible to have the farmers in many states hold their products, peaceably, without any killings, without any fights, but by sheer determination each site back and positively refuse to bring anything to market until very serious attention is called to the farmer's plight, until governments gave him attention above any other problem, that such a move would pay. But is seems impossible to have a peaceably strike with extends over a nation.
   Men are human and humanity is made up of a multiplicity of emotions. Mob spirit rules and depredations are committed. Right then sympathy for strikers is lost. And so it goes until the farmers themselves are divided half and half, one portion of the group kills the influence of the other half, and nothing is accomplished.
   Our county was loyal to our farmers. Not a word of protest was raised against this strike. If it could have been a success, or if any other such strike could have won something for our farmers, the people at large would have been delighted. We are willing to go without everything except the merest amount to keep us alive, if by so doing our farmers will reap a real benefit.
   Now when outside leaders have twice embroiled our people, have created hard feeling, neighbor against neighbor, wouldn't it be better for us to choose our own way?
   Our idea is that farmers and business men, men who have been friends for years, who have seen each other's children grow from babyhood to full-grown men and women, should hold frequent meetings and talk these problems over without any outside influence. The problems of the men of the city and villages of Shawano county and the men of the farms are so closely knitted that they are practically one and the same.
   A little loyalty between our farmers and our city dwellers, each to the other, will do far more good than any spellbinding from silver-tongued orators. Suppose every week or so, the farmers and the town folks would hold meetings in Wittenberg, Shawano, Tigerton, Bonduel, Cecil and the other villages, both men and women attend, each have a fair chance to express the views that they honestly believe, can't you see that ere long there would be a tangible program that could be presented to the powers that control the government?

The Wausau Daily Record-Herald
J. L. Stortevant, Editor and Publisher (November 4)

If the appeal to President Roosevelt by the five mid-western governors now at Washington brings results, Wisconsin will be thankful. The sooner the strike is settled, and order restored, the better it will be, for the striking farmers themselves, their neighbors who refused to strike, and the people in the cities. The cost of the strike will be heavy, and the taxpayers of Wisconsin must pay the bill, eventually. Counties where property is destroyed will be held responsible for their destruction. Ultimately, the striking farmers, their neighbors, and the residents of the villages and cities will have a heavy burden added to their tax bill, to pay the cost of the actions by illy-advised strikers who are destroying property.

 

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