Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of William Brener © Jim Taylor

A 1960 photo of William Brener holding a pine graft seedling in Wisconsin Rapids.
© Jim Taylor

June 2011

A slice of nursery system history

The nursery system is 100 and throughout the century, several people have provided strong leadership as nursery managers. Traditionally, nursery managers summarized the year’s events at their respective nurseries.

These narratives provide great insight into the nurseries' trials and tribulations. The following is an excerpt from the 1944 narrative, written by William H. Brener who was the original Central (Griffith) State Nursery manager and later a leader in the Wisconsin Conservation Department during a career lasting from 1932 to the early 1960s.

The system becomes rooted

As we look back over the record, the first appreciable amount of tree planting done under Wisconsin Conservation Department guidance took place in 1911. At this time 192,000 trees were planted on state land. The stock was secured from Michigan State College and planted in the Trout Lake vicinity in Vilas County. The next year, 18,000 additional trees were purchased and planted. Meanwhile a nursery was started at Trout Lake, and in 1913 the nursery’s first production of 68,500 trees was added to the state plantations.

First expansion and 1915 setback

The period from 1911 to 1915 was an active one in forestry work, and one filled with much hope. Besides the passage of favorable legislation and the acquisition of state forest lands, the nursery at Trout Lake was further developed until, in the year 1914, its output had reached approximately one half million trees. This amount was recognized in those pioneer days of forestry and reforestation as a considerable number.

Photo of women planting trees © Ed Steigerwaldt
Women transplanting trees in 1953 in Wisconsin Rapids.
© Ed Steigerwaldt

However, while the people as a whole (as far as their votes were concerned) were in favor of this activity, opposition developed and culminated in 1915 when the question of forestry was presented to the state Supreme Court in a friendly suit to determine the exact status of the forestry work and of the legal structure supporting such work. The court rendered an opinion declaring forestry work illegal and in conflict with the state Constitution. This decision practically nullified the reforestation program. In 1915 only 77,400 trees were distributed from the state nursery.

Interest in reforestation revived

The 1915 decision was an important milestone in the history and development of reforestation in the state. It was a great shock to those who were interested in the forestry movement in Wisconsin, and it looked as if the business of forest restoration was out for good. It took about 10 years to recover from the setback. However, public interest in this work was so pronounced that after WWI and in 1924, the identical amendment to the constitution was again submitted to state voters and approved by an overwhelming majority. The Supreme Court reviewed the amendment and found it sufficient. The record shows that over one million trees were distributed and planted in 1926, and there has been a constant expansion of effort and facilities up until our entrance into WWII.

A 1932 expansion and a new nursery at Wisconsin Rapids

Late in 1931, a subcommittee of the Governors committee on land use and forestry was appointed to study the need for increased reforestation. The subcommittee's report was presented in 1932. The Conservation Commission approved the committee’s recommendations that the state "should commence at once a forest planting program on suitable lands to sustain industry, to afford employment, and to keep land best suited for such use in a productive condition."

The tremendous planting activities expansion required the state to purchase planting stock, primarily from Wisconsin's private nurseries. This enlarged reforestation program made it imperative to build a new nursery in central Wisconsin.

Coupled with the growing need for planting stock was the old need of supplying trees approximately two weeks earlier for planting in the southern and central parts of the state than was possible from the Trout Lake nursery. An area was selected three miles south of Wisconsin Rapids in Wood County for the new state nursery. Site development began in the fall of 1932, with the first stock becoming available in the fall of 1934. Over 16,500,000 trees were distributed and planted in 1934.

Nurseries enlarged and improved

The department's tree growing facilities were again improved and increased in 1936 and 1937. This work was done in cooperation with the Civilian Conservation Corps and CCC camps. As the work of these camps in trail construction was completed, more attention was given to reforestation of state and county lands.

The Wisconsin Rapids nursery facilities were trebled and expansion was carried out at Trout Lake. A new nursery was established near Gordon in Douglas County. In the work of the enlarged nursery facilities, the CCC camps and the Works Project Administration (WPA) crews furnished the bulk of the labor and shared expenses with the Conservation Department.

County forest and private landowner planting

While the principal reforestation work was completed on state lands within the limits of the state forests, much of the work also was done on county lands because of the CCC camps locations and the enormous acreage of plantable lands within county forest. Over two million trees were planted in county forests in 1933, and over 25 million were planted on county forest land in 1940.

In fact, 1940 was the high point. Because of the war and the resultant labor shortage, the number of trees planted in county forests then dwindled to less than four million annually. The policy under which planting stock is furnished at reasonable prices to private landowners for reforestation purposes in the state is being continued and has suffered little because of the war. While state and county forest planting has decreased drastically during Word War II, the demand for trees from farmers and other landowners has held up surprisingly well.

Shelterbelt project

The hot, dry weather of 1933, and particularly of 1934, and the lowering of the water table in various communities, together with the dust storms, focused attention on the need for trees and shelterbelts for windbreak purposes.

A well organized and enthusiastic demand arose in the central counties for an extensive tree planting program. Through the county agricultural agent’s offices and other interested agencies in those counties, surveys determined tree requirements for shelterbelts. The Conservation Department was called upon to furnish over 14 million trees, mostly transplants, from 1934 to 1944. The conservation department entered into cooperative agreements with the county board agricultural committees of the counties concerned, and each farmer signed an agreement to plant the trees as instructed and to give proper plantation care. Trees are planted in three-row shelterbelts, and a total of 5,492 miles has been completed through 1944.

Research studies and industrial forests

The Conservation Commission is cooperating with soil fertility at all of the state nurseries, and a definite program of soil building has been worked out and is underway. This is especially important because the soils had reached the point where they were run-down and the general vitality and size of the trees had suffered, so that it was important that a program of soil rejuvenation be worked out and that it be continued from year to year as a definite part of the nursery practice.

Studies also are being conducted in controlling soil damage and tree diseases, and a separate experimental nursery has been set up in conjunction with the College of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where investigations are being carried on in the possible propagation of disease resistant varieties. Through cooperation with the state university and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, work also has been initiated in the study and control of forest diseases and pestilence, which have become increasingly damaging as natural reproduction and forest planting gain in scope.

It is to be noted that during these years several industrial corporations, mainly of the paper industry, have been carrying on and expanding extensive forest planting as an integral part of their forestry programs. While several of the corporations operate their own nurseries, the Conservation Department continues to make available to all a goodly portion of its forest planting stock at nominal prices.

Effects of World War II

Even before the United States’ entry into the war, the loss of the CCC camps caused a decline in tree planting activities on public lands in Wisconsin. From an all-time high of over 38 million trees planted in 1940, there was a drop to 18 million in 1942, the first full year of our active war participation.

In succeeding years, the tree planting decline continued as the labor shortage became more apparent until, in the present year of 1944, a total of only 10 million trees were distributed and planted. It is gratifying to note, however, that the majority of these trees went to farmers and private landowners who took the time to plant the trees themselves or with help of immediate family members.

From all indications there will be a revival in forest restoration work after hostilities cease and present wartime conditions change, and it is the plan now at the state forest nurseries to attempt to gauge this future demand and prepare and ready their operations accordingly.

William "Bill" H. Brener was influential in the early years of the Wisconsin nursery system. He was a meticulous manager, taking detailed notes of weather, stock, insect and disease changes and nursery practices at the Griffith State Nursery from its founding to the late 1960s. He loved the nursery and could still be found driving the Griffith Nursery property every Memorial Day for many years after his retirement. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Forestry Hall of Fame on November 3, 1995.