Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

 Schoolchildren © F.B.Trenk

Schoolchildren taking part in windbreak planting on Trueman Potts’ farm in Waupaca County on April 26, 1935.
© F.B.Trenk

April 2015

Back in the day

Early efforts to slow the wind helped conserve soil.

Kathryn A. Kahler

In the midst of the Dust Bowl of 1935, Congress passed legislation to fund the Shelterbelt Project. Drought, over–grazing and over–plowing had combined to expose the once–locked prairie soil of mid–America to the fury of the wind. Massive dust storms, plagues of locusts and jackrabbits, even death from "dust pneumonia" afflicted residents of the southern plains states in the 1930s.

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The shelterbelt plan called for planting strips of trees and shrubs — green ash, hackberry, cottonwood, American elm, Russian olive, locust, Osage orange and eastern red cedar — over as great an area as possible in a zone from North Dakota to Texas. Between 1935 and 1938 almost 35 million trees were planted on 107,000 acres along the 99th meridian.

Although Wisconsin wasn't part of the project area, similar drought relief and soil conservation efforts were put in place, especially in the central sands region. William H. Brener, the first manager of the Griffith State Nursery, wrote in 1944 about the shelterbelt project in Wisconsin: "A well organized and enthusiastic demand arose in the central counties for an extensive tree planting program. Through the county agricultural agents' 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."

These rows of trees and shrubs were designed to slow the wind, capture snow and replenish soil moisture in the spring. The tree–planting effort — conducted for the most part by farmers but helped along by school programs as well — continued through the 1940s and 1950s and resulted in more than 50 million new trees in central Wisconsin by 1959.

Another catalyst for restoring Wisconsin's forests is the Arbor Day program. The Wisconsin Conservation Department photo shown above, taken on April 26, 1935 (Arbor Day), shows schoolchildren taking part in windbreak planting on the Trueman Potts' farm in Waupaca County. Arbor Day was founded by Julius Sterling Morton in Nebraska on April 10, 1872 when 1 million trees were planted. Arbor Day has been celebrated in Wisconsin since 1883 and is now officially the last Friday in April.

Kathryn A. Kahler is an editorial writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.