By Jim Bokern
Indigenous communities relied on cultivated crops for thousands of years to supplement hunting and gathering. Early settlers imported some farm products but relied on hunting, gathering and small gardens until railroads arrived in the late 1880s. At the turn of the 20th century, loggers and settlers began to till the fresh cutover, launching larger scale agriculture in the Northwoods. Farmers and land speculators challenged the newly founded Department of Forestry's data analysis that the Northwoods was more suitable for silviculture, or the scientific management of trees. The push for robust agriculture stayed strong until the Great Depression, after which only a few family farms and a few more subsistence farms became the norm for area agriculture.
As early as 1895, resorts also needed locally sourced food to attract and retain guests. Some resort owners planted gardens and kept poultry and dairy animals on their premises. Other resorts reached out to local farmers for the freshest farm delicacies.
After WWII, traditional agriculture had faded in Manitowish Waters with the exception of new cranberry marshes. Eight central Wisconsin families moved north, hoping to expand cranberry production into the Northwoods. From humble beginnings, the Manitowish Waters cranberry families were able to establish a robust enclave for this specialty fruit.
Other historic agriculture ventures around Manitowish Waters included ginseng, worms, mink, minnows and poultry.
Today, cranberries are a strong part of Manitowish Waters' commerce, and a few folks continue to tend gardens and keep some farm animals. The MW Community Gardens has been a great addition to our town and follows the legacy of Indigenous communities who lived along the shores of the MW chain.
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