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Local History Index:

Hop Growing History in Lisbon,

Waukesha County, and Wisconsin

Compiled and Edited by Michael R. Reilly

Last Revised 05/03/2009

Note: Additional non-Wisconsin material supplemented to provide insight into hop growing industry.

    Why would James Weaver have brought hop plant roots to Lisbon in 1837? The first brewery in the area wasn't started until 1840 in Milwaukee (see below). Which means that if Weaver brought hop plants, then they were probably locally used in making small batches of ale, not lager beer.  Lager beer did arrive after the first ale brewery in 1840.

The early American colonists had many uses for hops. Wines and Beers of Old New England by Sanborn C. Brown (1978), notes:

"The hop cones used in the beer brewing were not the only part of the plant that the farmers found useful. It was a common vine in the settler's kitchen garden. The young shoots in the spring were eaten as a special treat in salads... a wax extracted from the tendrils was used as a reddish-brown vegetable dye, the fibers were used in textiles as a substitute for flax, the stalks were used for basket and wicker-work, and the leaves and spent hops were an especially excellent food for sheep."

    One source says that "Wisconsin began hop cultivation in the 1860's.", but Mr. Libby of Lisbon was showing his hops at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1852.

    So there may not have been a ready beer brewing market for hops, the early town of Lisbon residents surely put their hop crop to other uses.

    James Weaver's brother in law, David Bonham, had his "public house" going in the Spring of 1837. David couldn't have used Weaver's hops that year to supply the thirsty with ale, and with no brewery yet in the area, David must have brewed his own in small batches using English or Eastern hops he probably purchased in Milwaukee.

    It's interesting to note here that although the Weavers had a million dollar business, as written in Fred Keller's articles, no mention can be found (so far) of their hop business dealings in the local newspapers.

James Weaver:

Occupation 2: 1831, Farmer, raised hops, Oneida County, New York
Occupation 3: 1882, By this year, James and sons built a hop-growing
business worth $600,000.

William Weaver, 2d., hop-grower and dealer, Sec. 26; P. O. Sussex; was born in County Sussex, England, Oct. 2, 1824; in 1830 came with his parents, James and Elizabeth Weaver, to this country; lived in Oneida Co., N. Y., until 1837, then came to Wisconsin, settled in the town of Lisbon, Waukesha Co., where he married Miss Mary Howitt; they have four children living-Jane, Jeannette, George H. and Mary. Mr. Weaver has filled various local offices. Himself and wife are leading members of the Episcopal Church. Mr. Weaver is extensively engaged in dealing in hops, and is largely engaged in hop-growing.

FOR SALE by the Subscribers,
1000 Lbs. Pressed Hops
S. D. Cowles & Co.
August 1, 1836
Source: Milwaukee Advertiser, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, August 11, 1836
Question - Did Mr. Cowles ever sell his hops, were they used to make ale? He was still advertising 1000 Lbs. Pressed Hops in January 28, 1837; same 1000 Lbs.?

    In the late 1830's to early 1840's, the equivalent of our neighborhood taverns - although on a less reputable social footing - were the "rum holes" which dotted the banks of the Milwaukee River in 1843, when 138 were counted. These dirty and unsightly dives got their name from one of the liquids dispensed, and from their being dug back into the hillside. They were boarded up in front and had crude bars, over which was served rum, low grade home-brew, essig whisky heimer and challet. The last named was a potent mess containing fermented wild berries, watercress, rum and limestone. "Essig whiskey heimer" was a drink concocted by the first German settlers in Milwaukee around the spring of 1839. Since no beer was available, they mixed whiskey and vinegar with a little limestone thrown in to put a "head" on it; it was noted that its devastating effects prompted the founding of the first brewery here. The rum holes had "back rooms" - subterranean tunnels - where the owner could store his beer. Some of these passages were provided with cots and straw ticks where men, women, and children who had just gotten off the boat - 200 or 300 immigrants were arriving daily - could lodge temporarily. Despite its bad name, the rum hole became quite an institution in its day, serving as a social center, bank for short term credit, travelers' aid society, forum and lovers' rendezvous. The rum holes eventually died a natural death, as they were replaced by more modern taverns and hotels.
    Most new colonists left Europe around early March for the 6 to 8 week ocean voyage to usually New York, from there the typical immigrant traveled by steamship up the Hudson River to Albany through the Erie Canal to Lake Erie (canal boats were generally overcrowded and the worst part of the journey) then took a lake steamer to a Wisconsin port, Milwaukee.

Source: "Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. : A Chronological History": 1848-1873edited and written by Michael R. Reilly, copyright 1995

First Milwaukee Brewery

    The Middle Europeans brought with them a taste for beer, a beverage which had not been much admired in Milwaukee before their arrival. A combination brewery and distillery, the "Milwaukee brewery", had been established by Welshmen Richard G. Owens, William Pawlett [Pollett] and John Davis at the foot of Huron (Clybourne) Street in 1840.
From the Milwaukee Sentinel November 29, 1869:
    "The first brewery in this city was erected on the south side of the foot of Huron St. in the spring of 1840 by Messrs. Owens, Pawlett and Davis, natives of Wales. It formed the nucleus of what is now known as the "Lake Brewery". It was a small frame building which until within a few years stood on the original site in the rear of the present dilapidated structure. For upward of two years this small establishment furnished a sufficient quantity of ale and beer to quench the thirst of all lovers of malt liquor in Eastern Wisconsin. In 1845 the proprietors were obliged to enlarge the premises and during the past year a large brick addition has been built. Richard Owens, Esq., one of the original owners is now sole proprietor, the lesser being Messrs. Powell & Co.

   The second brewery in the city, and the first one to brew lager beer, was appropriately started by a German, Hermann Reuthlisberger (Reutelshofer), in the spring of 1841. This plant was at Walker's Point, at the corner of Hanover and Virginia Streets (S. 3rd and W. Virginia). Reuthlisberger's beer proved very popular, but he was without capital enough to operate, and soon sold his little plant to John B. Meyer, a baker.

    In 1844 Meyer sold out to his father-in-law, Francis Neukirch, who carried on the business under the Neukirch name. In 1848 Neukirch took into partnership another son-in-law, Charles T. Melms, and the plant was moved to old 1st Ave. (S. 6th St.), end of the 6th St. bridge.
    Shortly after the establishment of the Lake Brewery, several others were built, one, the Eagle Brewery* under the hill south of Chestnut St. by Levi Blossom, Esq., and another in the same neighborhood by the late General Phillip Best.
*Editor's note - According to another source, this ale brewery was originally started by "Frederick Miller" [of Miller Brewery fame] and William Pawlett in 1843 and taken over by Levi Blossom. More likely the brewery was started by "William Miller", which was later advertised as for sale by Levi Blossom; then Blossom went into business with Miller [brewery was operated by "Miller & Co." for a short time]. Later it became the Eagle Brewery under Blossom's ownership.

Source: "A History of Milwaukee and Wisconsin Breweries", Compiled and Edited by Michael R. Reilly, copyright 1996

EASTERN HOPS for sale by the bale or less quantity, just rec'd at
CUNNINGHAM'S Drug Store (East Water St., Milwaukee)
Source: Daily Sentinel and Gazette, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 19, 1846, page 1.
HOPS, HOPS - Growth of 1846, of the best quality, for sale by the bale at the Eagle Brewery. Milwaukee, Nov. 18, 1846.
L. Blossom
Source: Daily Sentinel and Gazette, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, February 10, 1847, page 4.
CASH....and the highest price paid for Staves and Heading Barley and Hops, at the Eagle Brewery, by
L. Blossom
Source: Daily Sentinel and Gazette, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, March 3, 1847, page 4.


Bran Beer
Good bran, one bushel; water, 18 gallons; hops, a quarter of a pound, mash with hot water, and ferment in the usual way. This beer will cost about three pence per gallon. two or three pounds of sugar will greatly improve it. Source: Waukesha Democrat, Waukesha, Wisconsin, January 2, 1849


List of Entries
At the Wisconsin State Fair

List of entries for exhibition at the second annual Cattle Show and Fair, to be held at the city of Milwaukee, on the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th days of October, 1852.

Class B
By William Libby, Lisbon
25lbs. hops.

Source: Weekly Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 13, 1852 Note: Mr. Libby is the only town of Lisbon resident to exhibit at this fair.
The comparative failure of the crop in portions of Otsego and other counties, says the Albany (N. Y.) Journal, has led to some fear that hops are running out. For three or four years the vines have been covered with small white insects. They are called lice; are very annoying to pickers, and, in many instances, destroy the bulb, causing the leaves to have black and blasted appearance. They are rather more numerous and destructive this year than usual. Various efforts to exterminate them have been made, but hitherto without success. Source: Waukesha Plaindealer, Waukesha, Wisconsin, September 19, 1865
An Eastern market report: "Hops are on the decline, especially since the breaking up at Saratoga and Newport. Source: Waukesha Plaindealer, Waukesha, Wisconsin, October 17, 1865
Hops and their Culture
In evidence of the great profit made in raising hops, the little town of Kilbourn City, in Wisconsin, took last season about $1,000,000 for hops; and that throughout the State of Wisconsin not less than $2,000,000 more were received for this product in 1865.
W. C. Hanford, Esq., of Rockford, Ill., who is a successful cultivator of hops, says there are two distinct varieties, the "Early Cluster" and the "English Mammoth", and he prefers the latter. .....Source: Waukesha Plaindealer, Waukesha, Wisconsin, April 17, 1865, page 1.
Thomas & Rhoades' Self-Acting Cheese Press
Our attention has been called to this new invention, patented Dec. 11th, 1866, by the above proprietors, who reside at Mukwonago. It is a cheap, simple structure, which has been attested by ten or fifteen of the best farmers in that vicinity, who unite in pronouncing it the best and most perfect cheese press ever invented...
"This press, constructed on a larger scale, from its self-producing and self-acting power, will be found of great value in many other branches of business besides that of pressing cheese, such as the pressing of hops, cotton, paper, &c., &c. And from its great power, will, in many cases, superced the expensive use of steam. Source: Waukesha Plaindealer, Waukesha, Wisconsin, February 19, 1867, page 3.
The first bale of new hops from the state of New York was received in New York City on Friday last, and sold at $1 per pound. The hops were from the yard of C. D. Palmer, of Waterville, Oneida county. This bale, says the World, was perfectly mature, very rich, and of fine flavor. They are, as we noted last season when the first bale came into market, a little earlier than this, a seeding hop of unusually robust and vigorous habit of growth, enabling them with their uniform and early maturity to effectively and perfectly resist the destructive ravages of lice. In common with others the present season the vines were covered with vermin from an early period...[Article continues about nearly utter crop devastation in Utica and Oneida counties, in New York state. Old yards seem to be worse off than new ones: and vines located upon high ground are the least troubled by vermin, which we suppose is accounted for by the fact that they receive the benefit of of more wind than those upon low lands.]. Source: Waukesha Plaindealer, Waukesha, Wisconsin, August 27, 1867, page 2.
About 40 acres of hops have been set this spring. [Town of Eagle]. Source: Waukesha Plaindealer, Waukesha, Wisconsin, June 9, 1868, page 3.
Oconomowoc - Hops in this vicinity look well, and if they get through the next two weeks all right, there will be a good yield. In and around Hartland, the hop yards do not look thrifty, and the yield must necessarily be very light. Source: Waukesha Plaindealer, Waukesha, Wisconsin, August 11, 1868, page 3.
Mapleton - We have an excellent crop. The hops are large and the picking good. We have nearly three hundred pickers here, I doubt whether Kilbourn City, with its coll 5,000, are having as merry times as we are. The girls all vie with each other to see who will pick the most while in the field, and in the evening to see who will look prettiest, as they "trip the light fantastic toe." [Article continues about some dangers in young male proprietors and the girl pickers.] Source: Waukesha Plaindealer, Waukesha, Wisconsin, September 29, 1868, page 3.
The Hop Fever - Its "Rise and Fall" . Source: Waukesha Plaindealer, Waukesha, Wisconsin, January 5, 1869, page 1.
Only One Year Ago
Source: Waukesha Plaindealer, Waukesha, Wisconsin, May 25, 1869, page 1.
Hops in Wisconsin

    The Kilbourn City Mirror, published in one of the principal hop growing regions of Wisconsin, says, under date of August 18, that recent rains and cool weather have had an almost magical effect on the hop yards, and has caused the editor to replace his former estimate of half last year's crop, with an estimate, "that at least three-fourths the amount of last year will be realized, providing there is no serious drawback in the way of blight, lice or mildew." With the present prospect the price is expected to decline to 15 or 18 cents. A correspondent of the same paper has lately visited 127 yards in Sauk, Juneau and Vernon counties, and found most of them poor. He says, "I think there is a might small show for a good crop of hops. Lice were plenty in most yards."
    English Hop Crop
    It would appear notwithstanding the drought which has been severe, that the prospect for a hop crop in England is good. The fields are spoken of as very clean and neither insect nor blight has troubled the plants. The vine is considerably shorter than it usually is at this time in the year, but it is hardy and vigorous, and the rains that have recently fallen have had the effect to greatly stimulate its growth.

Source: Waukesha Plaindealer, Waukesha, Wisconsin, September 6, 1870, page 3.
Summit - The "hopers" are here, that is to say hops are "coming down", pickers lively at from 30 to 40 cts. per box. Source: Waukesha County Democrat, Waukesha, Wisconsin, September 4, 1875, page 3 of 4.
Milwaukee Market
Hops - Are dull and quiet at 10-15 cents per lb.
Source: Waukesha County Democrat, Waukesha, Wisconsin, October 9, 1875, page 2 of 6.


A RECIPE for cough syrup appears in the Cincinnati Gazette, from "A Farmer's Wife," "Take a small handful of hops and some old field balsam, and some hoarhound, and make a strong tea; strain and put as much molasses as tea, boil down to about one-half. To be taken before eating and before going to bed. My husband had a very bad cough this spring, and this is what cured him." Source: Stevens Point Journal, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, September 30, 1876
Crop acreage for hops in Waukesha County for 1883 was reported by County Clerk Chas. F. Hepp, as 97 acres.
Source: Daily Freeman, Waukesha, Wisconsin, August 14, 1883.

"He made me mad as hops." Question - How did this phrase originate?

    Plant to get historical marker

by Fred H. Keller, Source: Sussex Sun, Tuesday, September 10, 1996, page 27.

    The Mech family of Sussex shares its home with a living fossil, a plant that goes back over a hundred years. It is something of a clinging vine and is growing and growing until each year it completely shrouds and strangles the fence line that it claims as its own. It doesn't allow anything else to live in its area without being completely covered over.

    Don and Barbara Mech moved to W238 N6766 Laurie Ln., Sussex, in 1974. IN 1975, Barbara and her mother were out surveying the lot on the dead end road in the Hamilton Heights subdivision when her mother noticed the vine at the property's east property line, and thought it was a hop plant. The hop plant [Humulus Lupulus] is a clinging vine-type plant that will send runners up and over 15 foot poles if allowed to. The plant will produce cones in late August that are harvested to produce sharp taste in beer. The Mech's plant attracts visitors each year.

    When James Weaver came to Sussex in 1837, he brought with him hop roots from New York. The roots started an agricultural business in the Town of Lisbon that eventually became a million dollar business for Waukesha County. In 1860, James and his son, Richard, became a partnership in growing, buying and selling hops. Three years later, James retired and another son, William II, entered the business, known far and wide as ". Weaver and Bros., Brokers in Fancy Hops." The business lasted from 1860 to 1896 and made Richard Weaver a millionaire and William II, a very rich man.

    The main crop of the early pioneers was raising  and selling wheat and Wisconsin was a bread basket of the United States with Milwaukee being dotted with many flour mills. Farmers were looking for an additional crop and began raising barley and hops for the emerging brewery business, Hops was a high labor industry that needed only a few acres of ground space.

    In addition, there was a need for a specialized hop-drying tower building, a two-story plus structure with a stove on the first floor and drying racks on the second floor. The smoke and steam from the drying hops rose through the roof vents. Northwestern Waukesha County had sixteen of these peculiar buildings in the late 1800s. The town of Lisbon had the most of any township with six of them owned by the five Weaver brothers and a brother-in-law, James Craven.

    Richard Weaver owned the farm that was the future Hamilton Heights subdivision site and one of his main crops was hops. A 10-acre spread of hops was big business. Tamarack poles up to 15 feet long were put up in teepee fashion with hop roots planted at the base of each pole. The vines went up the poles time and again to form a thick foliage a couple of feet thick.

    the final week of August and the first two weeks of September were picking time, a time to harvest the hop cones about two inches long, process and ship them to market. The poles and their vines would be cut free and hauled by wagonloads to a hop picking year, usually outdoors, but if need be on rainy days, inside a barn.

    Four huge boxes would be set up below the loaded hop poles and nimble fingers would strip the hop cones into the boxes. Lots of labor was needed. Especially prized for this work were women and kids. The farmer had to race frost to get the hop picking completed by mid-September.

    Farmers would run wagons into the nearby villages and pick up wagon loads of pickers. For a days labor, an 1860's advertisement said, a good picker could earn $1.50 per day if they got three boxes full.

    Both farmers and field hands looked forward with pleasure to harvesting the hops. Every evening there was dancing in the barn. A local fiddler played a lively tune. It was accentuated and the vigorous "hop step" became the fashion of the day. The term "hop" meaning social dance owes its origin to these lively stomps.

    The fortunes of hop raising had ups and downs. Some great fortunes were made in the 1860s until the hop louse. It devastated the New York crop and then it came to the Midwest. The intensity of it was great and small depending on the year., and fortunes were at the mercy of the bug. In 1882, Richard Weaver had a business of $600,000. He heard over the telegraph of the devastation in other areas, and bought hops for 15 cents a pound. When the world found out there was going to be a crop failure that year he sold his small corner for $1 a pound.

    However, the great Weaver business went into an eclipse after 1882 and 14 years later it was history since hops could no longer be raised in the Town of Lisbon because of the hop louse. Diversified dairy farming replaced hop growing as a way to earn money.

    It is surmised that the particular hop plant that the Mechs have is a survivor of Weaver's crops, a plant that escaped the hop louse. It lives 100 years after he dissolved his brokerage business.

    The Mechs have asked that a historical marker be put up by their living fossil of hop vines. The Village of Sussex has a series of such historical signs, but the Waukesha County Historical Society has heard about the plant and is considering putting a county historical marker on the site.

    Right now Laurie Lane is a dead end road, but within a year it will be a throughway from Maple Avenue to Waukesha Avenue and will be a place of great exposure, both for the now secluded plant, the Mech property, and the proposed historical marker.

    Who says a historical marker has to be by a building, a formation or a famous piece of land? Now a living plant will get a historical marker.

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Copyright Sussex-Lisbon Area Historical Society, Inc., , 2002 - 2016, Except as noted: All documents placed on the website remain the property of the contributors, who retain publication rights in accordance with US Copyright Laws and Regulations. In keeping with our policy of providing free information on the Internet, these documents may be used by anyone for their personal research. They may be used by non-commercial entities, when written permission is obtained from the contributor, so long as all notices and submitter information are included. These electronic pages may NOT be reproduced in any format for profit. Any other use, including copying files to other sites, requires permission from the contributors PRIOR to uploading to the other sites. The submitter has given permission to the website to store the file(s) for free access. Such permission may be revoked upon written notice to the website webmaster. Website's design, hosting, and maintenance are donated by Website Editor & Webmaster: Michael R. Reilly (Mike)