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Wisconsin Historical Society

BIG History Is Happening

BIG History Is Happening

BIG History Is Happening

A big moment in history is happening right now. COVID-19 is having a major impact on all of our lives. As we practice social distancing, and spend more time at home, it is easy to feel isolated from the things you love. We know how much you love history, and until we can welcome you back to the Society, the Library & Archives, and our sites and museums, we are going to bring more history straight to you! Here are some free resources to get you started on your adventure through the past.

Join the COVID-19 Journal Project

You can help the Society collect history as it happens by keeping a journal during the COVID-19 crisis.

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Seeds & Home Gardening | May 26

The cover of a seed catalog from 1898.There are a variety of different vegetable featured and a young girl picking fruit is featured wearing an white dress with a woman in the background leaning down to garden.

For decades, seed catalogs were the most popular way for home gardeners to order their products. This is the back cover of the John A. Salzer Seed Company catalog from 1898, which is part of the Wisconsin Historical Society collection.

WHI Image 129544

A woman gardening face obscured by a ball cap as the picture is taken from above.

While many may no longer order seeds through catalogs (though they do still exist), today’s home gardeners still plant them just like their parents and grandparents. Here, Nettie Witter of McFarland plants peas in her backyard garden.

Credit: Dean Witter

Seeds & Home Gardening

Wisconsin is nationally known for its proud agricultural history, but the COVID-19 pandemic is sparking a new appreciation for this beloved part of our state’s heritage.

As warmer weather arrived with the calendar turning to the seed-planting month of May, many people staying home are deciding that this is the perfect opportunity to give gardening a try for the first time, or expand on previous harvests.

Some are dipping their green thumbs in with limited container gardening, while others are going all-in by cultivating a patch of their yard. As a result, businesses that sell seeds and plants are reporting record-breaking demand.

It represents the latest chapter in Wisconsin’s history of residents taking advantage of our state’s fertile soil.


Throughout the state’s history Wisconsinites have gardened for subsistence, as landscape ornamentation, and as a pleasurable pastime.

Native Americans have tended the soil for over 2,000 years. The first gardeners domesticated native crops such as squash, sunflowers, and lambsquarters. Between the years 1000 and 1400, corn and beans arrived from the South and were added to the mix. Native peoples carefully managed soil chemistry to enhance fertility and sustainability, crafting distinctive ridged fields that still survive in a few locations.

Settlers from the East and Europe integrated their own gardening traditions. Europeans introduced crops such as melons, potatoes, and millet to Native populations, and in return accepted corn, squash, and beans for their own gardens.

During World Wars I and II, citizens were encouraged to grow their own food to support the war effort. “Victory Gardens” were promoted as a way to direct more of the nation’s food production to the armed forces and refugees overseas. They were part of a wider program of self-sacrifice for the greater good that included the rationing of materials such as rubber, paper, and gasoline; and the purchase of war bonds and stamps, among other supportive actions. A Victory Garden was a way to show your participation in the national effort, but also offered the practical benefit of growing your own food when shortages and rationing were common.


There are countless reasons for the surge in agricultural attraction during the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, it’s a chance to rekindle traditions passed down by ancestors who grew up on family farms. For others, it’s a way to keep busy while at home, or to engage children in a meaningful and long-lasting project. Some see it as a practical source of food and an opportunity to avoid the potential risk of extra trips to the grocery store. At the very least, gardening is an excuse to get outdoors and relax while engaging in a rewarding activity away from the cares of the world.

Media outlets from New York to San Francisco have covered the surge in garden-related sales. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story reported on a firm that had to temporarily stop taking new inquiries after orders had doubled from the previous year. “People are looking to get into it whether it’s for growing their own food or having a project to do at home,” Nathan Zondag, vice president of J.W. Jung Seed Co., told the paper. The Journal Sentinel also spoke to others facing similar demand. “We are selling out,” added Zannah Crowe, horticulturist at Johnson’s Gardens in Cedarburg. “It’s a nationwide trend. There is a huge, huge demand for it. … I hope these people have success because then we have a whole new generation of gardeners.”

"We are 500% busier than we normally are this time of year," Mario DiGrande, owner of Oakland's Thornhill Nursery, told the San Francisco Gate. "I've already sold as much soil in six weeks that I do in an entire year. It's just crazy."


World War I Victory Garden Poster World War II Victory Garden Poster Garden Wisdom: Lessons Learned from 60 Years of Gardening Vintage Wisconsin Gardens: A History of Home Gardening Putting Down Roots: Gardening Insights from Wisconsin’s Early Settlers Garden Business Surge Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Vintage Seed Catalogs International Harvester Victory Gardens Heirloom Garden Month at Old World Wisconsin

Plant A Garden!

Consider planting and tending a garden this season as a way to relax outdoors, keep busy, and/or provide some fresh alternatives for the table. A bounty of tomatoes like this could be yours!

A woman leans over to pick some delicious looking red tomatoes while smiling at the camera.

Nettie Witter shows off her tomato crop last year in the backyard of her McFarland home. Credit: Dean Witter

Previous Weeks' Then & Now

Teachers & Adapting in a Crisis | Face Masks | Pets & Comfort | Social Distancing | Writing Letters | Home Delivery | Board Games & Cards

Explore BIG Moments in Wisconsin's History

Explore Black History in Wisconsin

Black History

Explore Women's History in Wisconsin

Women's History

Explore Earth Day History in Wisconsin

Earth Day History

Explore the History of Epidemics and Diseases in Wisconsin

Epidemics in History

A woman at International Harvester's Tractor Works looks through a filing cabinet or a card catalog

Turning Points in History

Language teachers listen to foreign languages on tape decks at an institute for public school language teachers at Mount Mary College.

Wisconsin Sound Archive

Research & Discover History

A Wisconsin family portrait outside, african american

Research Your Family History

An old picture of a Wisconsin neighboorhood from a hill

Discover Your Community History

A vintage cashier till

Explore Our Collections

Map of Wisconsin

Maps & Atlases

Al Ringling Historic Building

National Register of Historic Places

Two scuba divers exploring a wreck

Wisconsin Shipwrecks

Man reading the Union Farmer, an old newspaper

Digitized Newspaper Collection

Two men working on a video camera

Online Film Collection

Education & Activity Resources

Map of the First Nations in Wisconsin

Wisconsin First Nations

Mammoth Skeleton

Mammoth Mystery

Textbook cover for Wisconsin Our State, Our Story

FREE Textbook

A couple book covers for young readers books

Young Readers

Elementary student taking an immigration quiz

Elementary Lesson Plans

Two middle schoolers doing course work

Secondary Lesson Plans

Tommy Knocker Coloring Page

Coloring Pages

Book Nook

The COVID-19 Pandemic has temporarily affected the Society's ability to fulfill hard copy book orders. However, you can still find Wisconsin Historical Society Press books at your favorite book retailer, including independent booksellers at IndieBound. E-books are also available through most e-book vendors, including KOBO, the online e-book portal for many independent booksellers. And make sure to follow us on Facebook for virtual storytime!

Bring History Home

Our online store is open and ready to take your order! Here are a few suggestions to beat the boredom.

Picture of Jacobs Ladder

Jacob's Ladder

USA Map Puzzle

USA Map Puzzle

Frank Lloyd Wright Dominoes


Powwow Activity Book

Powwow Activity Book

More At Home Toys and Activities

Games & Puzzles | Journals & Coloring Books

COVID-19 Poster Project

Conserving Resources Poster by Colin Matthes, Stark decisive black and white lines with pops of color to highlight important resources, like tomatoes, create the dramatic affect of this poster.

May 27 | Conserving Resources

Colin Matthes

Colin Matthes (Milwaukee, WI) is an artist. He combines improvised utilitarian construction techniques with instructional drawing, spectacle, and civically minded projects that range from group knowledge archiving sessions to “eco” demolition derbies. He always shows the means of production. The process, the fingerprints, the screwups.

Learn More

Support the Preservation of Wisconsin's History

Make a big impact

Make a BIG impact by supporting the Society's efforts to continue to collect, preserve, and share stories about environmental conservation, and all Wisconsin history.


History is a story with many voices, always growing and evolving — a story we tell together. Let us know if there are ways we could improve!