Historical Agriculture and Soil Erosion in the Upper Mississippi Valley Hill Country: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Historical Agriculture and Soil Erosion in the Upper Mississippi Valley Hill Country

1st Edition

By Stanley W. Trimble

CRC Press

290 pages | 212 B/W Illus.

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"This thought-provoking book demonstrates how processes of landscape transformation, usually illustrated only in simplified or idealized form, play out over time in real, complex landscapes. Trimble illustrates how a simple landscape disturbance, generated in this case by agriculture, can spread an astonishing variety of altered hydrologic and sedimentation processes throughout a drainage basin. The changes have spatial and temporal patterns forced on them by the distinctive topographic structure of drainage basins.

"Through painstaking field surveys, comparative photographic records, careful dating, a skillful eye for subtle landscape features, and a geographer’s interdisciplinary understanding of landscape processes, the author leads the reader through the arc of an instructive and encouraging story. Farmers—whose unfamiliarity with new environmental conditions led initially to landscape destruction, impoverishment, and instability—eventually adapted their land use and settlement practices and, supported by government institutions, recovered and enriched the same working landscape.

"For the natural scientist, Historical Agriculture and Soil Erosion in the Upper Mississippi Valley Hill Country illustrates how an initially simple alteration of land cover can set off a train of unanticipated changes to runoff, erosion, and sedimentation processes that spread through a landscape over decades—impoverishing downstream landscapes and communities. Distinct zones of the landscape respond differently and in sequence. The effects take a surprisingly long time to spread through a landscape because sediment moves short distances during storms and can persist for decades or centuries in relatively stable forms where it resists further movement because of consolidation, plant reinforcement, and low gradients.

"For the social scientist, the book raises questions of whether and how people can be alerted early to their potential for environmental disturbance, but also for learning and adopting restorative practices. Trimble’s commitment to all aspects of this problem should energize both groups."

—Professor Thomas Dunne, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, UC Santa Barbara


"Stanley Trimble’s new book is a welcome addition to the literature on soil conservation in the United States. …This most recent volume represents the culmination of thirty-nine years of research and reflection on human-induced environmental change in a part of the latter region known as the "Driftless Area," a locale so-named for the lack of glacial drift found there. The area encompasses portions of four states—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois—where they adjoin the Mississippi River.… The subject of the book is the dramatic transformation of this landscape wrought by agricultural settlement from the middle of the nineteenth century up to the present."

—Agricultural History, 2015

"… a story of tragedy and triumph. … The tragedy was the severe damage inadvertently inflicted on the landscape, by well-intentioned settlers doing the best that they could with the tools and knowledge available to them. The triumph has been the landscape’s partial recovery, thanks to the efforts of private citizens and government agencies. The story of the Upper Mississippi River Hill Country is rich in lessons for understanding and managing many other landscapes."

—Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse, and other best-selling books

"[Trimble’s book] is based on almost four decades of dedicated research and has many of the characteristics of a gripping detective story, based on meticulous forensic investigation. … The geomorphologist will learn much from the complexity of stream processes that is evident and from the linkages that occur in different parts of river basins between erosion and deposition … an exemplification of true Geography … [a] remarkable work."

—From the Foreword by Andrew Goudie, Professor Emeritus and former Head, School of Geography, University of Oxford

" … intensive, loving field work and reflection. Thanks to clear maps and diagrams, and above all a wealth of well documented photographs, we can all grasp the painful dimension of what in less able hands would be a lifeless tale of mud and dereliction. … [a] powerful book … and a tribute to dogged, dispassionate enquiry."

—Claudio Vita-Finzi, Natural History Museum, London; Professor of Geology Emeritus, University College London

"Professor Trimble's exceptionally well documented accounts of agricultural landscape disturbance have had a broad impact on the field of geomorphology. In this rich and detailed environmental history of the Upper Mississippi Valley Hill Country, he has broadened the scope to include the human side of the story, describing the social and individual actions that triggered pervasive watershed disturbance with unintended but profound impact on those living and working on the landscape. This is a compelling and delightfully readable narrative … . Future efforts to sustainably manage this and other agricultural land will require mastery of its combined human and natural history, amply documented and effectively explained, as done so ably in this definitive work."

—Peter R. Wilcock, Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, Johns Hopkins University

"An epoch-defining work on the evolution of landscapes under the influences of changing agricultural practices and on the episodic movement and storage of fluvial sediment. Stan Trimble not only draws deeply on a century and a quarter of previous history, but adds nearly four decades of his own observations (both intensive and extensive) to round out an inspiring chronicle of good science in the service of good stewardship."

—Robert H. Meade, USGS Emeritus

"This is a book of solid science but also the best kind of environmental history describing the interaction of human beings with their landscapes. Trimble brings to this narrative 39 years of field work in this and other regions of the United States and draws on 80 years of data in the process. … A remarkable feature of this definitive study is the ample archival photographs showing, before and after, the decimated landscapes, moonscapes really, and their restoration. These shots, along with Trimble’s generous quotations of journals and other eyewitness accounts, give a depth and granularity to the story which enlivens his narrative. Stanley Trimble also provides a basic introduction, along with a marvelous glossary, which will allow the non-specialist to understand and appreciate the nature of the problem and the ultimate solution pioneered by committed scientists at the USDA and various universities."

––The Environmental Forum, January – February, 2014

Table of Contents

The Physical Region and Primeval Landscape



Vegetation and Soils



European Settlement and Changes of Land Use

Early Settlement

Overview of Historical Agriculture in the Region

Historical Crops and Other Agricultural Land Use


Grazing and Animal Husbandry

Land Use Management from the Time of Settlement to the 1930s

A Revolution in Agricultural Land Management

Conservation Agencies

The Continuing Soil Conservation Revolution

A Composite of Erosive Land Use over the Historical Period

The Systematic Effects of Historical Agriculture on the Physical Landscape

The Role of Modified Hydrology (In Particular, the Role of Rills and Gullies)

Increasing Hydrologic Change and Soil Erosion in the Hill Country

Effects of Soil Conservation on the Physical Landscape

Sediment Budgets over the Historical Period

Zones of Physical Processes within Stream Basins of the Hill Country


Upper Main Valley (UMV)

Lower Main Valley (LMV)

Stream Erosion of High Terraces and High Banks

Upland Gully Erosion and its Effects

Hillside Gullies and Their Fans

The Appleby Farm

The Zink Farm

High Terrace Gullies and Their Fans

The Buffalo and Black River Terraces

Proksch Coulee

Ratz Gully

The Peterson Event

The Tributaries: Zone of Early, Complex Changes of Process and Form


Fairwater, Minnesota

Similar Villages

Other Locations and Functions

Farms and Farmsteads

Roads, Railroads, Bridges, and Communication Lines

Mills, Reservoirs, and Water Power

Fish Habitat

The Upper Main Valleys: Zone of Later Complex Changes of Process and Form


Elba, Minnesota

Coon Valley, Wisconsin

Freeburg, Minnesota

Farms and Farmsteads

The Lower Main Valleys: Zone of Perennial Sedimentation

Villages and Towns

Chaseburg, Wisconsin

Beaver and Whitewater Falls, Minnesota

Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills, Wisconsin

Galena, Illinois and Potosi, Wisconsin

Elkport and Garber, Iowa

Village Creek, Iowa

Ion, Iowa

Rushford, Minnesota

Arcadia, Wisconsin

Farms and Farmsteads of the LMV

Roads, Bridges, and Communication Lines

Mills and Reservoirs

The Great Flood of August 2007 and its Implications

The Storm

Mass Movements

Upland Slopes



Upper Main Valley

Lower Main Valley

Sediment Yield or Efflux




About the Author

Stanley W. Trimble, Professor Emeritus at UCLA, was a research hydrologist with the USGS 1973-1984. He is the author of Man Induced Erosion on the Southern Piedmont (SWCS, 1974, 2008), editor of Encyclopedia of Water Science (CRC, 2008) and co-author (with Andrew Ward) of Environmental Hydrology (CRC, 2004). He was co-editor of Catena, 1996-2006.

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
NATURE / Environmental Conservation & Protection
SCIENCE / Earth Sciences / General
TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING / Agriculture / General
TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING / Environmental / General