History of Buffalo County

Buffalo County is located within the unglaciated, Driftless Area of Western Wisconsin. Pepin and Eau Claire Counties form the northern border of the county, while Trempealeau County forms the eastern border. Three rivers also border the county; the Chippewa on the west, the Mississippi on the southwest and the Trempealeau on the lower eastern border. All of Buffalo County drains into the Mississippi River.

Land Area

The land area of the county is 712 square miles, or 448,364 acres. There are 17 civil townships; Alma is the county seat. With a total population of 13,975, density is between 19 and 20 people per square mile, about the same as the mid-80’s.

There are 22 named and unnamed lakes in the county; all small and shallow totaling 358 acres. Of the named lakes, Mirror Lake in Mondovi is the largest with 44 acres. One-half of the lakes have maximum depths of less than 5 feet.

There are 8,390 acres of water and 73 miles of trout streams in the county. All or part of 15 streams are classified as trout streams and are stocked with brook or brown trout. Trout habitat in most Buffalo County streams is marginal due to silt or sand-covered stream bottoms. Some natural reproduction occurs, but trout populations are largely maintained by stocking adult-sized fish.

Some of the larger, warm-water streams, which flow into the Mississippi, contain northern pike, walleye, bass, sunfish, and other sport fish species as well as rough fish. The Mississippi River and its backwaters provide an extensive and varied fishery resource including a commercial fishery.

Early Settlements

The first permanent settlement of Buffalo County occurred in 1839 at Fountain City, which was formerly called Holmes' Landing after a family who traded with the Sioux and Chippewa Indian Tribes. Over the next few years many German, Swiss and Norwegian homesteaders settled in the county, attracted by the County's lumber industry, good soils, abundant water and excellent pasture land. In 1848, Twelve Mile Bluff, now called Alma, was established.

At the time Twelve Mile Bluff / Alma was settled, the county possessed limited timber resources, but was caught up in the middle of the logging boom which was centered in the Chippewa Valley, an area of over 10,000 miles of dense hardwood and coniferous forest. Logs were rafted down the Chippewa and Buffalo (formerly Beef) Rivers to mills which had sprung up all along the Mississippi River. Two of these sawmills, 1 built at Buffalo City in 1857, and 1 in Alma in 1865, provided another source of local employment.

Agricultural development in the county began in the early 1850's, mainly in the valleys or up on open ridges. The land was relatively easy to break at the time since portions of the county were natural prairies or oak openings. Poor roads and a lack of adequate transportation though forced most farmers to settle close to the shipping routes along the Mississippi River. Before the railroads came in the 1880s, practically all grain was shipped out on Mississippi River steamboats. This all changed though with the completion of the Winona, Alma and Northern Rail, and by 1890 grain was shipped almost entirely by rail.


The first grain was grown in the county around 1852 in what would later become an extensive wheat producing area. During the years from 1860 to 1870, wheat acreage soared from 5,608 to 41,703 acres.

The Civil War increased the demand for grain and brought prosperity and wealth to those with large acreages under cultivation. After the war, Buffalo County was rapidly settled and new agricultural land cleared of timber or brush. At the height of the wheat-growing era there were 64,290 acres grown in the county.

But with intensive cropping, soil fertility declined and farmers were plagued with insects, disease and soil erosion. Many settlers chose to move west rather than follow a program of crop rotations and fertilization. In time, with the falling of wheat prices and the advent of railways, farm enterprises shifted to milk and cheese production, with local creameries appearing around the 1880s. This in turn was followed by the introduction and proliferation of pure-bred livestock, including dairy, beef and sheep.

Today agriculture is still the number 1 source of income in the county, though more diversified than in the past.

County Topography

The relief of the county is characteristic of the Driftless area, with extremely varied topography consisting of high ridges, long narrow valleys, and areas of steeply sloping land in between. Bluffs rise above the river bottoms by 500 feet in some areas. Only a small corridor along the Mississippi River was ever glaciated, where terraces have been formed from glacial melt water deposits.

Soils are underlain by sedimentary bedrock consisting mainly of Cambrian sandstones and Prairie du Chien dolomitic limestone. The limestone once covered most of the surface of the county, but with erosion much of the original plan has been deeply dissected and worn away; such that it is found only as remnants capping the ridge tops and higher hills. This is underlain by sandstone and, at lower levels, a sandy shale or shale sandstone. Outcroppings of bedrock are common, including sheer bluff faces along the Mississippi.

Loess, alluvium, and colluvium form the uppermost geologic deposits and, in addition to the bedrock, are the parent materials for many of the soils in the county. Soil types range from shallow silty clay loams on steep rocky land to deep silt loams on the valley bottoms, with smaller areas of sandy outwash soils. Aeolian silt deposits range from 0.5 to 16 feet deep, with decreasing depths from southwest to northeast.