On a just-completed cross-country trip, Carol and I drove, languidly and admiringly, through a tidy place full of cheery people, picture-postcard farms with bright-red barns, and white-fence towns with names like Oconomowoc and Ashwaubenon — Indian words that locals articulate as fluidly as they order a beer and a brat. That’s brat as in bratwurst sausage, pronounced “brott,” not “bratt” like the unruly child.
The place is Wisconsin, whose middle syllable gets an extra pounding from the natives for some Scandinavian reason. It’s “WisSCONsin,” the state that’s north of Illinois, west of Lake Michigan, and east of Minnesota and Iowa in the American heartland. To the even-more-frigid north lie Canada and a peninsula that strays over from the state of Michigan.
If you want to see “Small Town America,” savor some great cheese and sausage, listen to accordion music, dance the polka, and freeze in the winter, Wisconsin’s the place for you. The coldest days I’ve ever spent were in Madison, the state capital, in January, when the wind off frozen lakes Mendota and Monona just about broke my eyebrows.
Wisconsin borders two Great Lakes (Michigan and Superior), holds 8,500 smaller ones, dots its horizons with innumerable silos and a few respectable skyscrapers (in Milwaukee), and boasts four delightfully distinguishable seasons, ideal for agriculture. Winters, especially in the Northwoods, seem never-ending, Wisconsinites admit with a smile and a wink. That’s what mittens and snowshoes, cross-country skis and snow tires were made for.
Wisconsin is SO cold, and SO rural, and SO wholesome that its neighbors make fun of it, using a northern equivalent of the “hillbilly jokes” that bedevil residents of the American Mid-South. You hear a lot of “Sven and Ole” Swedish and Norwegian jokes, too, given the Swedish and Norwegian ancestry of many Wisconsinites.
Here are a few knee-slappers about the Badger State — badgers being chubby little burrowing carnivores with ornery dispositions completely unlike the even-tempered humans around them:
You must be from Wisconsin if:
• You owe more money on your snowblower than on your car.
• The first day of deer season is a school holiday.
• More than half of your relatives work on a dairy farm.
• You think the world has two major religions: Lutheran and Catholic.
• You or your sister was the “Dairy Princess” at a county fair.
• Driving is safer in the winter because the potholes are filled with snow.
• You have a fishing cottage “upnort.”
• You take out-of-town visitors to La Crosse to see the World’s Largest Six-Pack of beer cans.
• Your hometown needs a bus but instead buys a Zamboni rink-surfacing machine for the hockey team.
• You decide to have a cookout this summer because it falls on a weekend.
• And you know what a “bubbler” is.
For the rest of us, “bubbler” is a Wisconsin drinking fountain.
Jokes aside, Wisconsin, with its emerald hillsides, rushing rivers, rugged bluffs, deep woods, and educated, industrious and well-mannered people, has been called “the perfect state.” And the tens of thousands of visitors who each year raft Wisconsin’s rapids or tour its Dells — canyons carved by the Wisconsin River — hunt Wisconsin deer or bear, camp in its rugged parks, make tracks in a snowmobile, or poke holes in a frozen lake, perchance to snare a passing muskie or pike, eagerly agree.
Controls on industrial emissions are vigorously maintained, and visitors to Wisconsin are hard-pressed to find an unkempt wayside — as highway rest stops are called in these parts — or discarded cheeseburger wrappers along a highway. Wisconsin’s state parks are more than a touch wild, full of hiking trails, waterfalls, and glorious vistas of valleys, rocky deposits called moraines, and teardrop-shaped hills known as “drumlins,” all formed by glaciers ages ago. The state established a wildlife refuge in the desolate Horicon Marsh — the “Everglades of the North” — whose 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of cattails and duckweed are a popular stop for a quarter of a million migrating Canada geese.
I’m not sure if Wisconsin has official colors, but you’d think so, looking at scarves and stocking caps and store-window displays clear across the state. They’re hunter green and gold, the colors of the Green Bay Packers professional football team — though, to my eye, the latter looks more shocking-yellow than gold. Since the Packers play on Sundays, you see a lot of hunter green and garish-yellow shirts, dresses, and ties — even whole suits — in church, too.
The Packers are locally owned, not by some mogul of industry or a corporate conglomerate, but by 112,000 shareholders, which is more people than actually live in Green Bay. In a league of teams based in big cities with an average population of 3 million, that’s a matter of justifiable statewide pride. Everyone in Wisconsin refers to the Packers as “we.” It takes a visitor awhile to realize what in the world someone in La Crosse, 266 kilometers (165 miles) from Green Bay — “coast to coast,” as they like to say in Wisconsin — is talking about when he says, “We looked great this week,” and his friend replies, “You betcha. We killed dem Bears.” There are bears, lots of black ones, in Wisconsin, but these Bears, from Chicago, are the Packers’ oldest and most despised rivals. Nine decades old.
In their flat, faintly nasal accents, punching those middle syllables —WisSCONsin, ChiCAWguh — Wisconsin citizens love to tweak mighty Chicago, just below their border, and to beat its teams in sports. Wisconsonites will tell you it’s Chicagoans (not Illinoisans; just those creeps from Chicago) who are buying up all the lake cabins in Wisconsin and driving up prices, and it’s Chicagoans who are clogging Wisconsin’s free highways with their cars and campers each weekend.
But when Wisconsinites want to catch a concert “down sout,” they have to pay tolls on Chicago’s maze of freeways to get there. Surely, Wisconsinites will insist, it must have been punks from Chicago enrolled at the “U” — the University of Wisconsin in Madison — not our clean-cut kids from Oshkosh and Eau Claire, who caused all the trouble in the Sixties. Back then, anti-war students staged sit-ins in university buildings, disrupted recruiting efforts of defense contractors, and, in 1970, bombed a U.S. Army mathematics think tank in Sterling Hall, killing a physicist, injuring four others, and causing $2.1 million in damage. The mastermind, Karleton Armstrong, served seven years in Waupun State Prison, then returned to Madison, where he drove a cab and ran a popular delicatessen called the “Radical Rye.”
Wisconsin has, however, also produced remarkable daughters and sons, and a number of firsts. Escape artist Harry Houdini, painter Georgia O’Keeffe, novelist Edna Ferber, actor Spencer Tracy, director Orson Welles, and innovative architect Frank Lloyd Wright were all born or spent significant years in Wisconsin. Some scoundrels did, too, including “robber barons” who ran logging companies that nearly denuded the state of trees. But that era spawned a virtuous antidote: Wisconsin’s fabled Progressive Movement, led by Madison lawyer Robert A. Lafollette Sr. and his sons, “Young Bob,” who held his father’s U.S. Senate seat for 21 years after “Old Bob’s” death; and Phil, who three times won the state’s governorship. Un-baronlike John Muir, too, hailed from Wisconsin. He founded the Sierra Club, crusaded for America’s national park system, and wrote in luxuriant detail of the birds whose songs “sweeten Wisconsin.”
“Good Wisconsin stock,” as the people sometimes refer to themselves, revere the hearth-and-home values of the yeoman farmer. After all, it was in a “Little House in the Big Woods” — Wisconsin woods — that “Pa” first taught Laura Ingalls Wilder, and she, in turn, generations of the nation’s children through her novels, the virtues of hard work and fair dealing.
As one of the Wisconsin wisecracks points out, Wisconsin is among America’s most Catholic states, yet also one of its most Lutheran ones. Although its stock is largely German and Scandinavian, many cultures have blossomed here. Each year Milwaukee alone holds Polish, Irish, Italian, and German fests, “Asian Moon” and “African World” festivals, a Mexican fiesta, “Serbian Days,” and a Native American celebration. Overall, the count of identifiable ethnic groups in town stopped at 110 about 15 years ago.
Racine, with the nation’s highest concentration of Danish descendants, throws an annual “Kringle Fest,” named for its sinfully delicious, filled Danish pastries. Not far from Madison are “Little Norway” and “America’s Little Switzerland.” There’s a “Little Finland” cultural center in Wisconsin, too, and colorful powwows on the Menominee and Chippewa Indian reservations in the western and northern parts of the state.
Wisconsin was the first state to number its highways, the first to require seat belts in new cars, and the first to outlaw the death penalty and to revoke the racist, secret Ku Klux Klan’s charter. First, too, to pass workers’ compensation and unemployment laws.
Wisconsin’s winter sports, in particular, draw enthusiasts from far and wide: cross-country skiing on frozen rivers, canals, and more than 300 designated trails; ice-fishing jamborees on frozen lakes; a snowmobile derby; speed-racing on ice skates; and ski jumping on the Mississippi bluffs. Wisconsin marks an astounding 32,000 kilometers (20,000 miles) of interconnected snowmobile trails — annually ranked the best — and no doubt noisiest — in North America. And I dare not forget windsailing, ice boating, even “skijoring,” which involves climbing onto a pair of skis and hitching to a sled dog team.
Carol dislikes one thing about Wisconsin that I adore: It’s a pig-out paradise and cholesterol-fighter’s nightmare. Wisconsinites swear there’s more to their diets than cheese, brats, and beer. But veal bratwursts, pork bratwursts, summer sausage that locals call “beef logs,” a half-dozen kinds of wieners, and a dozen more obscure varieties of wursts still hang from hooks in old-fashioned meat markets across the state. The Milwaukee Brewers baseball team even interrupts its home games for a faux contest among five costumed “racing sausages”: Brett Wurst the bratwurst, Stosh the kielbasa, Guido the Italian sausage, Frankie Furter the hot dog, and Cinco the sombreroed Spanish pork sausage.
And cheese is serious business in a state with 1,257,000 dairy cows. Who, exactly, counted them, I’m not sure. For years, Wisconsin law forbade the sale of the butter substitute oleomargarine within its borders. Its dairy farmers produce more than 200 varieties of cheese, including some, such as Havarti, once thought to be foreign and exotic.
Wisconsin farmers had little choice but to turn to dairying. Wheat was the Badger State’s early cash crop, and Wisconsin was the Union Army’s breadbasket in the Civil War of the 1860s. But giant wheat combines could not negotiate the hills and woods, and yields could not match those of flatter Minnesota and the Dakotas. So most Wisconsin farmers turned their spreads over to cows and corn. Most of their farms are small, about 81 hectares (200 acres) on average, and stubbornly owner-occupied, in defiance of the nationwide trend toward massive corporate operations. Many Wisconsin barns are designed to store hay bales on a second floor, from which the fodder would be tossed to the cattle below. But as machinery allowed famers to bundle hay in huge rolls, simple sheds — many metal and prefabricated — have replaced drafty old barns in several places.
Though state license plates proclaim Wisconsin’s continuing status as “America’s Dairyland,” its economy revolves far more around industry, including thousands of specialty fabricating shops. All along state and county roads, you see little factories that make many parts that we sort of see but don’t much notice: clock hands, springs for toasters, plastic lids, keychains, dentists’ pliers. All sorts of things.
Bigger than beer in Wisconsin are bathtubs in Kohler, floor wax in Racine, facial tissues in Appleton, motorcycles in Milwaukee, and cheese in Monroe. In recent years, agriculture, including fishing as well as farming, has accounted for less than 5 percent of the gross state product, industry around 30 percent, and services like graphics, computer work, and financial planning for all the rest.
The first European known to set foot in what is now Wisconsin came not from the south or east like so many who would follow, but from the north. French explorer Jean Nicolet paddled into Green Bay from Quebec in Canada in 1634, looking for a Northwest Passage trade route to China. He — and many others on similar quests — went home disappointed, and it was a while before French trappers and traders followed. They coveted otter and beaver pelts, not land, and while French place names abound in Wisconsin — La Crosse, Lac La Belle, Prairie du Chien — it is a rare place that can trace its land ownership back to the French. The same lack of interest did not apply to the British, who were victorious in the French and Indian Wars of the middle 1700s and nominally controlled this western edge of European settlement for a time. To them, and to American settlers who moved into Wisconsin in search of land after the British were expelled during the War of 1812, land meant power. Native peoples, who repeatedly lost battles to better-armed whites, ceded most of present-day Wisconsin in 1833. The area became, in rather quick order, part of America’s vast Northwest Territory; then of Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan territories; then a territory unto itself before achieving statehood in 1848. The new state took its name from the Indian “Misionsing” and French “Ouisconsin,” meaning “gathering of the waters.”
After its initial Yankee settlement, Wisconsin became heavily German. Just as feisty German “Forty-eighters” were fleeing the strife of Central Europe in the mid-1800s, the United States was offering homesteaders 160 free acres (65 hectares) to settle the mostly untamed state it had just created to the north of Illinois. Save for its lack of Alps, the Germans found Wisconsin’s climate and topography to their liking, and they quickly put the state’s abundant raw materials to good use in machine shops, paper mills, and factories. Breweries, too, with names like Leinenkugel, Huber, Schwalbach, Rhinelander, and Zimmerman.
For half a century, German would be widely spoken on Wisconsin’s streets and even in schools. German was the language of hundreds of churches, and German newspapers abounded. But World Wars I and II, in which Germany was the hated enemy, severely damaged the prosperous Wisconsin enclave. Suspected and sometimes vilified despite abundant evidence of their loyalty to their new country, German-Americans saw their influence wane in the communities they had largely created. “A tragic tide of hatred and anti-German bigotry swept the country, leaving once-proud German settlements, like Milwaukee, quivering in its wake,” wrote Ellen Langill and Dave Jensen in the commemorative Milwaukee 150 history. “The German language became odious. . . . From a high point of 30,000 students enrolled in German in Milwaukee schools in 1916, the number fell to only 400 two years later.” To survive, German merchants found it necessary to post signs reading, “English spoken here,” and most German newspapers were gone by 1930.
African Americans from the South and Poles from Eastern Europe, searching for factory work, streamed to Wisconsin’s industrial cities after World War II. But jobs proved to be more elusive than elsewhere in the North. Blacks, in particular, faced not only racism, but also entrenched hiring and apprenticeship systems that favored the employment of relatives and friends. Blacks today make up 25 percent of Milwaukee County’s population but comprise only 6 percent statewide. Polish neighborhoods can still be found in Milwaukee, but even 25 years ago, in their Book of America, Neal Peirce and Jerry Hagstrom were quoting a priest in Milwaukee’s “Polish flats” as observing, “My funerals are all in Polish. My weddings and baptisms are all Latino.”
Wisconsin’s top tourist attraction is a modest one. It’s Wisconsin Dells, an 11-kilometer (7-mile) stretch of the Wisconsin River that is flanked by steep, sculpted cliffs. Families come for the water slides, small theme parks, and miniature-golf courses, as well as bracing splashes in the river. Second is Door County, a picturesque finger of land that juts north from Green Bay. Its Lake Michigan bluffs and beaches, multiple lighthouses, and array of apple and cherry orchards are endearing enough; add specialty shops, flaming fish boils, and cozy guest houses, and Door County looks for all the world like Nantucket Island had been lifted out of Massachusetts back east and deposited inland.
Visitors also come to see Wisconsin’s rugged Northwoods, cheese being made in several little factories, great summer “cottages” — read, mansions — built by dem filthy rich ChiCAWguns, and various retreats, including Taliesin, which was acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate in the Wisconsin River Valley. There’s also a bizarre place near Spring Green called the “House on the Rock,” which includes not only a room with 3,264 windows — yes, 3,264 windows! — that seems to teeter 100 meters out and over a valley, but also the world’s largest carousel inside the house.
Elsewhere in Wisconsin, “heritage” tourists check out preserved lumber camps, great Victorian homes, cranberry bogs, railway museums, Mississippi River steamboats, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthplace in Pepin, and Al Capone’s cottage along a lake. That’s where the Chicago mobster relaxed with his pals and gals and flew in high-quality Canadian booze by seaplane throughout Prohibition from 1919 to 1933, when the manufacture and sale of alcohol were officially forbidden in the United States.
Pretty little Appleton is noteworthy, too, if only because two of Wisconsin’s most disparate characters — the magician Houdini, a rabbi’s son; and rabble-rousing, Communist-hunting U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, the son of an immigrant Irish Catholic farmer — grew up there.
Wisconsinites are rarely flashy or outspoken, though. Tradition matters, and steady marks its course. Save for Pennsylvania, Carol and I couldn’t think of another place in America that is so industrial yet agricultural, so homespun yet sophisticated, so beautifully manicured yet naturally wild, so ruggedly individualistic yet socially involved, so reverent towards antiquity but open to new people and ideas, all at once.
One feels good — upbeat, optimistic — after a prolonged visit to WisSCONsin, where the direct and simple state motto fits the mood. It reads:
Combine [noun]. A big and complex farm machine that first cuts, then threshes, or bundles, grain.
Feisty. Spirited, spunky, aggressive. You can expect a lively argument if you tangle with someone who is feisty.
Languid. Listless, dreamy, momentarily lazy.
Mogul. A powerful businessperson or industry titan, traditionally male. How the word also came to be associated with bumps on a ski slope, I have no idea!
Oleomargarine. Sometimes shortened to “oleo” and now universally called “margarine,” it is a spread that looks like butter but is made from cheaper vegetable oils. Because of the influence of the powerful dairy lobby, for many years oleo came in lard-like white. Homemakers would stir in powdered food coloring to make it look halfway appetizing.
Think tank. A research organization or institute that studies and reports on issues of the day. Today, many think tanks display an obvious political bias.