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Wisconsin: A Historical and Cultural Deep Dive

Milwaukee Art Museum

When it comes to historically significant locations in the country, no other area in the glorious Midwest is as steeped in history as the State of Wisconsin.

Continue reading as we get to know Wisconsin and delve into the rich history of the state, its cultural heritage, and the people who took part in its growth. These, among many other things, are what make Wisconsin one of the best places to live in the country.

THE BADGER STATE: AN OVERVIEW

Aerial shot of a river and a bridge surrounded by trees in Wisconsin

Located in the upper Midwest, the State of Wisconsin spans 65,496 square miles, making it the 23rd largest U.S. State. It is bordered by Lake Superior and a portion of Michigan to the north, Lake Michigan to the east, Illinois to the south, Iowa to the southwest, and Minnesota to the northwest. It is also divided into five geographic regions – Lake Superior Lowland, Northern Highland, Central Plain, Eastern Ridges and Lowlands, and Western Upland.

Climate

Wisconsin’s geographic location gives it a humid continental climate. But given the immensity of the land covered by the state and its diverse topography, the climate could vary depending on where one is located. Temperatures here range between -40°F and above 90°F on average.

Natural attractions

The unique geologic processes that shaped Wisconsin have blessed the area with several impressive natural landmarks. These include:

  • The Apostle Islands – This archipelago consisting of 21 islands on Lake Superior was named by National Geographic’sExplorer magazine as one of the best places to visit in the region. It boasts pristine sandscapes, amazing cliffs, and exploration-worthy sea caves, all of which can be accessed by kayakers, divers, and campers. The Islands also have an amazing collection of historic lighthouses, several of which are still in operation and available for guided tours.

  • Big Manitou Falls – Located about 13 miles south of Superior, Big Manitou cascades water over a 165-foot drop, making it the fourth-tallest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. You’ll find eight miles of hiking trails in the area of this natural landmark, as well as campsites for visitors.

  • Cave of the Mounds – Dubbed the “jewel box” of America’s major caves, this site was declared a National Natural Landmark due to its impressive rock formations and caverns. It was discovered in 1939 and is estimated to be at least one million years old, making it one of the oldest natural attractions in Wisconsin.

  • Eagle River Chain of Lakes – This is the largest inland chain of lakes in the world found in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. The Chain is home to a thriving population of fish such as bluegill, perch, and musky, which is why it’s a favorite haunt among local anglers. The waters here are also perfect for activities such as water skiing, wakeboarding, pontoon cruising, canoeing, and kayaking.

  • Devil’s Lake State Park – This is the most-visited state park in Wisconsin, drawing thousands of visitors each year and contributing to Wisconsin’s thriving tourism industry. The park is especially valued by rock climbers and thrill-seekers for its impressive trifecta of natural wonders: a 360-acre spring-fed lake, 500-foot bluffs, and over 30 miles of hiking trails.

  • Horicon Marsh – This area is known as the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the nation and an important migratory stop for Canada geese. Located in southeast Wisconsin, the marsh is also home to more than 300 species of birds, including redhead ducks and the great blue heron. The abundance of avian species in the area makes it conducive to birdwatching. Visitors to the marsh can also enjoy other activities such as canoeing, kayaking, and boating.

What’s in a name?

WISCONSIN. According to records, Wisconsin takes its name from the 430-mile-long Wisconsin River, the principal river in the area. Spelled “Meskousing” by French Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette in 1673 and “Ouisconsin” by later French explorers in the 18th century, the state’s name was given by the native Algonquins. The word was often interpreted to mean either “wild rushing channel” or “holes in the banks of a stream in which birds nest.”

BADGER STATE. Wisconsin is known as the Badger State, not necessarily because of the animal itself but because of the area’s early inhabitants who were known for possessing badger-like traits. Badgers are mammals known for their burrowing prowess, and – in a way – so were the state’s first inhabitants, many of whom dug in the lead mines in the southwest area. Due to poverty, these people would live in the mines they dug – just like badgers. The reference, once a way of mocking the lead miners, is now a proud symbol of Wisconsin’s hardworking citizens. In fact, the badger is the official state animal.

AMERICA’S DAIRYLAND. The generally cool temperatures in Wisconsin are most suitable for dairy farming. The soil here is nutrient-rich and ideal for cultivating forage crops like corn, soybeans, and alfalfa which are known to be components of high-quality feed for dairy cows. Plus, the grass that these cows nibble on in the pastures contains nutrients that are vital to their health and diet. Cool weather, a nutritious diet, and expansive pastureland all contribute to abundant dairy production, which is why Wisconsin has grown into the leading dairy producer that it is now. Particularly popular in the state is the wide variety of cheeses made here, from the classics like cheddar and parmesan to artisanal variants like Colby-Jack cheese.

WISCONSIN’S RICH HISTORY

Wisconsin has a long, colorful history that dates back several thousand years. Below, we trace the humble beginnings of this beautiful Midwest state and the various upheavals and events that shaped it.

Wisconsin before Columbus

According to experts, the first known inhabitants of what is now known as Wisconsin were the Paleo-Indians who first arrived in the region during the end of the Ice Age or about 10,000 BCE. Fossil and archaeological records suggest that these early inhabitants hunted animals such as mammoths, mastodons, bison, giant beavers, and muskox.

During the Woodland period between 1,000 BCE and 1,000 CE, the area’s inhabitants gradually shifted from hunting, fishing, and foraging to gardening, allowing them to live a less nomadic lifestyle. From 200 BCE to 500 CE, the Hopewell settled along the Mississippi River and proceeded to introduce their culture and trade practices to Wisconsin’s then-residents. Following the decline of the Hopewell culture around 1050 AD, people from the Mississippian culture established a settlement at Aztalan along the Crawfish River. This group brought with them several practices that would then be adopted by the area’s natives such as the construction of large, truncated earthwork mounds, the creation of shell-tempered pottery, the establishment of extensive trading routes, and the development of the chiefdom, among many others.

Following the Mississippian’s abandonment of the Aztalan settlement in 1200 AD, the Oneota people became the predominant culture in Wisconsin, staying in the region until 1650. According to archaeological studies, the Oneota lived in large villages along major rivers and lakes and were known to have grown corn, beans, squash, tobacco, and other crops. They also harvested food from the area’s rivers, lakes, and woodlands.

By the time the first Europeans arrived in the area, Wisconsin was inhabited by various Native American tribes, including the Ojibwe, Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi, and others who thrived in the region. Each one had their respective complex societies, engaged in advanced agriculture, and developed intricate trade networks.

Vive la France: First contact

The French explorer Jean Nicolet

French explorer Jean Nicolet was the first European to reach what would become known as Wisconsin in 1634. His arrival was said to have ushered the beginning of the fur trade between Europeans and Native Americans, with French fur traders soon establishing trading posts in key locations throughout the area, such as Green Bay and Prairie du Chien.

From 1761 to 1763, the region became a battleground among European powers in the French and Indian War, with Wisconsin ultimately falling under British control upon the war’s conclusion. Under the British, fur trading reached its peak, with Green Bay even becoming a prosperous, self-reliant community.

After the American Revolution, the United States acquired Wisconsin as part of the Northwest Territory through the Treaty of Paris in 1783. In 1836, Wisconsin became a separate territory, followed by statehood – the 30th in the Union – some 12 years later on May 29, 1848.

Wisconsin experienced rapid industrialization during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with industries like lumber, mining, and manufacturing reaching unprecedented heights. During this period, cities such as Milwaukee and Racine became centers of industry and trade, attracting immigrants from several European countries.

During the late 19th to early 20th centuries, Wisconsin gained national recognition for its progressive political reforms such as direct primary elections, fair compensation for workers, proportional income tax, and increased regulation of corporations. These progressive reforms -known collectively as the “Wisconsin Idea” – influenced similar programs throughout the country.

The European waves of immigration

Wisconsin is home to immigrants from several European countries: the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. That’s why the state is considered a major bastion of European culture in the US.

THE DUTCH. According to historians, Wisconsin became a significant center of Dutch immigration between 1840 and 1890. The first wave of Dutch immigrants arrived in Wisconsin in 1844. Dubbed the “Seceders,” these immigrants hailed from the Reformed Church of the Netherlands and came to Wisconsin seeking religious freedom. This group, records say, settled mainly in Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, Columbia, and La Crosse Counties. In 1848, another wave of Dutch immigrants arrived in the state – Catholics who were spurred by Father Theodore Johannes Van den Brock to move to the Fox River Valley.

THE SWEDES. The first Swedish settlement in Wisconsin was built along Pine Lake in Waukesha County in 1841, followed two years later by another that was constructed along the shores of Lake Koshkonong. Following the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 and crop failures in Sweden in the late 1860s, immigration from Sweden increased significantly.

THE NORWEGIANS. These Scandinavians, for their part, started settling in Wisconsin around 1838 in what is now known as Muskego. By the 1850s, the number of Norwegians in Wisconsin swelled to 8,600. This number continually grew over time and by 1900, approximately 25% of America’s Norwegian population has settled in Wisconsin.

THE DANES. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the first wave of Danish immigrants settled in Hartland, Wisconsin in 1846. From the 1850s to the 1880s, Danish immigration to the Midwest rapidly increased, with the majority settling in the southeast and central portions of Wisconsin. This trend continued well into the late 1890s, during which Wisconsin served as home to 35,000 Danes.

WISCONSIN’S CULTURAL HERITAGE

Events and festivals

Today’s generation of citizens continues to add to the rich tapestry woven over time that is Wisconsin’s history. But they never fail to look back with pride and celebrate their origins through their grand cultural events and festivals. Here are some of them.

  • Syttende Mai Celebrated in some parts of Wisconsin each May, this is Norway’s Constitution Day. This festival is characterized by showcases of Norwegian tradition and culture, so visitors will find national costumes like the bunad, traditional art like rosemaling and hardanger embroidery, and Norwegian culinary favorites such as authentic Norwegian meatballs, krumkake, lefse, and cheese curds. Visitors will also get to see authentic Scandinavian dances, Viking Canoe Races, and strongman competitions.

  • Wisconsin State Fair Celebrated since 1851, this statewide event runs for 11 days and attracts over 1 million visitors each year. Hallmarks of the Wisconsin State Fair include exhibits celebrating the state’s farming industry, local cuisine, livestock exhibits, as well as family-friendly entertainment and rides.

  • Milwaukee Irish Fest This festival has been celebrated since 1981 and is one of the biggest salutes to Irish culture outside of Ireland, with the country itself known to send dignitaries as festival guests. Held at the Henry Maier Festival Park on Lake Michigan, the Irish Fest is rife with activities, including performances from local Irish dance troupes, live music featuring both English and Irish artists, traditional Irish food, and Celtic dance presentations and workshops. Attendees could also watch or take part in traditional Irish sports such as Gaelic football, hurling, and currach racing. In addition, the festival honors traditional Irish family names, with one clan celebrated each year.

  • German Fest ​​Those looking to have a taste of German culture without having to go to the country itself can do so at the Milwaukee German Fest. Celebrated by the shores of Lake Michigan, this festival was first held in 1981 and features parades by German-American heritage organizations, food showcases, live entertainment, and Dachshund races.

Historical attractions

Vestiges of Wisconsin’s glorious past could still be seen in several historic landmarks scattered throughout the state. Here are some of our favorites.

  • Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum Located in Pepin, WI, this museum is dedicated to the famous American author and child of the original pioneers, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her Little House on The Prairie books became classics with a TV series spinoff in the 1970s. Just a few miles away from the museum is the Wayside Cabin, a traditional, pioneer-era log cabin that was built on the site where Laura was born and designed according to how it was described in her books.

  • Milton House Museum A historic inn constructed in 1845, the Milton House and its original owner, Joseph Goodrich, played an active role in the resistance against slavery. The inn has a secret tunnel that connects to a nearby cabin. The said tunnel was said to have been used by runaway slaves in their journey to freedom. Now, it stands as the state’s only certified Underground Railroad site that’s open to the public.

  • Taliesin The main home and studio of prominent architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Taliesin in Spring Green, WI has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to several buildings designed by Wright, the 600-acre site offers several tours of the estate and is visited by roughly 25,000 people each year.

  • Milwaukee Art Museum Nestled by the shores of Lake Michigan, the Milwaukee Art Museum is one impressive sight, with its main building designed to look like a massive bird. One of the leading art museums in the entire country, the Museum contains an impressive 32,000-piece collection with works by American artist Georgia O’Keeffe and artwork by other masters such as Picasso, Monet, Homer, Degas, and Warhol. The museum’s permanent collection also has modern art pieces, folk art, and artifacts from ancient Egypt and Rome.

FIND YOUR DREAM HOME AMONG SNIPPETS OF HISTORY IN WISCONSIN

Live amid the charm and storied history of Wisconsin by purchasing your next home here! To ensure a stress-free home-buying journey, you’ll do well to connect with local Realtors who know the lay of the land like the back of their hands. That would be us – Broad Street Brokers LLC.

Our real estate team consisting of proud Bayfield natives has been taking the Wisconsin real estate scene by storm, fueled by our combined years of experience and our dedication to providing top-tier service to our clients. With us as your guide in your real estate transaction in the Badger State, you’ll be moving into your new home in no time at all.

Ready to start your home-buying journey in historic Wisconsin? Give Broad Street Brokers LLC a call today at 715.779.3220 You can also send a message here to schedule a consultation.



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