What I Learned About Wisconsin


A view of the prairie garden behind my mother's home.

A view of the prairie garden behind my mother’s home.

I spent over 15 years of my life living in the great state of Wisconsin. These were my formative years. From the time I was a small child to my teen years, southern Wisconsin was my home. Growing up, I never really gave much thought to what was all around me. Maybe familiarity does breed contempt. As many kids do, I would dream of visiting far away places. Warm sandy beaches or towering mountains, just about anywhere seemed better than the hills and corn fields of the Midwest. I longed to leave there and see “the real world”. Eventually I moved away and have since spent my time in warmer climates. Sunny Florida and  dry Arizona have been my places of residence now for many years. Both states are magnificent and beautiful but Wisconsin has always lingered in my heart and in my memories like a first love that you never really get over.

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I still have family in Wisconsin and often return in the summertime to visit. It’s pleasant and I’m reminded of memories of my childhood whenever I swim in the lakes or just walk through the grass barefoot. (Barefoot is not something that I would advise in Arizona or even Florida unless you’re on the beach.) The summer weather is usually mild (compared to the sweltering humidity of Florida or the blistering heat of Arizona) and it’s nice to get away. Yet, for all the years I’ve lived there or visited, I’ve never really thought much about the state or it’s historical significance. It was just that place up north where I grew up.

Recently, I took on a task for my mother to research different communities in southern Wisconsin and along the way, I discovered quite a number of things that I never knew about my former home and I thought it would be interesting to share a few of my findings with all of you.

Starting with my first town of residence: Stoughton

Stoughton has a strong Nowegian influence. From about 1865 to around 1900, many Norwegian settlers came to the area and the city celebrates Syttende Mai (or May 17) which is the Norwegian Constitution Day. Situated southeast of the capital city of Madison, it retains a small town feel while still having access to big cities. It is the home of Stoughton Trailer, one of the largest American manufacturers of tractor trailers. Most interesting is that Stoughton claims to be the birthplace of the coffee break. That’s right, every time you take five for another cup of java at work, you can thank the women of Stoughton. From the Roadside America website:

“In the late 1800s, Norwegian immigrants arrived in the Stoughton area, attracted by the availability of work in T.G. Mandt’s wagon factory. While the men were employed building wagons, local tobacco warehouse owners experienced a shortage of workers each harvest, when it was time to bring in the tobacco. Mr. Osmund Gunderson decided to ask the Norwegian wives, who lived just up the hill from his warehouse, if they would come and help him sort the tobacco. The women agreed, as long as they could have a break in the morning and another in the afternoon, to go home and tend to their chores. This also meant they were free to have a cup of coffee from the pot that was always hot on the stove. Mr. Gunderson agreed and with this simple habit, the coffee break was born.”

One of the countless aging barns of Wisconsin

One of the countless aging barns of Wisconsin

One final note of interest on Stoughton. Kids have the opportunity to go to JEDI school. Seriously. Ok, they don’t learn how to use the force or make their own light sabers (although how cool would that be?). Nah, it’s on online school and stands for Jefferson Eastern Dane Interactive. Still, I love the name.

My next home was in McFarland – This small town is now a suburb of Madison and has grown tremendously since I was a boy living there back in the early 1970’s. I attended 3rd through 5th grade at Conrad Elvehjem Elementary, although it is now an early learning center. It was named for McFarland’s most famous son, Conrad Elvehjem, a biochemist who is responsible for discovering vitamin B3 (Niacin). The next time you check out the nutritional information on any box of food, just remember when you see Niacin it was discovered by a Wisconsin native.

My last city of residence was Janesville. Located in south central Wisconsin, it lies on the corridor between Madison and Chicago (I-90) and is in my mind, the typical midwestern town. It’s called the City of Parks and has a large Green Belt area that stretches across the eastern part of the city. For many years it was home to a General Motors Plant that produced the Chevy Suburban, Tahoe, Yukon, Blazer and medium duty trucks. The factory was built in 1919 and was the oldest General Motors plant in North America before it was closed in 2008. I even worked at the plant for a few weeks as a temporary employee attaching parts to the truck bodies on the assembly line.

The origins of the city are not unlike so many in American history. Before white settlers came, it was home to a number of indigenous tribes. The Winnebagos, the Potawatomi, Sauk and Fox tribes all inhabited the Rock River Valley area and were eventually forced out, some onto reservations. The city was named after Henry Janes, a native of Virginia who petitioned the post office to name the town Blackhawk after the Sauk Chief Blackhawk. His request was denied and the city was eventually named after him.

The Rock River flows through the center of town and is home to the 19 time, National Champion Rock Aqua Jays, an amateur water ski team.I worked with the team for a short while back in the early 90’s as a massage therapist. I was employed by a local chiropractor and he attended several events and provided much needed medical assistance.

Cheese curds from Wisconsin.

Cheese curds from Wisconsin.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the things that are usually associated with the Dairy state. Cheese, of course is in no short supply and if you find yourself in the rolling hills of Wisconsin, I suggest you try the famous “cheese curds”. This delicious treat can be eaten fresh or deep fried (you’ll find the fried version at any local fair or festival.) Wash it down with the many offerings of beer that are available. I’m not talking about the big breweries of Milwaukee, mind you. No, for a true beer experience, enjoy a locally brewed craft beer. Gray’s Brewing Company in Janesville or New Glarus Brewing Company have fine selections. Finally, no summer backyard cookout would be complete without the bratwurst.

Forget "corporate beer". This is the good stuff.

Forget “corporate beer”. This is the good stuff.

Due to the large influx of German immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, this fine cuisine is a staple food all over Wisconsin. Best if boiled in beer before grilled (trust me on this). Beer, brats and cheese. Ask any Wisconsinite and they’ll tell you these are three of the four food groups (the fourth might just be more beer, brats and cheese). All three can be found outside of the famous Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers on any given game day.

Go Pack Go!

Go Pack Go!

The more I researched southern Wisconsin, the more I realized what a truly amazing place it is. From the “Stone pyramids” supposedly under Rock Lake in Lake Mills, to the UFO Days festival in Belleville (to celebrate the numerous UFO sightings in the area over the years) to Lake Geneva, birthplace of Dungeons and Dragons, it’s a state of beauty and mystery.

As I wrote this article, a flood of memories came back to me: Cold winter days spent sledding down the hills in my neighborhood and camping trips in the summer to Devil’s Lake. Springtime walks through Palmer Park and mind-blowing visits to the House On The Rock. From my first days of school to my first kiss, Wisconsin is where it all happened. For all that I learned about the history of the state, what I truly discovered is that Wisconsin is a place I’m proud to have called home.

~V

 

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