Sunday, 20 March 2011

Wisconsin - Badgers, Cheese, Republicans and Gay Rights!

It's approximately 4,600 miles (or 7,400 kilometres) from Venice to Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, the US state which I have chosen as the subject for my blog this month!  Like a lot of my fellow-Europeans, my geography of the US is a bit rough around the edges and I'm sure most of my peers would find it difficult to pinpoint Wisconsin on a map of the United States.  I often hear Europeans expressing their disbelief when Americans don't know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia or don't know where exactly Cornwall is, but I think it goes both ways!  A lot of the detail about the US gets lost in the general picture that we have of this nation, that's why I'm looking forward to learning about Wisconsin, so I can separate it in my mind from the blurred impression of the States that I have from a lifetime of movies and TV programmes!

Badgers and Cheese

Wisconsin farm by lesliebyk
 So to start with - a lot of my American friends will understand the reference to Badgers and Cheese in the title of this blog, but I'm sure most of my non-American friends will have no idea what this is all about!  Well, like other states, Wisconsin has been given a nickname, in this case the Badger State.  Although there is a species of badger that is native to North America, the 'badgers' in this case were Cornish lead miners, who were amongst the first Europeans to settle in what is now Wisconsin, in the early part of the 19th century.  Lead mining didn't seem to take off, for whatever reason and the Cornish immigrants were soon followed by other Europeans, notably German and Norwegian farmers, who have helped shaped Wisconsin's identity and politics in a way that is still perceivable in the 21st century.

Wisconsin is also known as America's Dairyland and is the second largest producer of dairy products, after California.  Having dallied with wheat production for a large part of the 19th century, in the 1890's most Wisconsin farmers shifted to dairy production and Wisconsin is well known for its cheeses, Wisconsinites being referred to as cheeseheads by some of their less countrified neighbours! 

Republicans and Gay Rights

I'm already sensing the apparent contradictions that make up Wisconsin's political outlook.  On one hand it's an incredibly progressive state, steeped in a Scandinavian liberalism that is characteristic, not only of Wisconsin, but neighbouring states like Michigan and Minnesota.  It surprised me to learn that Wisconsin was the first American state to provide legal rights for gay people.  Wisconsin is one of the 12 states (including Michigan and Minnesota) that doesn't have the death penalty. 

On the other hand, the Republican party was founded in Wisconsin and the state was the birthplace of the rabidly anti-communist senator, Joseph McCarthy.  That the Republican party's origins are in the anti-slavery movement is something I'm still trying to get my head around and I'm hoping my research for this blog will help me understand the nature of the American political system.

A Tale of Two Cities

Milwaukee skyline by Amy Puzia
 Most Americans think of Wisconsin as being an incredibly rural state but more than two-thirds of the states' inhabitants live in urban areas.  Although the biggest city in Wisconsin is Milwaukee (which I'm sure most people have heard of), the state capital is Madison (hands up who's heard of Madison, WI?).  I've always been baffled by the fact that many American states seem to completely ignore their main cities and have, as their capital, a small city which is patently obscure.  I'll give you a few more examples:

Sacramento, California (not Los Angeles or San Francisco)
Baton Rouge, Louisiana (not New Orleans)
Tallahassee, Florida (not Miami)
Lansing, Michigan (not Detroit)
Springfield, Illinois (not Chicago)
Carson City, Nevada (not Las Vegas)
Olympia, Washington (not Seattle)

You get the picture?  It's like a deliberate attempt to make pub quizzes more interesting!  I guess there are good historical reasons why this is the case and, from what I've read about Madison, WI - it sounds like a pretty cool place!  But I find myself being drawn towards Milwaukee, the Algonquian Pleasant Land, as my main reference point. 

I'm looking forward to learning even more about this corner of the USA and I hope you'll continue to join me on my learning experience!

Image credits:

The image of a farm in Wisconsin is by flickruser lesliebyk who is originally from Wisconsin, but now lives in Oklahoma (a nice tie up with my last blog about an American state!). You can see more of Leslie's photos at her photo stream.

The photo of Milwaukee's skyline is by flickruser Amy Puzia. You can see more of Amy's photos at her photo stream.

Thanks to both Amy and Leslie for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.
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