Wisconsin: A Center of the World

Picture of Jim Leary, taken by Jeff Miller/UW–Madison University Communications  

In 1925 the journalist Konrad Bercovici traversed America, chronicling the cultural contributions of diverse peoples to the nation. Wisconsin prompted his exultation: “There is not a single nation on earth that is not represented … One can literally pass through Wisconsin with any language one happens to possess, sure in advance of finding someone to speak to.”

In late spring 2001 Randy Tallmadge gathered his extended Ho Chunk family in a place where their people had come for generations to honor water spirits and dramatize ceaseless relationships: the reliance of human beings on water; the recognition that rain drops falling on Wisconsin swell lakes and rivers, join the waters of the world, generate clouds, return again as rain.

Words, ceremonies and stories – our languages, our folklore – characterize and conjoin us whoever and wherever we are. Wisconsin, like every other place, is distinctive yet connected. A source of, and a repository for, rich cultural traditions. A center of the world.

I began to grasp these truths in Rice Lake, where I was born and raised. Once the site of wild rice encampments, Rice Lake became a French fur trading post in the late eighteenth century, then a logging town in the post-Civil War era, before evolving into the Northwoods farming, manufacturing, resort, and college community it has been since the nineteenth century. As I grew up I encountered a staggering range of languages and folklore.

“What’s your nationality?” was one of the first questions I recall hearing as a kindergartener. By then I knew I was Irish and, with help from my dad, I had begun to match surnames with ethnicity. Gagner was French Canadian, Destache was Belgian, Cooper was English, Eidesmoe was Norwegian, Ahonen was Finnish, Ivanauskas was Lithuanian, Bandli was Swiss, Schaubslager was German, Juza was Bohemian, Rogowski was Polish, Evitch was Croatian, DeGidio was Italian, and Benavides was Mexican American. And there were German and eastern European Jews with a range of surnames: Meskin, Parker, Shilkrot, Stein. Many Ojibwe and metís people had French names: Guibord, Quaderer, Rousseau. And up the road near Spooner, the African-American Chaney family ran a tavern. By the summer of 1975 Southeast Asian refugees were making their way into the area, just as Chinese sojourners had come a century earlier.

Roaming mom and pop grocery stores I often overheard locals whose first language was not English ordering jars of sill (Norwegian for pickled herring) or commenting on their craving for Schmierkäse (German for cottage cheese – sometimes spelled “smearcase” on handwritten signs). In the polyglot atmosphere of church dinners, powwows, friends’ homes, and fairs I sampled kolacky, fry bread, and pea soup. Live radio shows on WJMC yielded Polish fiddling, Swiss yodeling, and Swedish accordion tunes.

Like many indigenous and converted “cheeseheads” I absorbed such experiences and never thought much about their cultural origins and regional peculiarities until I went to school outside Wisconsin and discovered that my hometown friends’ names were “weird,” that some of my expressions seemed “foreign,” that not everyone sang “In Heaven There Is No Beer” or danced the polka, and that I “talked funny.” Rather than change my ways, I began to investigate them, pursuing a Ph.D. in Folklore and American studies, reading widely, delving into archival collections, and documenting the lives and folklore of the Upper Midwest’s remarkable peoples.

Other humanities scholars at UW–Madison – anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, folklorists, geographers, historians, landscape architects, linguists, specialists in material culture and in ethnic studies – share the conviction that one of the tasks of a great university is to tell the story of its region’s peoples. Together we have created the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, to teach, research, and develop archival collections and public programs regarding the languages and folklore of the Upper Midwest, those unique and shared human expressions that make our region a center of the world.

Jim Leary, a folklore and Scandinavian studies professor at UW–Madison, is co-director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.

Photo credit: Jeff Miller/UW–Madison University Communications

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Last updated: February 25, 2004