Wisconsin wanderings


My great-grandfather Henry Nelson left his home state of Wisconsin in the 1870s, wended his way to Dakota Territory and homesteaded our ancestral farm. My wife and I visited Wisconsin some years ago in an effort to discover why Henry left.     

The first thing I noticed about Wisconsin was its trees. Wisconsin has more trees than you can shake a stick at. The trees out here on the barren Dakota prairie stand in straight rows because people planted them. Wisconsinites know this and joke that we prairie dwellers think that we’ve stumbled across a park whenever we see three or more trees clumped together.     

The second thing I noticed about Wisconsin was its roads. Wisconsin has no straight roads. Any Badger State road that runs both straight and true to the compass does so entirely by accident. Reading a Wisconsin roadmap is similar to studying the convoluted loops of a fingerprint.     

Wisconsin also has vast areas that are comprised of lowlands interspersed with rocky, tree-clad hills. Wisconsinites tend to call their hills “bluffs” and their sloughs “protected wetland areas.”     

Our route took us through Wisconsin Dells. We couldn’t resist taking a ride on the famous Wisconsin Ducks.

The Wisconsin Ducks are World War II-era amphibians. As their name implies, they gobble breadcrumbs tossed out by tourists and leave yucky duck doots on the sidewalk.     

That’s not true. The Ducks are, in fact, a Frankenstein conglomeration that involves a truck and a boat.

Our particular Duck was piloted by a blonde and bubbly young lady named Becky. Becky motored us out to a breathtakingly beautiful wilderness area of the Wisconsin River where she stopped the Duck and held her passengers at gunpoint until we each gave her $4.     

That’s not quite true. But, Becky did make it known that her Duck-driving gig didn’t pay very well and that the only way she would be able to afford her college tuition would be if we each bought a $4 brochure from her. I purchased one and misplaced it almost immediately.     

During our Duck ride, we were told that the Wisconsin River owes its rich brown hue to tannins. I have another theory: The Wisconsin River is made entirely of Guinness stout.     

This theory is based on my observation that Wisconsinites really like their beer. For example, while in Wisconsin we stayed with a friend of ours named Dan. One day, Joe, Dan’s Wisconsinite pal, dropped by for a visit. During his visit, Joe expressed deep concern about his personal beer supply. “I’m down to just three or four cases,” he lamented. 

Wisconsin’s beer obsession has seeped into its food. I witnessed this one evening when Dan decided to cook bratwursts. But, did he simply toss them onto the grill? Of course not. He boiled them in beer first.      

I suppose the thought process goes something like, “OK, so this bratwurst was once a living animal. Maybe if I boil it in beer, it will somehow absorb some of the brew, and that will boost my daily beer intake. This can only be good.”     

Dan also enjoys a distinctive kind of cheese called Beer Kaese. I don’t know if it contains any actual beer but can attest that it smells like old, fermented gym socks.

Dan has a philosophy regarding both beer and cheese. “There are no bad ones, only different ones,” he said.     

Dan took us to Milwaukee where we toured one of the city’s major businesses, which produces – surprise – beer. The Miller Brewing factory churns out beer with ruthless, industrial efficiency, bottling and canning about a kabillion gallons of the stuff every day, all of which is needed to satiate thirsty local Wisconsinites.

That’s not quite true. Some of the beer makes it as far as Chicago.     

We later attended a professional baseball game, featuring the Milwaukee Brewers. This event was held at – surprise again – a place called Miller Park. This classy, state-of-the-art facility was made classier by the presence of the Brewers’ mascot, a cartoonish guy named Bernie Brewer.

Bernie seemed quite hyper. Perhaps someone had spiked his beer supply with caffeine.

Another elevating part of the Brewers game was the seventh inning stretch when T-shirts were shot into the crowd and a sausage race was held.     

Speaking of sausage, I was encouraged to have a beer and a brat at the ballpark. I did so and discovered that a ballpark beer costs roughly as much as an entire keg back home.     

As my wife and I wound our way homeward, I formed a theory regarding why Henry left the Badger State. I think he grew tired of stumbling across all those parks. 

    Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry works full time for Dairy Star as a staff writer and ad salesman. Feel free to email him at [email protected].


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