When Wisconsin was introduced as the thirtieth state in 1848, there was little in the territory besides a forested wilderness. Since then, much has changed. As a testimony to some of that change, plus an area dedicated to the inhabitants that have lived in the region a considerable time before statehood, the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison tells the tale of America’s Dairy Land.
What can I say? I like museums, and when I discovered one standing in the shadow of the State Capitol Building, well, lets just say it was an easy sell. That being said, I really don’t like navigating the streets of downtown Madison, especially when I’m relying on Siri to find my destination. However, I arrived safely and was able to relax and examine the exhibits with no stress.
I think the first thing that strikes me, as I enter the building, is how mundane the first floor appears. I feel my heart drop as I survey a practically empty room, having journeyed all the way to Madison to find nothing but pictures hanging in a vacant space. As the attendant behind the counter gives me an overview of the Museum, my disappointment is, most likely, evident.
I’ll explain-it does get better. The first floor is an exhibit showcasing Wisconsin’s recreational past times. I believe the only artifact, if you can call it that, is a soft ball uniform. Besides that, I briefly glance at pictures of hunting and fishing expeditions, as I’m quite disinterested.
I sigh as I enter the elevator and leave the first floor, anticipating much more of the same on the next three levels, at least the entrance fee was only a modest donation. However, the next floor gradually quenches my thirst for artifacts, not all at once, kind of like a well thought out symphony with the quietest of strings reaching your eardrums, winding its way to a crescendo.
The exhibit starts with meager arrowheads and copper tools, pointing towards the ancient nomadic woodland people. However, as I wander further, there are more elaborate and interesting artifacts. The floor tells the tale of the Native Americans indigenous to Wisconsin through tools, clothing, musical instruments, weapons and recreated shelters.
Now I’m happy.
Yet, I’m happier when I reach the third floor. As the elevator opens, I stand face to face with the creature that has bestowed the national Identity of Wisconsin on my native land. Well, I think he’s just a piece of plastic, but you understand what is meant. Of course, Wisconsin is not the leader in dairy production anymore, although we hold the title in cranberry bogs.
The third floor is a treat, with details on anything having to do with commerce in the state. From fur trading to Harley Davidson, this floor features literally any significant home-grown enterprise that, at one time or another, helped residents earn a living. The artifacts are diverse, I find a lumberjack’s axe, yet, a Nash Automobile(a company that became AMC, eventually bought out by Chrysler) reside on the same floor.
What I love, as I look over a placard, is the story of how Wisconsin became America’s Dairy Land. The conditions of the region were believed to be Ideal for such an enterprise, Although many a cash cropper weren’t gung-ho about the Idea. After all, it was a seven-day a week job with strictly set hours, you can’t simply bypass a milking. Trust me, as I periodically farmed as a child, that was never an option.
I leave the third floor and head towards the final level, by now, as my head is swimming with Wisconsin borne companies, I forgot what the attendant told me the theme was on the final floor. My memory is quickly jostled as I spy some football jerseys, political posters, and state fair exhibits.
This floor is probably the most diverse, as it exhibits interesting bits in the realm of politics and entertainment. There is a lot of information on the Progressive Party, as it once made a bid for the White House. There is also a State Fair feature, which I find interesting, and a classic interior of a tavern, as a recording of a dated radio show fills the background.
This is a lot of fun. I read about state and county fairs, learning of their role both socially and developmentally, as farmers shared methods and information with one another at these events. It is amazing how most of these, developed in the early years of the state, have survived and evolved.
The progressive party, of which there is plenty of information and posters highlighting the subject, is another huge topic on this level, It made a push for the White House during the 1924 campaign, trying to bring about government ownership of the railroads and electric utilities. Wisconsin Senator Robert M. Lafollete ran on the party ticket and recieved 16.6% of the popular vote in the 1924 election. You may not agree with the political theory, yet, the fact that he garnered a huge chunk of the vote makes it impressive.
I often wonder why we are stuck with a two-party system. If a new party rises to power, the one it supplants collapses and disappears from the political landscape. Call me idealistic, but with 200 million different points of view, it seems hard to believe two parties can represent the entire lot of eligible voters. I know, that was kind of political. It’s relevant as I view the Capitol building from a giant window.
I leave feeling enlightened. I learned new things and reaffirmed my knowledge on other subjects. I came accross some artifacts that I never realized existed. Case in point, a native american courting flute used by young men to court women, chicks dug musicians even back then. Also, although I knew Wisconsin is the national leader, I had no idea 60% of the nations cranberry production happens right here.
If you are in Madison and want to be entertained or learn some interesting facts, I highly recommend this place. It would be great addition to a tour of the capitol building, as it is literally a stone’s throw away. There is no price for admission just a voluntary donation for the fee.