In general, I like my heritage. It involves Vikings and trolls and populist politics. At festivals, tow-headed children dance
around in cute outfits.
But the food . . . not so much. When it comes to herring and lutefisk, I'd rather be Polish. Plump pierogi with sour cream
and sauteed onions — now, there's an ethnic food I can love.
Luckily, it's easy to piggyback on other cultures in the Upper Midwest. Yes, many of us came from Germany, Ireland and
On a beautiful summer day in Milwaukee, history's underdogs were having a ball.
They were listening to pianists play Chopin. They were dancing an exuberant style of polka. They were tucking into pierogi and paczki.
Call it payback time for Poles.
In 1862, a poor Norwegian couple and their four small children, including their infant son Thorvald, joined a wave of immigrants to Wisconsin, eventually settling in the coulees of Vernon County.
Vernon County was an interesting place in the 1860s. Only a generation before, Black Hawk and his band had fled through it,
hounded by militia.
They ran headlong into a slaughter that remains one of the most shameful chapters in U.S. history; today, 11 plaques mark the route, which ended near the town of Victory.
First, an elf sashayed down the street.
Behind him marched adults in bunads, the traditional Norwegian folk costume, and two shaggy little boys wearing the long noses, beards and tails of trolls.
Baton twirlers, roller-limbo skaters, polka dancers, folk dancers, fiddlers, buglers and queens of all kinds followed,
lobbing torrents of Tootsie Rolls and hard candy to the crowd along the route.
The Cornish have been good to Mineral Point.
In the 1830s, skilled tin miners from Cornwall, England, came to southwest Wisconsin, replacing the rough frontiersmen whose "badger'' digs gave the state a nickname but the town an unsavory atmosphere.
"They'd start fights just for entertainment,'' says Lisa Kreul, a tour guide at the historic site Pendarvis. "Not until the Cornish came in 1837 did the town start to settle down.''
In the 19th century, the rocky lands of Norway and Finland were a bad place to be poor.
Since the Middle Ages, Norway had been Denmark's doormat, a remote province whose own national identity, language and culture were suppressed during a time playwright Henrik Ibsen called the "400 years' night."
In 1814, Norway declared independence and adopted a democratic constitution, though it wasn't really independent until it
shook off ties to Sweden in 1905. Meanwhile, its population was increasing, mostly squeezed onto the slivers of land that
could be cultivated.
Once, people went through hell to get to Stockholm, Wis.
It's different nowadays. It's only a joy ride away from the Twin Cities, and the streets of this pretty hamlet on Lake Pepin
are lined with sports cars and motorcycles on weekends.
There are shops, galleries, inns, a pub; it's the place to go for a room with a view or vroom with a brew.
In the 17th century, when Europeans began to flee religious and economic oppression, the New World was not an untouched wilderness.
In the wooded forests beyond Lake Superior, the Dakota and Ojibwe tapped maple trees for sugar, harvested wild rice and
hunted the abundant game.
Many of them cultivated crops and lived in villages, like the Europeans. They were careful stewards of the land, reseeding rice beds and maintaining healthy soil through controlled burns, just as state agencies do today.
It's hard to imagine life without the Germans.
When they crossed the ocean, they brought hot dogs, potato salad and beer gardens. Thanks to them, we have Christmas trees, kindergartens and fairy tales.
Their traditions now are woven into the fabric of Upper Midwest life. To paraphrase the words of John F. Kennedy, we are all Germans.
It took plenty of sisu to settle Embarrass.
It's the consistently coldest spot in the Lower 48; arctic blasts blow up against the Laurentian Divide and pool over the township, which set a record of 64 below in 1996. The soil is poor, allowing farmers to do little more than grow potatoes and raise a few cows.
The very word Embarrass is French for obstacle, and comes from French voyageurs' opinion of the local river: curvy as a corkscrew and usually too low to navigate.
In the Upper Midwest, the Swiss are insignificant — in numbers. Not many left the Old World. But the ones who did have had more success transplanting their traditions than nearly any other immigrant group.
In the southwest Wisconsin town of New Glarus, Germanic platitudes unfurl in Gothic script on the plaster of half-timbered
chalets, over window boxes overflowing with geraniums. A little baker hangs over the doorway of the Bäckerei, where glass
cases display almond-flavored brätzeli and anise springerle cookies.
The sign over the town fire department reads "Feuerwehrhaus," and Railroad Street is Bahnhofstrasse.