Wisconsin may be the home of the "Butterburger" and "Cheeseheads," but this leading dairy producer with a long history of fur-trading, heavy industry, beer and big-time football also has a storied political tradition as the home of the modern "progressive" movement in politics.
Milwaukee, situated on the western shore of Lake Michigan, is the largest city, with about 600,000 residents. Situated on a large lake inland, Madison is the state capital, home of the flagship campus of the University of Wisconsin and counts about 250,000 residents. Green Bay, at the base of a deep bay opening to Lake Michigan and home of the Green Bay Packers football team, has about 105,000 residents. All other cities are smaller than 100,000.
This state of 5.8 million people is 82 percent white, 6 percent black, 3 percent of Asian descent – with 7 percent identifying as Hispanic.
Old-line manufacturing has accounted for much of the state's industry over the past century. Three of the state's five largest industrial sectors are related to paper and printing. And among the 37 largest enterprises, 36 are in manufacturing such as electrical equipment-making – the leader, with major exporters such as Rockwell Automation and Generac Power Systems and others making industrial controls – as well as foundries, machine shops and metal fabrication. Factories that turn paper into packaging are No. 2, and paper mills No. 3. Aware of this reliance on traditional manufacturing, the state is exploring new development.
In the state known for “Cheesehead” football fans wearing hats resembling blocks of cheddar cheese, dairy also is a major driver of Wisconsin's economy. The state ranks first in cheese-making – cheddar, American and Muenster in particular – and cranberries, snap beans and corn for silage. Agriculture accounts for more than 350,000 jobs in the state, with 77,000 farms averaging 195 acres. The dairy industry generates more than $20 billion a year – which the Farm Bureau likes to say exceeds Florida in citrus or Idaho in potatoes.
Nearly a third of Wisconsin adults have bachelor’s degrees or higher. In addition to 13 four-year campuses of the University of Wisconsin, the state is home to many private colleges, including Marquette University, Milwaukee School of Engineering and Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
The state traces its history to French explorers arriving in the early 1600s – soon after the Pilgrims were settling in Massachusetts. Samuel de Champlain, governor of what was then New France and now Canada, dispatched Etienne Brule and Jean Nicolet to determine whether a water route to the Pacific Ocean existed. There was none, but there was much fur to be traded. From 1650 to 1850, the region's economy was built around fur trading with Indian tribes.
The name Wisconsin came from a word that traders heard Native Americans speaking. It is believed to mean “River of Red Stone.” The French and British went to war over rights to the fur trade, and when peace finally was declared in 1763, the British prevailed. The word became “Ouisconsin.” In the strife, several Indian tribes such as the Ho-Chunk and Meskwaki were reduced to fractions of their earlier numbers. And over-hunting had taken its toll on fur-bearing animals, the fur trade moving further west and north, Wisconsin out of the picture by 1850.
Wisconsin was admitted to the union in 1848 as the 30th state.
As European immigrants poured into the state in the 19th century, many settled on farms and some worked in lumbering and mining. The state earned its Badger State nickname from itinerant lead miners who burrowed into hills for shelter rather than building homes.
Wheat had been an important crop early on, but insect infestations devastated the crop and farmers turned to dairy production. By 1899, more than 90 percent of Wisconsin’s farms kept cows. University faculty developed the first test for butterfat content. By 1915, Wisconsin produced more butter and cheese than any other state.
It's fitting that “The Home of the Butterburger,” the Culver’s fast-food restaurant chain, is a Wisconsin favorite – Wisconsin cheddar, and butter, are essential ingredients.
Yet even before dairy, beer making became a hallmark of the state. Brewing started there in the 1830s, and by the 1890s, nearly every community had at least one functioning brewery – a heritage revived in recent times with the advent of small craft brewers in towns across the state. Schlitz, once a leading national brand, billed itself as “The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous.”
Among Wisconsin's most famous sons: Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose home, Taliesin, is a tourist attraction near the artistic community of Spring Green, and magician Harry Houdini.
The majority of the state's adults are Protestants, with Catholics accounting for about 25 percent – though fewer than half say religion represents a very important part of their lives.
The state also has a rich political history.
At a meeting convened in Ripon, Wisconsin, to create a new political party committed to preventing the expansion of slavery, the Republican Party was established there in 1854.
Later in the 19th century, as industrialization along the lakeshore north of Chicago brought harsh working conditions and hours, a "progressive" movement was born in Wisconsin.
"Fighting Bob" La Follette was its leader, stemming from an incident in 1891 when a Republican leader offered the young lawyer a bribe to fix a court case. For a decade, La Follette traveled the state speaking out against crooked politicians, lumber barons and railroad interests.
He was elected governor in 1900 with pledges for reforms to protect common people.
Those who followed were called Progressive Republicans. Their most significant legislation was enacted in 1911, instituting one of the nation's first programs of worker's compensation, regulating factory safety, encouraging worker cooperatives and starting a state income tax.
Wisconsin also is the home of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, born near Appleton. He defeated Robert La Follette Jr., son of "Fighting Bob," a senator for two decades and longtime leader of the Progressive Party, and went on to lead a 1950s Cold War campaign in Washington, D.C., aimed at rooting perceived Communists from the government and entertainment industry.
The state has maintained an independent streak, splitting its vote between Republicans and Democrats for president for much of the 20th century. After supporting Democrats since 1988, Wisconsin became one of the Democratic-leaning Midwestern states that gave Republican Donald Trump his 2016 edge in the Electoral College.