The State of Wisconsin

AT A GLANCE

Name: Wisconsin is believed to be taken from one of three possible Indian words—Ouisconsin, Mesconsing, or Wishknosing. The words’ meanings are unclear.
Nickname: Badger State
Capital: Madison
Size: 56,145 sq. mi. (145,414 sq km)
Population: 5,771,337 (2015 est)
Statehood: Wisconsin became the 30th state on May 29, 1848.
Electoral votes: 10 (2016)
U.S. representatives: 9 (until 2016)
State tree: sugar maple
State flower: wood violet
State peace symbol: mourning dove
Highest point: Timms Hill, 1,951 ft. (595 m)

Wisconsin map

THE PLACE

Wisconsin is a Midwest state located along the Great Lakes. Wisconsin borders Lake Michigan in the east and Lake Superior to the north. Wisconsin’s most populous city, Milwaukee, is on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Southeastern Wisconsin has the most fertile soil in the state. Central and western Wisconsin are characterized by gently rolling plains, while northern Wisconsin is dotted with many small lakes. The land around Lake Superior is a level plain that gradually rises. Southwestern Wisconsin is full of steep hills, ridges, and limestone bluffs along the Mississippi River.

Approximately 15,000 lakes and waterfalls are located throughout Wisconsin, and almost half the state is forested. Wisconsin’s summers are warm but short, and its winters are usually long and snowy. Along the edges of Lakes Michigan and Superior, moist winds keep temperatures more moderate. Southeastern Wisconsin is the state’s warmest region.

Wisconsin’s greatest natural resource is its fertile soil. The state also has deposits of sand, gravel, dolomite, granite, iron, lead, copper, and zinc.

Facts and Firsts

  • Southwestern Wisconsin’s Kickapoo River, which twists and turns for nearly 120 miles (196 km), is often called “the most crooked river in the world.”
  • Wisconsin produces about one-third of the cheese and about one-quarter of the butter produced in the United States.
  • Wisconsin has the oldest state constitution of any state west of the Allegheny Mountains. The document went into effect in 1848.
  • Wisconsin was home to the nation’s first hydroelectric power plant, which began harnessing the energy of the Fox River in 1882.
  • In 1884, Baraboo was the site of the first Ringling Brothers Circus.
  • Seymour, which claims to be the birthplace of the American hamburger on a bun (which first was made there in 1885), boasts a Hamburger Hall of Fame. Seymour holds an annual Burger Festival in August with a hamburger-eating contest and a hamburger parade.

THE PAST

Many of Wisconsin’s names for its towns, counties, and natural features come from Native American groups that lived there before the arrival of Europeans. The three largest of these groups were the Winnebago, Dakota, and Menominee.

The first European explorer was the Frenchman Jean Nicolet, who arrived in 1634 from French Canada in search of a water route to Asia. In 1660, Father Rene Menard, the first French missionary, arrived and established a mission near present-day Ashland. Soon others came to the region to trade furs with the Native Americans. In 1754, the French and Indian Wars began, and the French and their Native American allies fought the British for control of North America. France lost control of Wisconsin, as well as most of its land east of the Mississippi River, to the British.

The Wisconsin area remained under British rule until the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, when Wisconsin’s land became part of U. S. territory. In the 1820s, lead ore was discovered in southwestern Wisconsin. Settlers began to arrive from all over the country to mine the ore, which was used to make paint and shot for guns and cannons.

By 1848, when Wisconsin became a state, its population had increased dramatically as settlers came to seek opportunities on the frontier. Many settlers fought hard for the Union cause during the Civil War. By 1870, dairy farming had become Wisconsin’s leading economic activity, and farmers joined together to work in cooperatives, or large groups.

One of the most famous periods in Wisconsin’s history began around the turn of the century. In 1900, Robert M. La Follette was elected governor, and Wisconsin’s Progressive Era began. During the next 50 years, Wisconsin was the first state to pass many laws designed to protect workers and citizens. Wisconsin was the first state to hold direct primary elections, open a library for state legislators, regulate railroads and utilities, provide pensions for retired teachers, introduce kindergarten for children, end the death penalty, and establish a minimum wage for workers.

In the 1950s, Wisconsin’s agricultural industry declined in economic importance. Increased imports of beef from other countries and the American public’s switch to a lower-fat diet hurt Wisconsin’s beef and dairy farms. At the same time, manufacturing became more important to the economy, and the population moved from rural to metropolitan areas.

To pay for education, welfare, and other social services, Wisconsin introduced its first sales tax in 1961. A state lottery was adopted in 1987 to help raise government revenue.

THE PRESENT

Manufacturing is now Wisconsin’s most profitable activity. Machinery (including engines, power cranes, and heating and cooling equipment) is the leading manufactured product. Wisconsin also manufactures paper products such as cardboard and tissue paper.

Manufactured food products include cheese and butter. Wisconsin also produces most of the country’s ice cream. Canned vegetables and beer are other important food products processed in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is most famous for its dairy farms, which provide more than half of the state’s farm income. Fertile, grassy land helps Wisconsin remain a leading milk producer, even though the number of dairy farms has decreased during the past 50 years. Beef cattle and hogs are valuable livestock products. Wisconsin farmers grow corn, hay, barley, tobacco, wheat, apples, raspberries, and other produce.

Milwaukee is a chief port and shipping center for the Midwest. The city also ranks as a leading center of finance and health care.

Wisconsin faces challenges in meeting the funding needs of health care, education, and welfare programs. Revenue from new taxes and new industries, however, is helping to offset the losses caused by the decrease in dairy farming.

Born in Wisconsin

  • Don Ameche, actor
  • Roy Chapman Andrews, naturalist and explorer
  • Carrie Chapman Catt, woman suffragist and peace advocate
  • Tyne Daly, actress
  • Eric Heiden, athlete
  • Woodrow “Woody” Herman, bandleader
  • Robert La Follette, politician
  • Alfred Lunt, actor
  • Frederic March (Frederick Mcintyre Bickel), actor
  • John Ringling North, circus director
  • William Joseph “Pat” O’Brien, actor
  • Georgia O’Keefe, artist
  • William H. Rehnquist, jurist
  • Spencer Tracy, actor
  • Thorstein Veblen, economist
  • Orson Welles, actor and producer
  • Thornton Wilder, author
  • Frank Lloyd Wright, architect