Skip to main content


Wisconsin's industrial towns and cities are a patchwork of urban ethnic villages, neighborhoods comprising blocks of well-kept, modest frame houses with churches and taverns on the street corners. The church basement and the corner bar, much like the churches and crossroads taverns in Wisconsin's rural areas, have served their communities as twin hubs of social life. Those communities often have an ethnic dimension.

Whether expressed through church, tavern, or home, the role of ethnic identity remains prominent in Wisconsin. Fourth- and fifth-generation Americans in Wisconsin are still quite cognizant of their ethnic origins, as pure or as varied as they may be. It is very common in Wisconsin to be asked when first meeting someone the ethnic provenance of one's last name. Not only are there recent immigrants who speak Spanish, Lao, or Hmong, but German, Polish, Norwegian, and the Walloon dialect of French are still spoken in some Wisconsin homes by families whose forbears immigrated generations ago. In folk dance groups and ethnic orchestras, ethnic identity is taught to Wisconsin children, an important reason why ethnicity remains so pervasive in the state.

The varied traditions of the people who have made the state their home have influenced one another. The Belgians of southern Door County have embraced the brass-band dance music of their Czech neighbors in Kewaunee County, while the Czech Catholic parish picnics in the area serve up the Belgians' booyah soup from 60-gallon cauldrons. Some Old World folkways such as the making of Norwegian Hardanger fiddles and the weaving of Latvian sashes have been preserved or revived. Other traditions such as polka music and dancing or quilting are truly American, having developed from a mixture, a creolization of the contributions of various culture groups now living side by side in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin folklife continues to evolve and to be enriched by new immigration. Refugees from wars and political oppression continue to find a haven in the state. Wisconsin in 1998 had America's second largest population of Hmong, Southeast Asian refugees who actively pursued their unique music, craft, and social customs in the new homeland, as well as one of the major settlements of Tibetans. Latino populations in the state had increased markedly in preceding decades, the largest being of Mexican origin.

The Wisconsin program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and its restaging in Madison as the Wisconsin Folklife Festival were auspicious events to honor the many people who preserve Wisconsin's folklife and to observe Wisconsin's sesquicentennial of statehood. It was a challenging task to represent the folklife of the five million residents of Wisconsin in a single event involving only ten or twelve dozen people. The program participants were all considered to be outstanding bearers of traditions significant in Wisconsin, all evidence of the natural, cultural, and historical forces that have molded Wisconsin's unique and vital folklife.

Richard March and Thomas Vennum were Curators, and Ruth Olson, Anne Pryor, and Arlene Reiniger were Program Coordinators.

The Wisconsin program was made possible by and was produced in cooperation with the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Wisconsin Sesquicentennial Commission on the occasion of Wisconsin's 150th anniversary of statehood. Wisconsin corporate contributors included AT&T, SC Johnson Wax, and The Credit Unions of Wisconsin.

Previous | Next >

Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, sustainability projects, educational outreach, and more.