Wisconsin is a melting pot in the middle of the country with distinct populations of Dutch, Danish, Swiss, Native American, German, Polish and Scottish peoples. No matter where you go in the state, you are sure to find ethnic enclaves, mouth-watering food and plenty of fairs and festivals celebrating everything from the Scottish Highlands and klompen dancing to polka music and German beer.
Here are a few can’t-miss ethnic heritage adventures you should schedule on your next group tour of Wisconsin.
Village and Museum
New Glarus was settled in 1845 as a colony of Switzerland.
“There are a lot of communities within the U.S. that have a lot of Swiss residents, but we are the only ones who were an official colony of Switzerland,” said Denise Anton Wright, a board member for the New Glarus Historical Society, which operates the Swiss Historical Village and Museum in New Glarus. “It is something we really cherished and promoted and valued, even though a lot of people are no longer Swiss here in the community. We still do a lot of Swiss traditions.”
The Swiss Historical Village and Museum got its start in 1938. The New Glarus Historical Society wanted to create a living-history museum celebrating the area’s Swiss heritage. The museum built its first building in 1942, a re-creation of the original community building that would have existed in the village in 1845.
Over the years, 13 more buildings were added. The Hall of History tells the immigration story of the people of Glarus, Switzerland, who came here to settle the U.S. colony in the 1840s. Other buildings re-create and pay homage to the lives of those early settlers, including a schoolhouse, a print shop — because the area had a long-running German language newspaper until the 1920s — and other buildings that house antiques and artifacts from those early days.
The outdoor museum is open May through October and includes an original settler’s cabin that was discovered inside a larger home that was being demolished back in the 1970s. Its biggest event, the Harvest Fest, is held the Sunday before Columbus Day. During the festival, costumed re-enactors talk to visitors about the history of New Glarus and demonstrate some of the integral skills that settlers relied on, like rope-making, blacksmithing and cheese making.
West Racine is known for its Danish enclave, lovingly called Kringleville because of the famous bakeries that churn out Wisconsin’s official state pastry, the kringle. Kringles are made of layers of flaky, buttery dough that are stuffed with fruit and nuts and covered in a thin layer of frosting. Pecan and almond kringles are the crowd favorites, but the pastry comes in dozens of flavors, including pumpkin, cranberry, cherry cheese, apple, apricot and chocolate chip.
The Danes first began to arrive in Wisconsin in the late 1830s because land was cheap and open for settlement, said Eileen Arnold, group tour manager for Real Racine, and they brought their love of pastry with them. By 1900, 50% of the city’s population was Danish and it was called Little Denmark.
Racine has four authentic kringle bakeries; three offer group tours. Larsen’s Bakery and Lehmann’s Bakery both do backroom bakery tours where visitors can see how the kringles are made and get free samples as well. O&H Danish Bakery doesn’t offer a full-fledged tour, but a representative will step on the tour bus and explain the history of the Danish kringle and how they are made. The rep then brings the group inside for a sample.
“So many people love the Racine kringle,” said Arnold. The best ones are made by hand in the traditional way. Each pastry has at least 32 layers of buttery pastry, shaped in a large oval and filled with delicious fillings. Former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both stopped in Racine to try the kringle. “It is a big thing. When they come in this part of Wisconsin, they always have to stop and get kringle.”
Appleton is hosting its 38th annual Oktoberfest celebration September 27-28. Sponsored by the Fox Cities Chamber, the event is not like a traditional Oktoberfest celebration in that it “engages the entire community as a big fundraiser so they get a lot of different organizations and service groups participating in the events, so there is a lot of ethnic culture that way,” said Tara Brzozowski, director of public relations for the event.
The event started in 1981 as a brainstorm between the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce and the downtown retail association. The two organizations were looking for a way to bring people downtown to explore the local businesses. Oktoberfest is now a two-day event and is one of the largest Oktoberfest celebrations in Wisconsin. More than 200,000 people attend.
One of the biggest draws to the event, besides the Spaten Oktoberfest beer, is the music. The event has seven stages with different bands playing all day long. The bands come from all across the Midwest, including Chicago, and they play everything from traditional German polka music and oldies to hip hop and indie. There is also a family fun stage that features kid-friendly entertainers and musicians. A Friday night classic car show called License to Cruise launches the Oktoberfest activities.
The festival has 100 food booths that are all run by nonprofit organizations. The groups partner with food vendors to raise money for their varied causes. Along with German beers, the event likes to feature a variety of Wisconsin microbrews so that there is a little something for every palate. General proceeds from the event go into a grant program that gives back $50,000 annually to the community.
Milwaukee Highland Games
Wisconsin’s Scottish clans gather every year for the Highland Games, where bagpipes are welcome, colorful tartans are a must and haggis tacos are not out of the question. The Milwaukee Highland Games are held the first Saturday of June each year and attract Scottish people and those who just identify with Scotland from all across the Midwest.
Milwaukee’s Highland Games have been going strong since 1871, when the games were held on the lakefront and people would come up by steamer from Chicago to attend.
“Highland games come from Scotland at a time where clans would compete against each other for prestige and honors,” said Dave Berger, spokesman for the event. “So its roots go way back in terms of celebrating culture and history and things of that sort.”
The original idea behind the Highland Games was to have athletes from the different clans come together for heavy game competition, like the infamous caber toss, where competitors try to flip a very long and heavy telephone pole end over end, and other feats of strength.
“Those were really warrior tests,” said Berger. They determined who were the best leaders and who could flip a tree over a creek to help troops cross faster.
The Milwaukee event also features a clan village, where visitors can determine the history and heritage of their own clans, and an area with vendors where people can shop for tartans or other Scottish heritage items. More than 20 bagpipe bands come to compete, and there is a Highland Dance competition. Visitors can also try their hand at archery and axe-throwing or learn to play cricket. The 2019 event will also feature the Welsh Club of Wisconsin, which will present Welsh culture and some rugby. The sheepdog demonstration is also a big hit.
Cedar Grove was settled in the 1840s by immigrants from Denmark. Settlers in the area were from Gelderland on the west side of Holland.
“A lot of us came to America for religious freedom,” said Beth Heuver, cultural liaison for the Holland Guild. “The Dutch Reformed Church in Holland was being persecuted a little bit, so they had people coming over here.”
The first Holland Festival celebrated Cedar Grove’s centennial in 1947 and included people in Dutch costumes, Dutch food, klompen dancing (with wooden shoes), street sweeping, music and a parade down Main Street.
During the Holland Festival, the town of 2,000 people swells to more than 10,000. Visitors come from around the area to celebrate their Dutch heritage. The festival itself is dry. The organizers wanted a strictly family-friendly event. It includes a fun run, lots of traditional food and an art fair. There’s a parade on Saturday where participants scrub the streets, which is a throwback to old Dutch market days where vendors wanted to make sure the street in front of their stalls was clean.
One of the big draws is Oliebollen, or Dutch doughnut holes. The treat is about the size of a walnut, deep fried and sugared.
“It’s wonderful,” said Heuver. “They have them with raisins or without raisins. Our Oliebollen stand starts frying three days before the festival because they [Oliebollen] are so popular, they have to do that just to keep up. I can’t tell you how many thousands of those little things go out.”
The festival also has hamburgers and brats. Much of the food offered in the park is sponsored by community groups trying to raise money. The event also features the handiwork of Luke Traver, Wisconsin’s very own maker of wooden shoes; and vendors are on hand to sell Holland’s trademark Delft pottery, which is white and blue, and other Dutch souvenirs.