During the 1820s lead-mining boom, the many miners who came from nearby states were called ‘badgers’ for their subterranean activities. Following statehood in 1848 and the Civil War, immigrants poured in – from Germany and Scandinavia most notably. The Badger State was soon known for its beer, butter, cheese and paper.
While Wisconsin still leads the nation in the number of dairy farms and clings to the ‘top cheesemaker’ title, its role is under threat. Midsize farms here, as throughout the country, are having a tough time: almost a third of Wisconsin’s dairies have shut down in the past 10 years.
In 1836, Wisconsin was made a territory, and the legislators chose a compromise site for the capital, midway between the Milwaukee and western centers of population; thus the city of Madison was founded. By 1840 population in the territory had risen above 130,000, but the people, fearing higher taxes and stronger government, rejected propositions for statehood four times. In addition, politicians were at first unwilling to yield Wisconsin claims to a strip of land around Chicago and to what is now the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. However, hopes that statehood would bring improved communications and prosperity became dominant; the claims were yielded, and Wisconsin achieved statehood in 1848. The state constitution provided protection for indebted farmers, limited the establishment of banks, and granted liberal suffrage. These measures and the state’s rich soil attracted immigrants from Europe.
The influx of Germans to Wisconsin was especially heavy, and some parts of the state assumed the tidy semi-German look that has persisted along with an astonishing survival of the German language. Liberal leaders, like Carl Schurz, came after the failure of the Revolution of 1848 in Germany and added to the intellectual development of the state. Contributions were also made, then and later, by Irish, Scandinavians, Germans who had previously emigrated to the Volga region of Russia, and Poles.
The state’s development was not always smooth. Although the state constitution provided for a system of free public schools, the principle was implemented only slowly. Similarly, the Univ. of Wisconsin (chartered 1848) was slow to assume importance. After a referendum (1852) ended the state constitutional ban on banking, farmers and many others mortgaged their property to buy railroad stocks, only to suffer distress when the state’s railways went bankrupt in the Panic of 1857.