This month we continue our journey around the world within Wisconsin, where many rural communities reflect the ethnic traditions and customs practiced by the immigrants who settled here starting in the mid-1800s. These communities celebrate their heritage with pride, creating opportunities for visitors to explore and experience different cultures without ever leaving the state. In the March issue we took a look at Sweden via Stockholm, Norway via Iola, and Germany via Chippewa Falls. This month, we invite you to explore three more unique stops in Wisconsin that take you to faraway places.
Czech Republic/Slovakia via Phillips
The northern city of Phillips, where Price Electric Cooperative is headquartered, was founded in 1878 by Czech immigrants who resettled here after the once-thriving lumber industry in this area had cleared much of the land, making it suitable for farming. The farming lifestyle more closely resembled what the Czech immigrants had left in Eastern Europe, and they created an active community in their new home with a fraternal organization where they practiced and preserved their ethnic heritage.
Those ties to the homeland are still evident today. Perhaps the most visible of them is a monument to Lidice, a small village near Prague that was completely eradicated by the Nazis in June 1942 in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, appointed as Reich protector of the former state of Czechoslovakia after the Nazis overtook the area during World War II.
Information—or rather, misinformation—that the small village somehow played a role in harboring the assassins made its way to Hitler, who was determined to make an example of Lidice for any other groups that resisted Nazi rule. The men of Lidice were all killed and the women sent to concentration camps, as were any children deemed unsuitable for “Germanization.” The village was bulldozed and burned to the ground.
As it was meant to terrorize, the atrocity was widely publicized by the Nazis. The images were horrifying, and for the tight-knit Czech/Slovak/Moravian community in Phillips, also deeply personal.
“There were a lot of people that lived here who had family in Lidice,” said Jody Kadlecek, a member of Price Electric Cooperative and chair of this year’s Czech-Slovak Festival. Phillips’ Czech community built a memorial to remember the people of Lidice and serve as a symbol of freedom. The monument was completed and dedicated in 1944; a rededication in 1984 led to the creation of the Czechoslovakian Community Festival, which evolved into the Czech-Slovak Festival that is celebrated every year in Phillips.
(Left) The Lidice Monument in Sokol Park, Phillips, stands in memory of the people of Lidice, a village that was destroyed by the Nazis in 1942. The three rods at the left represent the Czech, Moravian, and Slovak peoples who lived in the former Czechoslovakia; the granite pillar represents the United Nations, into which the three rods are leaning for support; the evergreen swath symbolizes everlasting life for the Lidice victims; and the round stone symbolizes hope that Lidice would rise again. Photo courtesy of the Czech-Slovak Festival. (Right) Participants in the Miss Czech-Slovak Pageant wear the traditional kroj folk dresses. Photo courtesy of the Czech-Slovak Festival.
The Wisconsin State Czech-Slovak Queen Pageant is held in conjunction with Phillips’ Czech-Slovak Festival. In front are the “little sisters,” who get to shadow a pageant candidate. Photo courtesy of the Czech-Slovak Festival.
“Part of the festival’s mission is to not forget about the past and to try to preserve it for those that come after us,” Kadlecek said.
The memorial still plays a key role in the annual Czech-Slovak Festival, held the third full weekend in June each year, as the festivities are preceded by a Lidice Memorial Service on the Friday evening of the festival. This year’s service will take on special meaning as 2022 marks the 80th anniversary of the Lidice massacre and destruction. A special guest will be the Czech consulate general from the Czech Consulate in Chicago.
While the monument is the foundation of the festival, not all is somber with this annual celebration. Held this year June 17–18, the Czech-Slovak Festival is a fun-filled weekend that incorporates many elements of Czech culture, including traditional food like Czech brats and sauerkraut, music by the Czech Slovak Community Singers, and displays of kroj, the traditional Slovak folk costumes worn by both men and women. There are also historical displays as well as information about genealogy and historical research.
The festival is also the site of the Wisconsin State Czech Slovak Queen Pageant, which draws young women of Czech/Slovak lineage from all over the state. The winner serves as an ambassador of the Czech/Slovak culture, traveling throughout the state and sharing her heritage before going on to compete at the national pageant in Nebraska the following summer.
Another major competition held in conjunction with this festival is the State Kolache Baking Contest, open to anyone in Wisconsin who wants to test their skills at creating the traditional Czech pastry. Not a baker? Not a problem—to enter the Kolachy Eating Contest, all you need is an appetite.
The Lidice Memorial is located at Sokol Park, 140 Fifield St., Phillips, WI 54555. The Czech-Slovak Festival will be held June 17–18 at Elk Lake Park, 585 County Rd W H, Phillips, WI 54555. To learn more, visit www.czech-slovak-festival.com.
Norway via Westby
In the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin, Westby, home to Vernon Electric Cooperative’s headquarters, reflects the Norwegian culture established by the immigrants who settled this community in 1848. Many of these immigrants came from the Biri and Gausdal parts of Norway, drawn to the familiar-looking hilly terrain.
“It reminded them a lot of the areas they came from back in Norway,” said Blaine Hedberg, president of the Westby Area Historical Society. “I’ve been to Norway 15 or 16 times myself, and it’s amazing—some of those areas look just like Vernon County.”
Hedberg has extensively researched and written about the history and heritage of Westby, which got its name from Tosten Olsen Westby and his son, Ole. Tosten was one of the Biri immigrants who arrived in 1849, buying 40 acres of land on what is known as Coon Prairie. Later, Ole put up a frame building used as a store and hotel, and it came to be known as the Westby Stop.
The Westby Stop eventually became Westby, which retains a distinctive Norwegian identity today. Norwegian flags frequently fly alongside American flags, and many shops and houses are adorned with Vikings, the gnome-like goblins of Scandinavian folklore known as Nisse, and Velkommen signs painted with the swirly flourishes of traditional rosemaling.
Many of the shops and restaurants themselves are immersions into Scandinavian culture, most notably Dregne’s Scandinavian Gifts. This longstanding business attracts visitors from all over the Midwest, who come to browse the authentic Scandinavian gift items including clogs, collectibles, Christmas gnomes, and even candy.
Another can’t-miss stop with Norwegian flair is Borgen’s Cafe, which serves up traditional meatballs and lefse meals and is known for its wide selection of homemade pies. Visitors might even find themselves sitting within earshot of a table of regulars chatting in Norwegian, as Hedberg did on a recent visit.
“We have generations of people in this community that go way back,” he said. “The interrelationships in the community are incredible. It’s the most amazing community I’ve ever researched.”
Norway is also reflected in Westby’s signature events. The Norwegian immigrants brought their skiing traditions with them, forming the all-volunteer Westby Ski Club in 1922 and holding their first ski-jumping tournament a year later. Now known as the Snowflake Ski Club, the club is still operated by all volunteers, and it hosts a ski tournament every February that attracts some of the best ski jumpers in the world. Many Olympic and world-class ski jumpers have competed at the Snowflake Ski Jumping Contest.
(Left) Syttende Mai celebrations include demonstrations of rosemaling, the decorative Norwegian folk painting of Norway. Photo courtesy of the Westby Area Historical Society. (Right) Westby residents have been celebrating Syttende Mai since the community was founded. This image is from the 2000 Syttende Mai parade. Photo courtesy of the Westby Area Historical Society.
Norwegian immigrants brought their skiing heritage to Westby and established what came to be known as the Snowflake Ski Club. The club has hosted a ski-jumping tournament every year since 1923. Photo courtesy of the Snowflake Ski Club.
Another big event on the Westby calendar is Syttende Mai, Norwegian Constitution Day. This celebration marks the signing of the Constitution of Norway on May 17, 1914, and it had been observed with fanfare in Westby on and off since the community was founded. Syttende Mai was relaunched as an annual celebration in 1969. Planned this year for May 14–15, the celebration features traditional food like the rich Norwegian pudding known as rommegrot, and an arts and crafts fair featuring lots of rosemaling and wood carving, educational offerings, and the crowning of the Syttende Mai princess.
Syttende Mai is also typically a busy time for the Westby Area Historical Society, located in the historic Thoreson House. Open on Saturdays from Memorial Day through Labor Day and by appointment at other times, the museum has exhibits on, among other topics, the area’s ski jumping heritage and Syttende Mai celebrations through the years, as well as displays of Norwegian immigrant artifacts.
“One of the big things we’ve done in the last couple of years is put together a genealogy research room, with family history, church records, school attendance records, so if someone’s researching their family we can help them,” Hedberg said. “Last Syttende Mai we had a constant stream of people coming into the museum, saying ‘My family’s Norwegian and I don’t know anything about them,’ and we could help most of them.”
For more about Westby and its events, visit cityofwestby.org. To learn more about the Westby Historical Society’s offerings, visit westbywihistory.com. The Thoreson House Museum is located at 111 N. Bekkedal Ave., Westby; call 608-634-4478 to arrange a visit.
Cornwall via Mineral Point
Also in southwest Wisconsin, at the edge of Scenic Rivers Energy Cooperative’s territory, is Mineral Point, named for the “mineral” that was once plentiful in the hills around this area. That “mineral” was lead ore, and it had long been mined by Native Americans. By the mid-1820s, lead was widely used in the manufacture of paint and ammunition for the growing U.S military. This abundant, easily extracted mineral attracted thousands of settlers who hoped to cash in on the demand and make a living as miners.
Lead mining—and later, zinc mining—eventually gave way to agriculture as the dominant industry in southwest Wisconsin. However, the culture of the immigrants who mined the minerals is very much still evident in the Mineral Point community.
“As mining developed in this area, it just happened to coincide with a period in Cornwall, which is a part of Britain, when mining was declining and the mines were closing,” said Glen Ridnaur, president of the Cornish Society of Mineral Point. “They were primarily mining copper, and the copper was running out, so people were leaving Cornwall just as they were leaving Ireland because of starvation and politics and the potato famine. They began coming to Mineral Point largely because they had heard that mining was available.”
The Cornish immigrants’ mining expertise lent itself to other skills that were put to good use in the community.
“In Cornwall, most of the architecture is built out of granite because that was the stone that was available,” Ridnaur said. “When the miners came here the stone was limestone and sandstone, which to them was like cutting through butter. Many of the miners were also stonemasons, so we have a wonderful collection of stone buildings in Mineral Point, most of which were built by Cornish stonemasons.”
(Left) The Pendarvis House in Mineral Point is the centerpiece of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Pendarvis complex, a museum of Wisconsin’s early lead mining history. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Right) With its historic significance and unique culture, Mineral Point is a haven for artists. Many of the community’s stone buildings house galleries and studios, and the historic downtown has specialty shops and longstanding restaurants like the Red Rooster Café, which serves up the traditional Cornish meat pies known as pasties. Across the street is the fully restored Mineral Point Opera House, which hosts a mix of cultural, musical, visual/film, and community events year-round.
Mineral Point’s historic downtown is filled with beautiful stone buildings constructed by Cornish stonemasons.
In addition to the beautiful stone buildings in Mineral Point’s historic downtown, miners built the smaller stone cottages scattered along Shake Rag Street, the original settlement of Mineral Point. The popular story behind the street’s unusual name is that it was inspired by the miners’ wives who would shake rags from their doorways to signal to the men mining the hillside across the way that it was dinnertime.
However, Ridnaur, who has done extensive research into Cornish history, says that story is likely grounded more in marketing appeal than historical accuracy, especially considering the miners worked underground. The likelier explanation, he said, is that Shake Rag Street has a broader, historical British connection, stemming from “shag rugs”—rugs made from rags and then used as beds in the poorer parts of town.
“Essentially, Shake Rag as it applies to a geographical area refers to what someone once said back in the 1700s, ‘the unkempt edges of a community,” Ridnaur said. “What it boils down to is it’s sort of the rough, primitive part of town where people are getting by living in shacks and sleeping on rags.”
Many of the original stone buildings along historic Shake Rag Street have been restored, preserved, and repurposed. Among them is the cluster of buildings that form the State Historical Society’s Pendarvis House complex, a living history museum site that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Farther down the street, a series of nine buildings has been transformed into the Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts, a nationally known non-profit school of arts and crafts founded in 2004. This 2.5-acre campus hosts workshops, retreats, and events year-round.
Mineral Point has walking and driving tours available that make it easy to explore the city’s unique history and Cornish influence at any time of year. For an even greater immersion into Mineral Point’s Cornish culture, plan a visit for the third weekend in September for the annual Cornish Festival, which is operated by the Cornish Society.
The Cornish Festival is a family-friendly event filled with activities that teach and explore the area’s Cornish heritage, including a pop-up museum with historical displays, a pasty dinner, children’s activities at Cornish Heritage Park, and often a Cornish musical performance at the restored Mineral Point Opera House downtown. Ridnaur said special programs are frequently held at Pendarvis and Shake Rag Alley for the Arts in conjunction with the festival, and the Chamber of Commerce hosts a Taste of Mineral Point event that includes some traditional Cornish treats like pasties and the rich dessert pastries known as figgyhobbins.
One way or another, a visit to one of these unique communities will fill you with an appreciation for the ethnic traditions that shaped them.—Mary Erickson
For more information on Mineral Point, including maps for driving tours and walking tours, visit mineralpoint.com or call 608-987-3201. Pendarvis is located at 114 Shake Rag St., Mineral Point, WI and is open for tours Fridays and Saturdays from June 2–October 23. Visit pendarvishistoricsite.org or call 608-987-2122 for more information. The Cornish Society is planning a return to a full, in-person festival September 23–25, pending any further public health concerns. For updates, watch the website www.cornishfest.org or visit the Facebook page www.facebook.com/CornishFestivalMineralPoint.