From the Archive: A truly grand celebration of 150 years of Wisconsin

Madison was focal point of Sesquicentennial events

Editor’s note: In celebration of Madison Magazine’s 40th anniversary, the magazine is republishing a story each month from the archive. In honor of Wisconsin’s 170 years as a state, we’re republishing the sesquicentennial piece from December 1998. The city and entire State of Wisconsin planned many events to honor the state’s history and diverse culture.

In 1829, a brash land speculator named James Doty traveled on horseback from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien to map out a road connecting three military forts. By 1832 he had convinced the Army of the usefulness of his 300-mile route, In 1829, a brash land speculator named James Doty traveled on horseback from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien to map out a road connecting three military forts. By 1832 he had convinced the Army of the usefulness of his 300-mile route, and was marking the path that would become Military Road, a 30-foot-wide trail of stumps with crude wooden bridges over streams.

Today Military Road has been overlaid with the infrastructure of the 20th century. Much of the route, which was in use from 1837 to 1867, has evolved into highways, like Highway 18 near Mount Horeb.From the Archive: A truly grand celebration of 150 years of Wisconsin

But the road that carried traders, pioneers and Native Americans more than 100 years ago will come back to life in May and June 1998, when a covered wagon train travels its scenic path – one of the more striking ways that Wisconsin will celebrate its 150th birthday, starting next month.

Gov. Tommy Thompson has said he wants to have a Sesquicentennial event take place somewhere in Wisconsin every day of 1998, and while no one is guaranteeing 365 days’ worth of happenings, the
entire state has already caught Sesquicentennial fever.

“I’ve been awed at the level of involvement at the grassroots level,” says Dean Amhaus, executive director of the Wisconsin Sesquicentennial Commission, which has funded almost 400 projects. “The ideas and energy are flowing from every community, making this into a truly grand celebration.

By virtue of its status as the state capital, Madison will play host to a dizzying range of events. History buffs can browse museum exhibits on everyday life or immerse themselves in history come to life by mingling with Civil War veterans.From the Archive: A truly grand celebration of 150 years of Wisconsin

There are plays, musical productions and dance events. Couch potato? No problem. Be a time traveler via books, television, even the Internet. It will be downright difficult to get through 1998 without experiencing our rich history.

“This part of the country is just loaded with such fascinating history,” says Phil Martin, director of drama at Edgewood College. “So many individual stories of courage and character get lost in our
technological world.”

Staging a party of this magnitude is no small task, which is why the state set up a commission to plan events and figure out how to foot the bill, estimated at $6 million. The commission is raising money from the state Legislature and seeking private-sector donations. A surprisingly generous amount has been generated already by the “traveling billboards,” those Sesquicentennial license plates you’ve seen zipping around town.From the Archive: A truly grand celebration of 150 years of Wisconsin

The commission originally estimated it would sell 190,000 of the plates, which feature a North Woods scene, in 1997 and 1998. As of mid-fall, 285,000 sets of plates had been sold, netting $2.85 million for the commission. “At this rate. we’ll sell 400,000 plates by the end of the year, and I’m not even going to guess at what will happen in ’98,” Amhaus says.

The holiday season should bring in even more revenue. By late fall, Sesquicentennial merchandise will show up in stores. In other words, buy Dad a Sesquicentennial hat and pat yourself on the back for helping boost the state’s birthday. You’ll also be able to wrap up medallions, painted plates, specially emblazoned Winchester rifles, T-shirts and jackets.

What follows is a list that is by no means complete, but should help you start planning your Sesquicentennial year. (*Editor’s Note: We shortened the list printed in the December 1998 issue. The events listed below were in 1998 not this current year.)

Folklife festival

Wisconsin will hog the spotlight at the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival in July. The event, held on the Mall in Washington, D.C., will become a celebration of Wisconsin’s history and culture June 24-28 and July 1-5. “This is an unbelievable event,” says Amhaus. “It will draw 1 to 1.5 million people to the Mall.”

The Wisconsin Arts Board is working with the Smithsonian to determine what events and exhibits will make up this “living museum,” but you can count on a combination of performances, arts and crafts demonstrations, “foodways” – historian talk for food and the customs associated with it – and a smattering of exhibits on such Wisconsin industries as dairy farming, logging and beer-brewing

However, there is no need to rush out and buy plane tickets to Washington because the festival will be restaged on the Capitol Square and surrounding areas Aug. 20-23.

And the Wisconsin version will expand on the original, with three performance stages, a children’s activity area, workshops and craft demonstrations.

Examples: a Native American wild rice camp and a reproduction of a classic Wisconsin tavern.

Wisconsin’s festival will have an international flavor as well, with the participation of our two sister states in Japan and Germany. Both states will share some of their traditions, crafts and foods.

Along with the festival, Aug. 20-23 will mark the first time in 173 years that all six Native American tribes that live in Wisconsin, as well as the two that had lived here and left, will gather for The New Dawn of Tradition Pow-wow. The event is too large for the Isthmus, so another sight is being sought.

The highlight of the Pow-wow will be visitor participation in traditional dances, explains Gloria Cobb, deputy director of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council. The celebration will include traditional Native
American foods, music and crafts.

Recreating the past

Bells will ring statewide on May 29, when Wisconsin marks the day it joined the Union. Madison will be the focal point of activities, including an official state ceremony on the steps of the State Capitol led by Gov. Tommy Thompson and a reenactment of arguments that preceded a landmark Wisconsin Supreme Court decision on slavery.

Also on May 29 and 30 – Statehood Day Weekend – you’ll be able to view daily life on the Civil War training grounds at Camp Randall and greet the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry as it returns after three years of active service in the Army of the Potomac.

The 2nd Wisconsin left with 1,000 men in 1861; only 174 returned, with the rest falling to battle, wounds or illness. With one of the highest casualty rates in the entire Union Army, the 2nd Wisconsin had earned a great deal of notoriety – and it was greeted with much enthusiasm.

For two days, history reenactors from all over the United States will live authentically on a recreated training ground on the green space at Camp Randall. The public may watch camp life and talk to the soldiers, as well as help greet the returning veterans.

Based on records from 1864, the vets will be welcomed on May 30 with a parade, a military and a civilian band, ringing church bells, a 13-cannon speeches from dignitaries and a feast on Capitol grounds.

That same weekend, other reenactors will assemble in Prairie du Chien before traveling the 300-mile old Military Road to Fort Howard in Green Bay. Traveling in authentic spoke-wheeled, horse-drawn
wagons, pioneers and traders will spend more than two weeks passing through 47 communities.

Each night the wagon train will camp out and share evening activities with communities along the way. When the train stops in Lodi on June 5, for example, the public is invited to join travelers in a chicken dinner and then whoop it up at a barn dance. Other stops include: Dodgeville on June 2; Barneveld on June 3; Cross Plains on June 4, and Portage on June 6.

Deborah Kades is a freelance writer based in Madison.