The View From Wisconsin

Just a random set of rants from a Sports Fan from Wisconsin.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


(Edited October 20, 2008)

1. Why do the University of Wisconsin's athletic teams, known as the Badgers, wear Red and white?
There are two parts to this question of origins; one is relatively easy to answer, while the other isn't as easy. Let's start with the easy part: the nickname "Badger" wasn't adapted by the University formally until 1889. However, the nickname not only pre-dates the founding of the University in 1849, but it also pre-dates the state itself.
Back when the state was still a territory in the 1840's, a large mining community started with the discovery of lead in the southwestern part of what is now Wisconsin. Early miners in the area of what is now Mineral Point didn't have enough money and wherewithal to build houses for themselves, so they simply lived in dug-out holes in the earth near the mines. Because of the dirty work that came from mining lead, it was commented that they looked much like badgers, with streaks of black lead dust across their faces, emerging from the burrows with bad tempers – just like the animals for which they were named.
You would think, then, that the most natural colors for the University's sports teams would be the same as the badger: black, white and perhaps a brown color. So how does the color red (actually, Cardinal Red) come into the picture?
For this, you need to understand the basics of the history of education in the United States. Most institutions of higher learning in this country can trace their lineage or establishment to one of the many colleges of the Ivy League (Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth). The purposes of these schools, begun in the colonial days, was not only to equip preachers in study of the Bible, but also to make them teachers. These people migrated west with the rest of the fledgeling population of the United States, and as states were admitted to the union, these people were placed in charge of their state colleges and universities.
Though it's not easily provable, it is likely that whomever was in charge of the university's athletic department – or, for that matter, the school itself – was from Harvard, whose school colors have always been crimson. In fact, Harvard's newspaper has been known as the Crimson since it was established as the first school newspaper. It is no surprise, then, that Wisconsin's first school paper is known as the Daily Cardinal.
In a round-about way, then, it is because of this likely relationship that the UW Badgers wear cardinal red and white in competition.

2. Is the northern section of Door County actually an island and not a peninsula?
Sturgeon Bay cuts through the center part of Door County – and connects Green Bay with Lake Michigan. Why is Door County, then, known as a peninsula and not an island?
Take a close look at a map of Door County: the channel that connects Sturgeon Bay with Lake Michigan proper (instead of the larger Green Bay) is a shipping canal. Sturgeon Bay (the geological formation) originally ended just west of what is now downtown Sturgeon Bay (the city) before the channel was cut to aid in navigation between the main section of the lake and Green Bay.
The Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal was dredged out in 1872 by a group led by the president of the Chicago Northwestern Railway. The channel wasn't completely open to large-scale traffic until 1890. Three years later, in 1893, the company sold the canal to the US Government. The Army Corps of Engineers is now in charge of operating and maintaining the canal.
The definition of an island is a piece of land that is separated by water in two dimensions (width and depth) and isolated from other land masses. Considering the number of bridges across the canal, it's obvious that the sections separated by the canal are far from being isolated from the rest of the state. So even though you could take a boat trip all the way around Door County's northern section, it is still considered to be a peninsula.

3. Why is the western shoreline of Lake Winnebago more populated than the eastern shoreline?
Most of the early explorers that settled the state of Wisconsin came either from the southwest corner, by way of the Mississippi River, or from the east by way of Lake Michigan. Lake Winnebago is closer to Lake Michigan than it is the Mississippi; why is it that the eastern shoreline has practically no major population centers while the western shore has Fond du lac, Oshkosh, Neenah, Menasha, Appleton, and Kaukauna?
A map of the section of the state located between the two Lakes gives a hint at the answer. Notice how all of the major rivers in the land between the two lakes all flow to the east, away from Lake Winnebago and into Lake Michigan? Also, in Calumet County, almost all of the flowages out of the lake are short creeks not more than a few miles long.
This should tell you the most obvious part of the answer: all of the area on the east side of Lake Winnebago is higher than it is at the shoreline of Lake Michigan. This is proven when you notice on a drive along US 151 and Wisconsin Highway 55 in Calumet and Fond du Lac Counties that the lake is significantly lower than the land.
This is due to something known as the Niagara Escarpment, which helped keep what was once glacial Lake Oshkosh from flowing into Lake Michigan. All of the "soft" area that the lake could empty into were to the west and south. The Fox River itself connects Green Bay with the lake, and the escarpment creates what's known as the Fox Valley. With high cliffs and no place to "put in" to port, it's no wonder that Calumet County is the least populated county in the central part of the Lake Michigan side of the state.

4. Why is there a Minnesota state highway running through the state of Wisconsin?
As you are looking at a road map of Douglas County in the northwest part of the state, you may have noticed that there appears to be a state highway 23 in the northwestern section, just outside of the city of Duluth, Minnesota. Your first thought is that there's already a Wisconsin Highway 23 that runs through the southwest and east central part of the state; how'd another one get there? And then, looking closer, you see that the road is signed Highway 23 in Minnesota – one on the other side of the St. Louis River heading into Duluth, and on the other side of the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, heading to the southwest towards the Twin Cities.
So, why's a Minnesota state highway in Wisconsin? It might have something to do with the layout of the St. Louis River itself. The small town of Fond du Lac, Minnesota is located on the Minnesota side of the river, just north of most of the state of Wisconsin – except for a small mile by half-mile section that exists because of how the river flows. At one point, the river splits around a small island that allows for a bridge span. That's pretty much the only place for a bridge in the entire section at the extreme point of the Wisconsin/Minnesota border, due to the terrain.
The two state highway departments have an agreement that the state of Minnesota will agree to maintenance to the highway and the bridge crossing the St. Louis River. There are only three other roads in that section of the state, none of which have an outlet elsewhere. In addition, there's only about four homes in the area (and at least two are farms), so it's not like it's a huge issue that the area isn't noted as being in Wisconsin, not Minnesota. There are no markings on the highway noting the state lines, though there is a marking on the bridge crossing the river into Fond du Lac that indicates crossing into Minnesota's St. Louis County, and one westbound indicating crossing into Carlton County.

5. Why is Racine the only major county along the Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan not named for a Native American word?
As you take a look at the map of the counties of Wisconsin, from Door County southward, you can see that most of them have an obviously Native American-derived name: Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Ozaukee, Milwaukee, Kenosha.
Interrupting this progression south of Milwaukee, however, is the county and city of Racine. For those of you whose French is rusty, "racine" is the French word for "roots" – particularly, twisted roots as you would see along a riverbank, like, say, the Root River that flows through the heart of the city and most of the county. The native American settlers had several names for the unique features of the river; the two most common were kipikawi (twisted roots), which was translated by the English settlers as Chippecotton, and Otcheebeek (which had the same meaning, but translated into a different tribal language).
So why wasn't the city (and summarily the county) named Chippecotton (or some semi-Anglicized version, like Chipikawee or Ochebek? Two major reasons: founder Gilbert Knapp refused to have the city/town named after himself (others seeking to incorporate the city wanted it named "Port Gilbert); and he wanted to attract people to the city by using a simpler name. The first European settlers to the area were the French fur traders, who set up a trading post at the mouth of the Root River because the area had a natural harbor, thanks to the area known as Wind Point. Because they named the area after the river's obvious feature ("Racine"), Knapp insisted on that as the name – and it stuck.

6. Why is the section of what used to be Old Highway 30 in Waukesha County known as Silvernail Road?
For most of its run through Waukesha, the former main route between Milwaukee and Madison was known as Bluemound Road – appropriate, considering that it led people to the gateway to the Blue Mounds area of central Wisconsin. For some reason, though, as what used to be Wisconsin Highway 30 split off from the former Yellowstone Highway (later US Highway 16), it turned west on a road that is now known as Silvernail Road between Pewaukee and Delafield.
This one doesn't seem to have a rational answer, because there doesn't seem to be any obvious reason why the road would be named as such; no natural feature, no historical reason for a particular sign or anything, or even a family name that would indicate why it was named as such.
There is, however, a clue as to a possible answer – and it's located just to the north of the stretch of Silvernail from Delafield to Waukesha. That would be Watertown Road (Waukesha County Highway M). The segment that connects Barker Road to downtown Pewaukee is part of the old Watertown Plank Road, the first major intercity highway in the state. Since the slightly more direct route from Waukesha to Madison would be the more desirable of the two routes, it would make sense that another person or company would try to build a second one that was a bit more direct (though it would still go in generally the same direction).
It is entirely possible that the stretch from County Highway JJ to County Highway E was, at one point, a plank road. And it is also possible that said plank road was named for the silver nails used in construction of the road. I have no evidence that this is the fact, however; further research will be needed to confirm or refute this theory.