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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Betty Christenson's colorful Ukrainian eggs are symbols of a thriving folk tradition. All photos courtesy of Wisconsin Arts Board.

August 1998

Wisconsin Traveler
Home is where the art is

Wisconsin shines at the Smithsonian.

You need to check your ears and eyes: If you happened to be in our nation's capital recently, it's quite likely you did hear the sweet familiar strains of "The Beer Barrel Polka" booming across the National Mall. And yes, that was a Green Bay-style tailgate party you saw in full swing at the foot of the Washington Monument.

The Smithsonian Institution's annual Festival of American Folklife, a living cultural exhibition presenting the traditions of different peoples, states or regions, paid homage this year to the Wisconsin way of life.

Brewing beer: All part of the Wisconsin way of life.
Brewing beer: All part of the Wisconsin way of life.

Wisconsin musicians, artists, workers and cooks sang, danced, told stories, made crafts and prepared the foods for which the Badger State is famous for more than one million visitors. And that, friend, is a lot of kringle.

Now the party is coming to our own capital, Madison. From August 20-23, the Capitol Square will be turned into a sprawling marketplace of Wisconsin traditions during the Wisconsin Folklife Festival. Under canvas and on stage, hundreds of Wisconsinites will demonstrate their talents and skills alongside folk artists from Wisconsin's sister states in Chiba, Japan; Hessen, Germany; Heilongjiang, China; and Arcateo, Nicaragua.

The Wisconsin Folklife Festival celebrates the senses. You'll be serenaded by Scandinavian fiddlers, Native American drummers, gospel choirs and oompah orchestras. Stop for a moment to listen to a long Northwoods yarn told by a veteran logger, or wander over to the "tavern" for a good fish story (is there any other kind?) shared over a hand of euchre or sheepshead.

Let your nose lead the way through the festival grounds; you'll smell the vast outdoor kitchen before you see it.

A Cornish pasty's savory scent is sure to scintillate! Sample the traditional foods of many cultures at the festival.
A Cornish pasty's savory scent is sure to scintillate! Sample the traditional foods of many cultures at the festival.

There, master cooks tend steaming cauldrons of booyah, spin maple sugar into a crackly treat, and serve up cranberry-and-venision pies, pasties, cream puffs, wild rice, fresh cheese curds, kringle and many other local sweets and savories.

Though it's been said a person should never watch two things being made – sausages and laws – make an exception and take in the sausagemaking demonstrations. You can see exhibits of other workplace traditions as well, including brewing, cheesemaking, logging, machining, commercial fishing and pig showing.

Artisans skilled in a variety of fields will display their work, show techniques, and answer questions. You'll learn how to make a porcupine quill basket, carve fish and duck decoys, make lace and moccasins, weave wheat and paint Ukrainian eggs. Try Polish papercutting or Japanese origami. Let a local salt untwine the mysteries of maritime knot-tying. (And if you're really serious about tying the knot, a Hmong marriage broker will be reviewing the credentials of prospective clients.)

Plan to visit the Wisconsin Folklife Festival. While you're there, learn a dance or song, try a new craft, pick up a few recipes from the cooks. And when you get home, share your new skill or knowledge with others. That's how folk traditions are kept alive.