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The Top 10 of 2008

Destroyed houses at Lake Delton in June 2008 (Wisconsin State Journal photo by Steve Apps)
Destroyed houses at Lake Delton in June 2008
(Wisconsin State Journal photo by Steve Apps)

In 2008 Wisconsin saw record-setting weather, felt the effects of economic downturn, turned out in droves to vote in the presidential election, joined seven other states in preventing the diversion of water from the Great Lakes, and underwent a star turn when Hollywood film crews descended on the state. Continuing a year-end tradition begun in 2003, the Wisconsin Historical Society has selected 10 history-making news stories with a Wisconsin connection. Please join us in reflecting on the events and issues that made headlines in 2008.

Top 10 Wisconsin History-Making News Stories of 2008


  • Wisconsin Voters Head to the Polls in November, Turn State for Obama
    Nearly 73 percent of Wisconsin voters cast their ballots during the November 4 general election — the second highest turnout in the country. Enthusiasm among African Americans and Democrats for Barack Obama's candidacy is believed to have pushed voter turnout to the highest level nationally in 40 years. Obama won 58 of Wisconsin's 72 counties, winning many that had gone Republican in previous election years, on his way to becoming the first African-American president. The high voter turnout also helped Wisconsin Democrats seize control of the state Assembly, giving the party control of both houses of the Legislature and the executive branch.
  • Another State Budget Deficit Puts the Squeeze on Wisconsin Government
    The harsh national recession and drop in state tax revenues has driven the state of Wisconsin's budget shortfall to unprecedented levels — the worst fiscal crisis in more than two decades. Wisconsin's economic struggles are emblematic of the national economic and financial crisis that began with the collapse of credit and housing markets and evolved into a global financial disaster.
  • Plant Closings in Janesville and Kimberly
    The poor economy and decreased demand for paper and SUVs resulted in the closing of the General Motors plant in Janesville and the NewPage paper mill in Kimberly. The Janesville plant, opened in 1919, making it GM's oldest factory, was first scheduled for closing by 2010, but the date was hastily moved up to December 2008 as vehicle sales plummeted and the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Kimberly lost its last paper mill in August as the NewPage Corporation closed its doors, citing a reduction in print advertising and demand for paper as the cost of fuel and raw material rose. Other Wisconsin manufacturers also began downsizing in the wake of this year's historic, nationwide economic downturn.
  • Record Snowfall Slams the State
    The winter of 2007-2008 was one of the snowiest on record. According to the National Weather Service and the Wisconsin State Climatology Office, Wisconsin's average snowfall over the previous 20 years was 52.7 inches. Last winter, however, many locations in southern Wisconsin set new, all-time seasonal records that were 200-240 percent above that norm. West Allis, in Milwaukee County, for example, received 122.1 inches and Madison set a new record of 101.4 inches, smashing its previous high of 76.1 inches (in 1978-79). Gurney, in Iron County, had the most snow last winter, with 147 inches.
  • Floods Ravage the State
    More than a foot of rain fell in much of the state during early June, setting daily precipitation records 114 times in Wisconsin cities and towns. The town of Ontario received more than 6 inches on June 8, and Baraboo more than 17 inches during the month. Rivers, already high from the winter's record snowfall, overflowed their banks with the new rain, leading to flooding of historic proportions in the watersheds of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers. Lake Delton, located in the Wisconsin Dells region of south-central Wisconsin, breached its dam and emptied into the nearby Wisconsin River on June 9, sweeping away three homes and part of a highway. Thirty-one Wisconsin counties were declared disaster areas, and more than 40,000 homes and 5,000 businesses were damaged. State officials estimated the total damage at more than $1.2 billion.
  • Great Lakes Compact Protects World's Largest Freshwater System
    President Bush signed the Great Lakes compact into law in October, a measure designed to prevent water from the Great Lakes from being sent outside of the eight-state basin area while requiring those basin states to regulate their own water use. The compact was the final step in a nearly decade-long effort to strengthen legal protections against diverting water from the five-lake system. The rules, first agreed upon at a 2005 meeting of governors in Milwaukee, had needed the ratification of the eight state legislatures and Congress before going to the president for approval. The two Canadian provinces with Great Lakes shorelines signed a parallel agreement.
  • Stem Cells and Institutes for Discovery Continue to Strengthen State's Science Leadership
    Research on human embryonic stem cells reached a 10-year milestone in 2008, and the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery broke ground on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The publication of UW scientist James Thompson's short paper on the first successful isolation of human embryonic stem cell lines in 1998 rocked the science and political world, ushering the stem cell and all its possibilities into the limelight. Since then, stem cells have inspired scores of discoveries at UW and served as the catalyst for the development of the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery. The twin institutes comprise a public-private partnership that aims to foster scientific collaboration across disciplines and to create technologies that can be transferred to the marketplace. In November 2007 Thompson announced he had created a stem cell almost identical to an embyronic stem cell without using an embryo, a breaktrhrough that earned Thompson the 2008 Massry Prize, an honor that has proved a frequent precursor to the Nobel Prize. Time Magazine also named Thompson one of the World's Most Influential People this year.
  • Brett Favre Retires, Changes His Mind, Gets Traded
    At a tearful March 4 press conference, Brett Favre announced his retirement from the Green Bay Packers after 16 seasons. Favre, perhaps the most popular player in the history of the franchise, set multiple passing records including most touchdown passes, most passing yards, and most consecutive starts in the history of the National Football League. But in early August, months after his farewell press conference, Favre had a change of heart and opted to play for an 18th season. The Packers, however, having committed to new quarterback Aaron Rodgers, traded the superstar to the New York Jets, much to the dismay of many of Favre's Packer fans. Those Packer fans saw their playoff hopes evaporate with a Lambeau Field loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on December 14, and Favre and the Jets saw their playoff hopes dim when the Seattle Seahawks upset the Jets on December 21.
  • Brewers Make Playoffs for the First Time Since 1982
    On the final day of the regular season, the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Chicago Cubs 3-1 to claim their first playoff appearance since 1982, the year they reached the World Series. Behind the stellar pitching of CC Sabathia, who went 11-2 in 17 starts after being acquired in an early July trade, and after firing their manager with only 12 games remaining, the Brewers posted a record of 90 wins and 72 losses. The season ended for the Brewers, though, after a first-round playoff loss to the eventual World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies. Sabathia's time with the Brewers was short-lived, however. On December 18 he signed a seven-year, $161 million deal with the New York Yankees.
  • State Incentives Bring Johnny Depp and Hollywood Glamour to Wisconsin
    Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, became the first major movie production to come to Wisconsin to film after new tax incentives for filmmakers took effect in January. The program is an effort to bolster the state economy and increase jobs. The statewide organization Film Wisconsin is charged with marketing Wisconsin to the film, television and gaming industries and played an integral part in bringing Public Enemies to the state. The film, a historic movie about John Dillinger, whose crime wave resulted in an FBI manhunt, was directed by UW alum Michael Mann.
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