Wisconsin Historical Society Press
A Short History of Wisconsin
By Erika Janik
264 pages, 50 b/w photos and illus., 5.5 x 8" E-book edition availableBuy
Rediscover Wisconsin history from the very beginning. "A Short History of Wisconsin" recounts the landscapes, people, and traditions that have made the state the multifaceted place it is today. With an approach both comprehensive and accessible, historian Erika Janik covers several centuries of Wisconsin's remarkable past, showing how the state was shaped by the same world wars, waves of new inhabitants, and upheavals in society and politics that shaped the nation.
Swift, authoritative, and compulsively readable, "A Short History of Wisconsin" commences with the glaciers that hewed the region's breathtaking terrain, the Native American cultures who first called it home, and French explorers and traders who mapped what was once called "Mescousing." Janik moves through the Civil War and two world wars, covers advances in the rights of women, workers, African Americans, and Indians, and recent shifts involving the environmental movement and the conservative revolution of the late 20th century. Wisconsin has hosted industries from fur-trapping to mining to dairying, and its political landscape sprouted figures both renowned and reviled, from Fighting Bob La Follette to Joseph McCarthy.
But only part of the story lies in sweeping societal change: Janik finds the story of a state not only in the broad strokes of immigration and politics, but in the daily lives shaped by work, leisure, sports, and culture. "A Short History of Wisconsin" offers a fresh understanding of how Wisconsin came into being and how Wisconsinites past and present share a deep connection to the land itself.
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Erika Janik is the author of "Odd Wisconsin: Amusing, Perplexing, and Unlikely Stories from Wisconsin's Past," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. Her work has appeared in "Midwest Living," "MyMidwest," "Wisconsin Trails," the "Wisconsin State Journal," "Wisconsin Magazine of History," and "The Onion." Originally from Redmond, Washington, she now lives in Madison.
Check out Erika Janik's website at:
2010 ForeWord Reviews' Book of the Year Award
Finalist in the Regional Category
2011 National Indie Excellence Awards
Finalist in the Regional Nonfiction Category
2011 USA National Best Book Awards
Finalist in the History: United States Category
2011 Wisconsin Historical Society
Winner of the Book Award of Merit
Jim Peck interviewed Erika Janik on the Milwaukee Public Television program "I Remember" on January 10, 2011.
Jim Packard interviewed Erika Janik on Wisconsin Public Radio's Ideas Network on Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 11:00am on the "Larry Meiller" show.
Larry Meiller, Wisconsin Public Radio
"Erika Janik has produced a wonderful portrait of the Badger state. With its engaging style, her short history of Wisconsin — including its national achievements in areas like the environment, education, labor and politics — provides a remarkable insight into what makes the state great. You'll be surprised at the treasures she's unearthed!"
First lady of Wisconsin, Jessica Doyle
"'A Short History of Wisconsin' is a compelling look into the state's past. This exemplary book would make any Wisconsinite proud, and enlighten others as to why our state is a unique and welcoming place to live and experience."
The next time I encounter someone who is planning to visit or move to Wisconsin I know exactly what gift I will give them. It will be the new book, "A Short History of Wisconsin" by Erika Janik.
History is always fascinating to me, and this book presented new ways of looking at well-known "facts." If you’ve ever wondered what the name Wisconsin means, Janik traces its origin back to the journal of French explorer Fr. Jacques Marquette. The most authoritative study of the name concluded that it was the French version of a Miami Indian word for the Wisconsin River and likely meant "river running through a red place." The "red place" was probably a reference to the red sandstone that characterizes much of the river's shoreline.
She calls the river route from Prairie du Chien up the Wisconsin River to Portage and then down the Fox River through present-day Oshkosh, Neenah, and Appleton to Green Bay "the interstate highway of the 17th and 18th centuries." Now that's an explanation anyone can relate to.
Reading about the diet of lumberjacks reminded me of today's emphasis on locally-grown food. Local food for lumberjacks consisted of bread, salt pork, beans, blackstrap molasses, potatoes, coffee and tea. "In the winter, when the pork ran out, the men ate cod from the rivers," she wrote.
Education reform was high on the list of needs considered by the legislature in the late 1880s. A school reform bill "required that all schools, public and private, conduct classes in English."
The author's description of the close ties between the state's dairy industry and the University of Wisconsin is both succinct and fascinating. Her chapters devoted to agricultural history are my favorites.
Manufacturing, from paper-making to submarines, is richly detailed in the book. For instance, during WWII, the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co. received a U.S. Navy contract to build submarines n although it had never built any. Yet in the time allotted for constructing 10 subs, the company produced 28!
Wisconsin's early brewers may well have contributed to the health of the settlers. "The boiling and fermenting process made beer relatively free of contamination, something that couldn't always be said for the water supply," Janik noted. In fact, towns were built around breweries, she contends.
The chapters devoted to the state's political history can't be beat. I had no idea Milwaukee became the first Socialist city the U.S. or that it sent Victor Berger to Washington as the first Socialist congressman!
"Appleton, Wisconsin, is far from the laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., where Thomas Edison perfected the incandescent bulb and other uses for electric power," Janik wrote. "Yet it was in this Fox River city in 1882, that the first plant to commercially generate electricity was lighting homes and factories."
Transportation has always been important to Wisconsin — from Trek Bicycles in Waterloo to Harley Davidson motorcycles in Milwaukee and cars like the Rambler and the Nash, all were built in Wisconsin.
The state figured prominently in WWII; from the Badger Ordnance Company (one of the largest manufacturers of ammunition in the world), to the fame of the Red Arrow Division and the heroism of flying ace Richard Bong (he was born and raised on a farm). Wisconsin was a leader.
There's more, much more, in this fascinating book. The book is small and is ideal to take along on a plane ride; it is valuable enough for its content to be kept close at hand for years to come.
Published by the Wisconsin Historical Society, this "short history" is actually "long" on important historical facts about Wisconsin.
A rarity is the final chapter in the book called "Essay on Sources and suggestions for further reading." That chapter can well become any history buff's new reading list.