Old World Wisconsin

Wisconsin was demographically more like Mitteleuropa than middle America in the late 19th Century.  The majority of the population was immigrants or their children.  The biggest ethnic group was German, but there were lots of Norwegian, Swedes, Poles, Fins and various others.

At first, they looked for their fellows from their own countries, but very soon they were merging into the culture that became Wisconsin’s.

 

America was MORE a nation of immigrants back in the late 19th Century than it is today, and they were MORE diverse.  It is fashionable today to talk about diversity only in terms of skin tone, but it is more a matter of culture and habits.  A Polish peasant coming from rural Galicia was more different culturally from an America-born neighbor that a typical immigrant from Nigeria or China is from his American-born neighbor today.  Consider that the Polish peasant may never have heard a word of English before embarking for America.  He would not have read American novels, heard American music and he could not have seen American movies or listened to American radio.  You can find nobody like that today unless you go into the forests in places like the Amazon or New Guinea, even there maybe not.

We look back on the successful integration of immigrants back then and think its was easy.  It took about three generations, which is not that different from now looking at how fast immigrant language become only second languages and then largely disappear.

Our mental model of assimilation is also wrong.  America did not assimilate the immigrants of the late 19th Century.  We integrated them and their cultures into the American whole.  I often choose the Germans as example, since they are Americas biggest ethnic group, at the time of Old World Wisconsin, they made up at least 25% of the American population and a majority of the people in Wisconsin.  People of those days thought they would never fit in completely.    I bet people reading this are surprised how much of America is German.  Why?  Because they fit in so well that we don’t think about it anymore.  Americans think that they are just being American when they have a beer and a hot dog, when they send their kids to kindergarten, eat an apple pie or hamburger.  And these things ARE American, since they are modified from the original.

The value of diversity is that we can appropriate and adapt the more useful or attractive parts of the cultures we meet, while sharing ours with them.   Appropriate AND adapt.  We do NOT want to keep the cultures pure or separated and we should never encourage people to keep the old ways.  If you want to see and appreciate the old ways, you can go to places like Old World Wisconsin.  In Old World Wisconsin, you can see the roots of lots of our habits and behaviors.  We are today more aware of the flowers and the fruits.

The first two pictures show livestock. They have heirloom breeds, like those immigrant would have owned. Next is the Polish house, followed by a Norwegian house. These are actual structures moved to Old World Wisconsin from other parts of the state.  Last is a schoolhouse. Immigrants thought education was the way to the future and they were right, so they build schools like that. They taught only in English, often using the famous  McGuffey Readers to teach reading and wider America culture.

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