MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Heritage travel

Polish for a day

At Milwaukee's lakefront festivals, visitors get a big helping of another culture.

On a beautiful summer day in Milwaukee, history's underdogs were having a ball.

They were listening to pianists play Chopin. They were dancing an exuberant style of polka. They were tucking into pierogi and paczki.

Call it payback time for Poles.

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Nordic nirvana

Every July, Decorah, Iowa, puts on one of the best fests in the Midwest.

First, an elf sashayed down the street.

Behind him marched adults in bunads, the traditional Norwegian folk costume, and two shaggy little boys wearing the long noses, beards and tails of trolls.

Baton twirlers, roller-limbo skaters, polka dancers, folk dancers, fiddlers, buglers and queens of all kinds followed, lobbing torrents of Tootsie Rolls and hard candy to the crowd along the route.

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Valleys of Vernon County

In the nooks of Wisconsin's coulee country, people of all kinds found a niche.

In 1862, a poor Norwegian couple and their four small children, including their infant son Thorvald, joined a wave of immigrants to Wisconsin, eventually settling in the coulees of Vernon County.

Vernon County was an interesting place in the 1860s. Only a generation before, Black Hawk and his band had fled through it, hounded by militia.

They ran headlong into a slaughter that remains one of the most shameful chapters in U.S. history. Today, 11 plaques mark the route, which ended near the town of Victory.

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Finding Embarrass

Minnesota's cold spot is the stronghold of the Finns.

It took plenty of sisu to settle Embarrass.

It's the consistently coldest spot in the Lower 48; arctic blasts blow up against the Laurentian Divide and pool over the township, which set a record of 64 below in 1996.

The soil is poor, allowing farmers to do little more than grow potatoes and raise a few cows.

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Destination: Stockholm

Once the promised land, a Lake Pepin village now is a favorite day trip.

Once, people went through hell to get to Stockholm, Wis.

It's different nowadays. It's only a joy ride away from the Twin Cities, and the streets of this pretty hamlet on Lake Pepin are lined with sports cars and motorcycles on weekends.

There are shops, galleries and inns; it's the place to go for a room with a view or vroom with a brew.

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Cornish in Mineral Point

A fall festival honors the miners who left their mark on Mineral Point.

The Cornish have been good to Mineral Point.

In the 1830s, skilled tin miners from Cornwall, England, came to southwest Wisconsin, replacing the rough frontiersmen whose "badger'' digs gave the state a nickname but the town an unsavory atmosphere.

"They'd start fights just for entertainment,'' said Lisa Kreul, a tour guide at the historic site Pendarvis. "Not until the Cornish came in 1837 did the town start to settle down.''

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Celebrating roots

No matter where you're from, there's a heritage festival for you.

In general, I like my heritage. It involves Vikings and trolls and fiddle music. At festivals, tow-headed children dance around in cute outfits.

But the food . . . not so much. When it comes to herring and lutefisk, I'd rather be Polish. Plump pierogi with sour cream and sauteed onions — now, there's an ethnic food I can love.

Luckily, it's easy to piggyback on other cultures in the Upper Midwest. Yes, many of us came from Germany, Ireland and Norway.

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Heritage travel: Dakota and Ojibwe

Despite centuries of disruption, their cultures survive.

In the 17th century, when Europeans began to flee religious and economic oppression, the New World was not an untouched wilderness.

In the wooded forests beyond Lake Superior, the Dakota and Ojibwe tapped maple trees for sugar, harvested wild rice and hunted the abundant game.

Many of them cultivated crops and lived in villages, like the Europeans. They were careful stewards of the land, reseeding rice beds and maintaining healthy soil through controlled burns, just as state agencies do today.

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Germans in the Upper Midwest

Many of our most-loved traditions arrived with emigrants from Germany.

It's hard to imagine life without the Germans.

When they crossed the ocean, they brought hot dogs, potato salad and beer gardens. Thanks to them, we have kindergartens, Christmas trees and fairy tales.

Their traditions now are woven into the fabric of Upper Midwest life. To paraphrase the words of John F. Kennedy, we are all Germans.

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Norwegians among us

Long after the first immigrants arrived, descendants' love of the culture stays strong.

Across the Upper Midwest, an unusually large number of people know that bunad is not a crude anatomical term and that krumkake is something sweet from a bakery.

More than perhaps any other European immigrants, Norwegian-Americans have carried on old-country traditions, even those that folks back in Norway largely have dropped (see: lutefisk-eating).

They're on full display in May, when Norwegians celebrate the anniversary of the signing of a democratic constitution on May 17, or Syttende Mai.

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Heritage travel: Switzerland

In Wisconsin's cheese country, townspeople hang on to tradition.

In the Upper Midwest, the Swiss are insignificant — in numbers. Not many left the Old World. But the ones who did have had more success transplanting their traditions than nearly any other immigrant group.

In the southwest Wisconsin town of New Glarus, Germanic platitudes unfurl in Gothic script on the plaster of half-timbered chalets, over window boxes overflowing with geraniums. A little baker hangs over the doorway of the Bäckerei, where glass cases display almond-flavored brätzeli and anise springerle cookies.

The sign over the town fire department reads "Feuerwehrhaus," and Railroad Street is Bahnhofstrasse.

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Swedes in the Upper Midwest

From the old country, they brought a love of celebration and summer.

When the summer solstice arrives, nobody celebrates more than the Swedes.

They put wreaths of flowers on their heads, dance around a vine-draped pole and sing the praises of long, sunny days.

They're like everyone else in the northland, except they eat more pickled herring.

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