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Weekly Column

Each week a small segment of Vernon County history is published in the county papers.


For the week of 1/16/2022
by Kristen Parrott, curator

A “Protest!” exhibit is currently being installed at the museum, briefly covering a number of protest movements that have occurred in Vernon County over the past 150 years. The exhibit is organized around two main protests, one from the late 19th century and one from the late 20th century. It also touches on other protest movements, but to a lesser extent.

The main 19th-century protest is the temperance movement, a subject we’ve looked at here in this column before. The word temperance means “moderation”, and in this context it means moderation in drinking alcohol, or, more usually, total abstinence.

Vernon County was home to chapters of several temperance societies, including the Independent Order of Good Templars and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Temperance organizations were established in Vernon County communities with large populations of Yankee and Norwegian settlers, such as De Soto, Esofea, Readstown, Viola, Viroqua, and Westby. The nation-wide temperance movement was successful in passing the 18th Amendment, which instituted Prohibition, but the amendment was repealed after 14 years.

The main 20th-century protest movement featured in the exhibit is the protest against low-level military flights, another subject that has been explored here before. In the winter of 1995, a regional organization called “Citizens United Against Low-Level Flights” was formed in Viroqua to combat a new plan by the Air National Guard.

The plan was to establish two new military training flight corridors over southwestern Wisconsin, which would involve thousands of flights per year at altitudes as low as 300 feet passing over parts of Vernon and Crawford Counties. Citizens United mounted a successful campaign to halt the plan.

One element that I find especially interesting about these two protest movements is that they used the arts extensively in their campaigns. The “Protest!” exhibit includes music from the temperance campaign, in the form of hymnals and songbooks including The Temperance Songster and New Anti-Saloon Songs: A Collection of Temperance and Moral Reform Songs. A recording of temperance music plays in the background while visitors stand near the display, featuring such gems as “A Sober Spouse For Me” and “Close Up the Booze Shop”.

The low-level military flights protest also involved art, and the museum is fortunate to have several pieces in its collection. Richland County artist Ken Stark created two cartoons about the campaign, which are on display. And Westby artist Amos Miller created a painting and woodcut prints depicting local people protesting at the Wisconsin state capitol. He also made a wonderful papier-mache model of a fighter jet and mounted it on a hard hat – all of these pieces of art are also in the exhibit.

You can view any of our exhibits during the museum’s regular winter hours of Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, noon to 4PM, or by appointment. To make an appointment, call us at 608-637-7396.


Stephen O’Donnell

Oil painting of local activist Stephen O’Donnell at Madison in 1995.


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For the week of 1/9/2022
by Kristen Parrott, curator

Protests have been in the news a lot in recent years, as magnified tensions have prompted people of all ages to protest for and against causes and situations. “Protest!” is also the name of a new exhibit that I’m working on. The idea of the exhibit is to briefly cover a number of protest movements that have occurred in Vernon County over the past 150 years.

One area of activism that I was sure to include was about low milk prices. Dairy farmers in Vernon County have protested many times over the years about the low prices they get for their milk. But I was surprised to learn about one particular call to action, which took place in March of 1954.

Early that month, hundreds of dairy farmers packed the Vernon County courthouse to talk about how to combat a proposed cut in federal dairy supports from 90% of parity to 75%. The cut was scheduled to begin on April 1.

Those who organized the protest included Charles Dahl, future mayor of Viroqua; Fred Nelson of Nelson’s Mill in Viroqua, now called Nelson’s Agri-Center; and Beatrice Small, teacher and farmer in Liberty Pole.

At the courthouse meeting, a committee was formally elected, with Lester Wood of La Farge as chairman. 15 people were elected as advisers including Don Hedding of the Hillsboro Creamery, Floyd Burt of the Bud Cheese Factory, and E.J. Saugstad of the Westby Creamery. Coincidentally, the life of the Saugstad family was captured by photographer Arthur Rothstein in 1942.

The organizers had drafted a petition that read, “Dear Mr. President: We the undersigned citizens of Vernon County, Wisconsin, respectfully request that you act to extend dairy support prices at their present levels for one more year, pending re-examination of the agricultural price support system by Congress... No other industry has been asked to sacrifice at this time. We ask for fair and equal treatment.”

Those who attended the meeting at the courthouse signed the petition and then over the next few days circulated it among fellow farmers and community members. In all, they collected almost 8000 local signatures. The petition and all of the signatures were typed into a telegram, and the telegram was sent to President Eisenhower. It took 26 hours to type and send that telegram, one of the longest ever.

But in the end, the protest failed, and price supports dropped on April 1, 1954. I wonder how this protest changed the people who participated in it. Did some feel inspired by their involvement in governance? Did others just focus on the negative outcome? Did any participate in future protests over low dairy prices? Let us know if you have memories of this protest or of others related to dairy prices. You can reach the museum at 608-637-7396, or museum@vernoncountyhistory.org.


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The previous two articles:

January 2, 2022

December 26, 2021