Early 20th Century
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Robert La Follette’s most (in)famous personal crusade was his strident opposition to U.S. participation in World War I due equally to Wisconsin’s heavy German population and La Follette’s vehement pacifism. He suffered tremendous regional and national scorn and was booted to the lower echelons of politics. Interestingly, when the United States officially entered the war, Wisconsin was the first state to meet enlistment requirements. Eventually, La Follette enjoyed something of a vindication with a triumphant return to the Senate in 1924, followed by a final real presidential run.
Also a political activist, Bob’s wife, Belle La Follette, mounted a long-standing crusade for women’s suffrage that helped the 19th Amendment get ratified; Wisconsin was the first state to ratify it. In other political trends starting around the turn of the 20th century, Milwaukee began electing Socialist administrations. Buoyed by nascent labor organizations in the huge factory towns along Lake Michigan, the movement was infused with an immigrant European populace not averse to social radicalism. Milwaukee was the country’s most heavily unionized city, and it voted Socialist—at least in part—right through the 1960s. The Progressive banner was picked up by La Follette’s sons, Phil and Robert Jr., and the Wisconsin Progressive Party was formed in 1934. Robert Jr. took over for his father in the U.S. Senate, and Phil dominated Wisconsin politics during the 1930s. Despite these efforts, the movement waned. Anemic and ineffective from internal splits and World War II, it melded with the Republican Party in 1946.
Dairying became Wisconsin’s economic leader by 1920 and gained national prominence as well. The industry brought in nearly $210 million to the state, wholly eclipsing timber and lumber. This turned out to be a savior for the state’s fortunes during the Depression; dairy products were less threatened by economic collapse than either forest appropriation or manufacturing, though farmers’ management and methodology costs skyrocketed. Papermaking, in which Wisconsin is still a world leader, ameliorated the blow in the jobless cutover north- and east-central parts of the state. Concentrated fully in southeastern Wisconsin, heavy industry—leather, meatpacking, foundries, fabrication, and machine shops—suffered more acutely during the Depression. Sales receipts plummeted by two-thirds and the number of jobs fell by nearly half in five years. Brewing was as yet nonexistent, save for root beer and some backroom swill.
© Thomas Huhti from Moon Wisconsin, 5th Edition