Mike Magnuson

The Wisconsin Idea in the Drunkest City

24/7 Wall St. names Appleton, Wisconsin, the Drunkest City in America. Mike Magnuson responds by drinking Bloody Marys and explaining the Wisconsin Idea.


On Saturday, my wife and I spent a few middle-class hours shopping for furniture at the megastores in the strip-mall sector of Appleton, Wisconsin, a lovely city of 72,000 that the online magazine 24/7 Wall St. has recently named the Drunkest City in America. We are moving in July—not leaving the area, especially now that it has been given such a prestigious honor; we’re just downsizing and upscaling, if that makes sense—and we decided, on a whim, to do some tire-kicking, as it were, and get a sense of the price and feel of things college-educated, approaching-retirement people like us need to feel good about life in a new home. So we wandered the labyrinths of couches, pit groups, love seats, settees, end tables, coffee tables, dining room tables, hutches, dressers, and let us not forget the framed faux-chalkboard wall hangings with festive sayings like: “This Home Runs On Love, Laughter, and Really Cold Bottles of Beer” and “It’s All Fun and Games Until the Beer Runs Out” and “You’re Not Really Drinking Alone If Your Dog Is Home” and “This Wine Is Making Me Awesome.”

Naturally, to accompany the limitless selection of items for our new home, we found a limitless selection of glassy-eyed, on-commission salespeople asking us if we needed help (yes, but not with furniture) or if we knew that all items with a red tag are on sale for the whole month of June (yes, but we won’t be buying anything until July) or if we are finding everything we’re looking for (not until you leave us alone). At one megastore, a salesman lurked behind us at a distance of about fifteen meters and followed us through the entire store, waiting for us to pause a moment too long in front of a set of bar stools or a futon and give him the opportunity to explain some of the current promotions in a quick-tongued, hard-consonant Wisconsin accent and with a strange twitchiness in his eyeballs that freaked us out so much and soured us so much on the furniture-browsing experience that we decided to hell with it and drove to College Avenue in Appleton, the downtown bar district, to search for the Wisconsin Idea.

This was about three o’clock in the afternoon, and we wanted Bloody Marys.

Now, if you’re not from here, the first thing you need to know about the “Wisconsin Idea” is that you probably know as much about it as people who grew up here and have lived here their whole lives. I don’t have the financial means to hire a camera crew to prove my theory by traveling around Wisconsin and asking the state’s citizens if they know what the Wisconsin Idea is, but trust me, no one would know. And even if they did, it would take them a long time, possibly three months or the equivalent of a university course, to explain it. Nevertheless, people on the Wisconsin “Left” have made a big deal out of it the last couple of years and have been greatly offended by Republican affronts against it, because apparently our Sauron-like governor tried to change the wording of the Wisconsin Idea—on the sly, of course, from his secret desk in the newly decorated Mordor Room of the Governor’s Mansion—and when someone caught on to it, he said something like, “Jeepers, that was just a drafting error! I didn’t really want to change the Wisconsin Idea, but maybe one of my assistants did!” About two weeks ago, a judge ordered our governor to release his records regarding this matter and some others, and it turns out the son of a bitch lied! Can you believe it? His emails prove that he wanted to change the Wisconsin Idea all along! That absolute dick! And so on. You know the outrage drill in politics these days. Every left-wing person in the state spent at least three full days vomiting into the wastebasket next to their computer and failing to find words to express their anger, et cetera.

To a certain extent, the rage has merit. Scott Walker did lie. He really did want to fiddle with the wording of something sacred, despite nobody really knowing what it was in the first place. But he wasn’t fiddling with the wording of the Wisconsin Idea at all; he was altering the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement, which owes its inspiration to the Wisconsin Idea and essentially asks its faculty, students, and staff to consider their education as an act of public service. The governor wanted to change the public service bit so it would read something like, “try to bring more jobs to the state,” which is the way people with a bad ear for poetry try to express philosophical notions. If anything, his lie, his petty attempt to change something like this, proves that he’s a nitpicky, controlling person who will stop at nothing to inflict his personal vision on the people of this state whether they like it or not, or know about it or not. We’re all horrified by the prospect of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States, but you can rest assured that a Scott Walker Presidency would have been a painful and embarrassing experience, too.

In any case, the only satisfactory explanation of the Wisconsin Idea appears in Charles McCarthy’s 1912 book called, imaginatively enough, The Wisconsin Idea, which only a small cohort of weaselly graduate students of Wisconsin history have ever read, and even on the University of Wisconsin website’s Wisconsin Idea page, there isn’t much by way of a definition of it, just a summary of the idea and a statement, in quotes and italicized, attributed to Charles Van Hise, who was the university president in 1904: “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every home in the state.

Now, the first thing you need to know about College Avenue in Appleton is that, yeah, there is a college in that part of town, Lawrence University, but it’s a small private college and its version of partying is an exceptionally timid popcorn fart compared to the hydrogen bomb of partying at a major public university like the University of Wisconsin, which has been a perennial podium finisher in nearly every list of America’s Top Ten Party Schools you can find, for reasons best encapsulated by the esteemed Harrison Lee of Total Frat Move who writes, “It’s all about the students and the mindset that, despite their shortcomings, they’re still going to go out more, drink more, and rage more than any other school in the country. Go visit Madison for a week, and you’ll see what I’m saying. It’s chaos.” But College Avenue, the crown jewel bar zone of America’s Drunkest City, is not the by-product of a bunch of frat boys doing beer bongs before the big game. No, this is a place where professionals come to play!

On Saturday, at three in the afternoon, my wife and I showed up at a nice little bar called Bazil’s, a typical Wisconsin place with mostly normal (non-artisanal) beer on tap and a wide selection of fried (and not locally sourced) items on the menu. The place wasn’t exactly jumping, but nearly every seat in the bar was occupied by people having quiet, friendly, chuckling conversations; no outrage, no venom, no mention of the ongoing disaster that social media guarantees us is ongoing and permanent. These were grownups in the bar, too, people in their thirties and forties and fifties and sixties, and while it was difficult to tell whether these patrons had college degrees from the University of Wisconsin System, it was safe to assume a number of them did. The system is huge, and its graduates live everywhere in the state and occupy all walks of life. My wife and I hold degrees from the system, too, and we’re damned proud of it.

We found a seat at the bar, near the middle, with a good view of the baseball game, and the bartender approached us and said, “What’ll you have?”

We said, “Bloody Marys!”

“Now that,” the bartender said, “is a really good idea.”




Mike Magnuson

Mike Magnuson is the author of two novels, The Right Man for the Job and The Fire Gospels; two memoirs, Lummox: The Evolution of a Man and Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180; and book of cycling humor, Bike Tribes: A Field Guide to North American Cyclists. His short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Salon, Esquire, Gentleman’s Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, Men’s Health, Backpacker, Popular Mechanics, and other publications, and he has written many features for Bicycling magazine. He lives in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he is finishing a novel about the 1944 Tour of Flanders. He also teaches prose writing in Pacific University’s Brief-Residency MFA Program in Forest Grove, Oregon.

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