Barnstorming the Midwest: Stevens Point

Abortion, tensions with Native Americans, anti-labor sentiments, and rurality…and northern Wisconsin stayed in the Democratic column from 1969 until 2011. Why? I headed to Stevens Point, in part, to fill in my dissertation with two striking figures in Wisconsin political history, Dave Obey and Lee Dreyfus, known for different reasons: longevity and disruption, respectively.

First, I have to make sure that it’s known that part of my support and funding for this trip came from the generosity of a Congressional Research Grant from the Everett Dirksen Congressional Center. They were kind enough to see promise in my dissertation and support this trip to Stevens Point and future trips to Des Moines and Madison.

Stevens Point and North-Central Wisconsin are, for my dissertation, a kind of odd region. They’re not a district that whips into the conservative column like the northeast (Green Bay and the Fox Valley) in 1978, where conservative Democrats like Gervase Hephner tried to redirect the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. They’re not a swing district like the northwest and western 3rd District (think Al Baldus in Menomonie) where straight-line family farming issues returned to the foreground during the Farm Crisis of the mid-1980s, forcing GOP Rep. Steve Gunderson (here’s something on him from River Falls) to pivot back toward the middle.

No, there’s a weird hodge-podge of issues wrapped up in Wisconsin’s 7th District. There’s labor in Wausau, Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids, and Superior, but there’s some family farming here and there, especially of cranberries a little to the south and of potatoes in the greater Point area, thanks to the sandy soil.

Issues (treaty rights and spearfishing, mostly) with Native Americans were always bubbling — and came to a boil in 1990, when an anti-Native, pro-tourism coalition tried (and failed) to recall 22-year U.S. Rep. Dave Obey and Vilas/Oneida Assemblyman James Holperin as Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson’s attempts to get federal injunctions against Ojibwe spearfishing were rebuked in 1989 and again in 1991. Obey’s campaign got a hodgepodge of farmers, labor, and small business to deny his opponents even the 44,000 signatures they needed to recall him, but Holperin had to fight his recall battle both in a March primary and April general election. Obey’s staffers believed that their help, along with Holperin’s making the election a referendum on the recall folks, helped secure victory.[0]

The Research

Long story longer, I headed to UW-Stevens Point to find out just what all made this such a unique region of Democratic longevity in Wisconsin as the rest of the state’s contested congressional districts swung Republican.

The reading room at the UW-Stevens Point archives.

The Wisconsin Historical Society’s Area Research Center, located on the fifth floor of the University Library (something I’ve learned not to take for granted), is managed by Brad Casselberry and Kyle Neill, both of whom were incredibly helpful and friendly throughout the my stay. A huge thank-you to them. Here’s where Dave Obey’s papers, along with those of State Rep. (Snarlin’) Marlin Schneider and UWSP Chancellor/former Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus are kept. So there was a lot to get through.


Dave Obey Papers (60%)
Marlin Schneider Papers (10%)
Lee Dreyfus Papers (30%)


Well-organized, incredibly specific. That’s the Dave Obey campaign model in a nutshell. Thanks to his local campaign adviser, Jerry Madison, Obey was constantly aware of the down-to-the-precinct news and voting trends in his district. Madison wrote biennial election memos to Obey in the month following the campaign, warning on everything from the ineffectiveness of abortion ads targeting Obey in Marathon County to providing Al Baldus advice on where his votes would come from in the 3rd Congressional District.[1] It was organized to the point that he wrote a five-page memo for a county judicial race.[2] The Democrat [Dan LaRocque] won, but that seems even beside the point. This was a professional operation that never missed an opportunity to track and analyze ward-level changes in the 7th District, and it paid dividends.

“The Dem tendency of the North“: How often can you say you hear that when talking about Wisconsin in modern politics? For all the talk of “rural resentment” in Dairyland politics today, it’s a relatively new occurrence. Something to remember… But Obey did run ahead of Gov. Pat Lucey and Sen. Gaylord Nelson in polling and election results in Northern Wisconsin, which Madison attributed to “Democratic Party — not personal — weaknesses…marked Republican resurgence in certain counties hurt Nelson and Lucey as much — or more — as they did DRO. It is clear that in Marathon and Lincoln counties the G.O.P. has made substantial improvements.” [3]

The red vest confused everyone, but signaled change. We’re going to have to figure out what to do with Lee Dreyfus, the UW-Stevens Point Chancellor who ran for–and won–the Republican gubernatorial nomination over eventual Sen. Bob Kasten in 1978, then defeated acting incumbent Martin Schreiber in the general election. The “rag-tag” Dreyfus campaign (in their words) took no polls; assembled what they believed was a coalition of angry citizens; rejected special interest money, TV ads, single-issue voters, Proposition 13 voters, and non-Wisconsin endorsers.[4] This was a campaign, they believed, geared at the pulse of the people of Wisconsin, which the organized parties had lost. So, naturally, it was time to load up a campaign bus (sound familiar?), fire up the oom-pa band, and change Republican politics in Wisconsin.

Dreyfus himself “wasn’t [technically] a Republican” until December 1977, but let’s casually use his keynote speech to the Republican State Convention in May 1977 as something someone who was Definitely Not A Republican [/wink] would say to people he Definitely Didn’t Agree With:

“There are 7562 state legislative seats available in the Untied States, and the Republicans now have 30% of them… I tell you the elections of 1978 and 1980 are Armageddon for your party… Gaining governorships is critical if you are to counter this move in this state, in all states. Hopefully people like you in all states, or at least those 36 states with total Democrat control, will begin to move and the independents will find reason to move to you and help you do the job as I pledge that I will help you.”[5]

As Madison noted in one memo [emphasis his], “1978 was not just a Dreyfus phenomenon. The 7th District is not as impregnable a Democratic stronghold as DRO’s…margins thru 1976 made us believe.”[6] Dreyfus represented (in part) a way forward for the Republican Party of Wisconsin in a way that, while he won in 1980, Bob Kasten and others on what Dreyfus called the “ultra right wing” did not. You’ll have to stay tuned to the dissertation for that.

What is does say, though is that Obey was worried about the traditional forces we think about in the “conservative turn” of the 1980s. By the 1986 election, Obey’s forces believed, “I’M NOT SURE ABOUT LABOR… You cannot count on them to follow their leadership. They are most likely to be led astray by Indian Treaties, NRA, and local taxes. I suggest expanded labor mailing lists and letters geared to pocketbook issues.”[7]

A curious relationship to the state. Obey supported former Gov. Tony Earl in his bid for the U.S. Senate in 1988 (he lost in the primary to billionaire Herb Kohl, who went on to become “Nobody’s Senator But Yours”) and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt in the 1988 Democratic primaries.[7] Neither did well. But throughout Obey’s papers, there’s a disconnect I can’t quite put my finger on between Obey and the rest of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. Obey received some polling and other analysis (that I couldn’t track down) that suggested Earl was the strongest candidate in 1988, but Obey had also kicked around running for that statewide office. That’s the last I find of it, though.[8] The Obey campaign was often critical of other campaigns like Ed Garvey’s 1986 Senate campaign for how they ran in locales like Ashland, Bayfield, and Superior, places where Obey traditionally did well.[9] It doesn’t feel like enough to say “the personal style” worked for Obey, and Garvey/Earl failed to capitalize — what relationship did Obey have to the DPW? Something to look for in the future.

The City


I was lucky enough for this trip to stay in neighboring Plover with our family friends Jackie and Tim. So I owe a huge thank-you to them for taking me in, feeding me, introducing me to the Plover Posse (more on that in a moment), and putting me in touch with an amazing local historian who showed me so much about the area and its heritage.

Things to Do

Zest Bakery and Coffeehouse: 

The counter at Zest Bakery and Coffeehouse in Stevens Point.

Just northwest of campus on Isadore Street, Zest is a cute little coffeehouse that I frequented a number of times for coffee and lunch when the archive would close from noon to 1pm. There was ample seating, the chorizo soup and Cordon Bleu sandwich were very good, and the road construction-themed coffee drinks (Isadore Street was completely torn up, meaning you had to walk through the packed dirt on the street) were excellent. I wish I remembered the name of the drink I had (twice), but it had, I think, toasted marshmallow flavor in there? (Rocky Road feels too obvious — turns out, from the picture, that it’s the Gravel Road, with amaretto and marshmallow. Way to go, Cory!)

Regardless, if you’re on campus, this is the place to go for some gourmet coffee and excellent lunch that’s made on the spot.

Point Brewery. No, we’re not in the beer section yet. I was not able to go, but I think I’ve been told half a dozen times (at least) to check out the history at Point Brewery, which has operated since 1857.

Club Forest, just west of Plover, has Wing Night on Thursday night. If you’re into a townie bar that (and I’m just speculating here) gives out free shots of something gross every time the Packers score (which is gross by itself), this is probably the place. The wings, though, were excellent (they come with all sauces on the side and stand alone just as well), the service was friendly, and the beers were cheap ($2 Leinie’s, I believe).

I was lucky enough to attend this place with my hosts, Jackie and Tim, and a group of friends of theirs from the area–they call themselves the “Plover Posse” and apparently have the shirts to prove it! They were forthcoming with facts and suggestions for the area, and I really enjoyed their willingness to explain the area to an outsider.

Plover Heritage Park: Their generosity didn’t stop at dinner. During dinner, when our conversation returned to a local historian they all knew, one of them pulled out his phone, called him up, and set up a breakfast for the two of us the next morning. Completely out of the blue. So I had the wonderful chance to have breakfast and tour Plover Heritage Park with local historian Anton Anday, who, it turned out, had also been involved in Democratic politics in the area over the last three decades. Anton was wonderful, and the day just got better.

Anton has been one of the primary curators and managers of the Portage County Historical Society’s Heritage Park, a collection of historic buildings on the east side of Plover. Based around the Old Plover Methodist Church and taking up nearly a square block, Heritage Park consists of twelve buildings, including a museum in the old church, a railway depot, the “Circus House” (owned by various circus families over the years) with rooms designed to reflect the styles of various historical eras, an old schoolhouse, and more. I got a two-hour tour with Anton, who took me not only through the museum–complete with the stories of several men and women from Portage County who served in the world wars. The lower level was filled with artifacts, memorabilia, clippings, and more, and in the upper balcony there were “men’s displays” of various tools collected and donated, along with an expansive miniature circus display.

My favorite part of Heritage Park was the one-room schoolhouse, where local students actually get the chance to attend school (as far as I understood it). The rules were there on the board (stand for recitations and answer in complete sentences!), along with the requisite pictures of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the piano, and the stove one student would have had to fill with firewood.

It was incredible to hear just how much work Anton and others have put into Heritage Park. As we toured the railway depot, he explained how many floorboards had rotten and which he’d had to replace, along with the work he’d need to do before a railroad convention visited in September; as he showed me around the agricultural implements shop, he highlighted the “workshop” built to reflect a donor’s father’s old workshop and the posters made by local students. It’s a testament both to the commitment Anton and the PCHS have for historic preservation and the passion Stevens Point- and Plover-area citizens have for remembering their local heritage. My sincerest thanks to Anton, and to Tim, Jackie, Jeff, Lisa, and everyone else who put me in touch with him.


O’So Brewing Company: One of my favorite breweries in the state of Wisconsin, if not the Midwest. O’So is particularly famous for their sour beers, which happen to be extremely My Thing. I actually went there to get work done after a day at the archive, and the bartender happened to be very friendly and forthcoming with information and thoughts about the beers and the brewery.

I learned, in part, about the various challenges with being a small-to-mid-sized brewery in Wisconsin. There are, for one, tensions within the Wisconsin Brewers’ Guild, as some differences in vision for the state’s cooperative brewery efforts (think lobbying, etc.) have emerged with some larger breweries.

A flight of Disco King, Blood of the Cherry 2016, Bruin in a Bramble, and Arbre qui Donne.

On a happier note, though, I learned that small breweries like O’So and Eau Claire’s The Brewing Projekt (I need to post on EC, too) collaborate to help distribute their beer to new markets. Happily for me, that means O’So will be coming (or will have come, since I wrote these notes in August) to the Minneapolis-St. Paul market! For what I could gather, O’So plans to really push their sours in 375 mL bottles, along with hazy IPAs and other offerings. So less one of my Top 10 standard sours, Infectious Groove, and more of the others I’ll list below.

In lieu of recapping and shortening my thoughts, here are the notes I took on my Notepad app as I tasted (these were taster pours, don’t worry):

  • Operation Griswold: Clark (“Juicy Pale Ale”): maybe a little hazy, not as juicy as the standard NEIPA craze that’s currently going on. Light, with notes of tropical fruit on the nose, then a decently juicy body that’s still got a hoppy finish. [Under 5%? Seems odd for an NEIPA-style, unless it’s intentionally a session.] [UPDATE: O’So commented on my Untappd post to tell me it was incorrectly listed on Untappd. So this critique makes a little sense, given that I was thinking of it as a different style.]
  • O-Toberfest: smells also hoppy, weirdly, then settles into a standard malty Marzen with some nuttiness. A little lighter than expected, which isn’t bad for me, since the caramelly sweetness of some Marzens can be cloying.
  • Disco King (blueberries and ginger): sour, with a fruity scent that I guess has to be blueberries — it’s got that harsh, sour bite which gives way to some fruitiness, mostly ginger flavor.
  • Blood of the Cherry (2016): a little boozy cherry flavor to start it, then that harsh sourness right off the bat. This was a blonde? It’s blood-red now, and there’s not a ton of indication that this was every light. Two years will do that to a beer.
  • Bruin in a Bramble: I love Oud Bruins (NG helloooo), and this one had it for me. The soft brown texture of the beer gave way to a bouquet of raspberries that, while not as sweet as I’d hoped, had really nice tartness. This is my winner of the group.
  • Arbre qui Donne (2017): while it tastes like a sour, this is a thick, sticky beer belied by its lighter color. I’ll call it “Sour peaches in heavy syrup,” though that’s not fair because it’s an excellent beer. It’s unmistakably sour on first taste, eventually giving way to a little peachy flavor.

Central Waters Brewery is in nearby Amherst. I wasn’t able to go visit the taproom itself, which was a severe bummer for me, but I think I promised the Plover Posse that I would come back sometime soon. That’s good, because Satin Solitude is one of the best (and most dangerous) stouts out there on the market in Wisconsin.

Great Northern Distillery: Plover has a distillery, too! Jackie took me here on Thursday night before Club Forest, and we each had one of their signature cocktails. I went with the “Improved Root Beer,” which was root beer with lime, simple syrup, egg white, and rum — it wasn’t my favorite of the day, though, as Jackie had what I believe was called a “Spanish coffee” (maybe?), which had some sort of fiery finish to go with another of the liquors (the whiskey, perhaps?) in there. It was very tasty — I just wasn’t in the mood for a hot beverage.

I also had a finger of the rye whiskey (pictured), and it was tasty. Ryes are hit or miss for me, and this one had a lovely smoky finish that really cut into the bite of the whiskey (though I’m also an Islay man, so that might affect my opinion). It’s just a parking lot away from O’So, and has a really nice design and lounge feel (along with the still right there behind floor-to-ceiling windows) that’s inviting to groups as well as individual drinkers.

What’s Next?

I’ve done trips to Cedar Falls (Don Avenson, 1990 Democratic candidate for governor of Iowa). Macomb (Illinois Rep. Lane Evans), and Carbondale (the papers of 1988 Democratic primary contestant and two-term Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois), so hopefully I’ll write about them eventually. There was a one-day trip to Eau Claire, too, that featured amateur baseball and a bad thunderstorm! That was fun.

It was a long September of being on the road, though, and I’m looking forward to staying close to home for a little while.

That is, in part, because I’m working on the draft of a chapter of the dissertation to turn in on October 1. Pray for me, please.

Also, since I’d like to toot my own horn somewhere, I’ll mention (again) that I’ve actually become a published historian in the last month. Check out my chapter (and the other ones that are much better than mine!) in “Replanting the Grassroots: The South Dakota Democratic Party from McGovern to Daschle, 1980-1986,” in Plains Political Tradition vol. 3, eds. Jon Lauck, John Miller, and Paula Nelson (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2018).

Past Trips: Where I’ve Been

Iowa City
St. Paul, St. Cloud
Iron Range, Lake Vermilion Edition
Grand Forks
River Falls
Iron Range, Biwabik Edition
Des Moines

[0] Jerry and Nelda Madison to Dave Obey, “Some Lessons and Suggestions from 1990 Obey Recall,” June 28, 1990, pp. 1, 3. Box 99, Folder 42, David R. Obey Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, Stevens Point Area Research Center, UW-Stevens Point. Hereafter referred to as Obey Papers.

[1] Jerry Madison to Dave Obey, “Staff & 1976,” n.d., p. 1. Box 99, Folder 13, Obey Papers. Jerry Madison to Al Baldus, 3rd Cong. District,” n.d. (c. 1974), p. 1. Box 99, Folder 14, Obey Papers.

[2] Jerry Madison to Dave Obey, “Summary Notes Concerning Dan’s Election,” April 19, 1977. Box 99, Folder 18, Obey Papers.

[3] Democratic North-related notes from Madison to Obey, “Staff & 1976,” p. 1; Madison to Obey, “Comparison to Lucey-Nelson,” April 5, 1975, pp. 1-2. Box 99, Folder 13, Obey Papers.

[4] William M. Kraus, Let the People Decide (Aurora, IL: Caroline House Publishers, Inc., 1982), pp. 241-242. A particularly hurtful quote can also be found on p. 12: “No one knows why campaigns are won or lost, although every pundit and historian thinks they do.”

[5] Lee Sherman Dreyfus, Transcript of “Keynote Speech to the Republican State Convention,” May 21, 1977, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, p. 3. Lee Sherman Dreyfus Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, Stevens Point Area Research Center, UW-Stevens Point. Hereafter referred to as Dreyfus Papers.

[6] Madison to Obey, “1980 County Analysis, November 16, 1980, p. 3. Box 99, Folder 22, Obey Papers.

[7] Madison to Obey, “1986 Election Ward, RE: Ward Analysis,” c. November 1986, pp. 21-22. Box 99, Folder 35, Obey Papers.

[8] Press releases: “Obey supports former Governor Earl in Senate race,” January 5, 1988; “Obey endorses Gephardt,” March 11, 1988. Box 100, Folder 19, Obey Papers.

[9] “Obey supports former Governor Earl in Senate race,” January 5, 1988; Madison to Obey, “1986 Election Ward, RE: Ward Analysis,” c. November 1986, p. 26.

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