Growing up in Red Wing on our state’s eastern border, Jim Million lobbed many an insult at his dairy-loving neighbors from Wisconsin.
He had gripes about their sports teams and complaints about his fellow teenagers’ driving. But mostly, he used one nickname for Wisconsinites: cheeseheads.
Now 71 and living in Fridley, “It struck me that I’d never heard a cheesehead’s retort,” said Million. (Yes, that’s his real name.) Was there a North Star State equivalent of the demonym cheesehead?
Million’s slow-burning curiosity led him to pose his question to Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune’s community reporting project fueled by questions from readers. This question won a voting round to be selected for reporting.
The answer has about as many holes as a wheel of Wisconsin Emmentaler.
Minnesotans living on both sides of the border, some Wisconsinites and even some Iowans (not that we care what you think, Iowa!) weighed in, but there was no consensus on a nickname for Minnesotans as succinct or ubiquitous as cheesehead.
The lack of a single, standard nickname might have something to do with the fact that many Minnesotans share an ancestry, a landscape and even a Midwestern accent with many Wisconsinites. Those not-so-distinct differences lead to more of a friendly sibling rivalry than all-out interstate strife.
Or maybe it’s because Minnesotans are just so darn nice, their neighbors can’t think of a bad thing to say about them.
“There’s something to be said for that,” said James P. Leary, co-founder of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The vitriol is saved for the Illinoisans.”
Indeed, Wisconsinites have some unprintable epithets for their neighbors to the south, mainly for those who hail from the Windy City. And to the northeast? We all tend to call people from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula “Yoopers.”
As for Minnesotans, there have been some halfhearted attempts to label us, mostly in reference to our sports teams (“VikeQueens,” “Twinkies,” “Goophers”).
In his 1998 book, “Wisconsin Folklore,” Leary retold a joke he’d heard among Rice Lake, Wis., residents about Minnesota tourists. But it doesn’t exactly sting: “What’s the difference between a cheesehead and a blockhead? The St. Croix River.” That nickname clearly had no staying power.
Kenosha, Wis.-born stand-up comedian Jeff Cesario said there was an attempt to get “loon” into the lexicon, but “it never got traction because I don’t think it has any bite,” he said. Besides, “I’m not sure cheeseheads can hold a grudge long enough to come up with a name,” he joked.
Lighthearted, dark side
Ezra Zeitler, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, routinely surveys his beginning-level human geography classes about state nicknames. The only one he’s turned up for Minnesotans was “mud duck.” As in, bottom-feeder.
Mud duck is used only in western Wisconsin, Zeitler said, but “students from Minnesota generally are familiar with the term.”
The Star Tribune archives back up some use of the term. A 1987 story about Twin Cities commuters who live in Hudson asks why anyone would “choose, against all logic, to be a Cheesehead (Wisconsinite) instead of a Mud Duck (Minnesotan).”
While the term might have origins among duck hunters, it also has a darker side, which perhaps kept it from gaining traction. In other parts of the country, the term has been used to disparage interracial relationships.
“It’s used by the crassest and crudest of people you can find on the internet. And those are not Wisconsinites,” said Grant Barrett, host of the public radio program “A Way With Words,” in a 2011 episode about the term.
It did surface during the trial of Minnesotan Chai Soua Vang, who was convicted in 2009 of shooting eight people on a hunting trip in northwestern Wisconsin, killing six. Vang’s defense claimed that the hunters used racial slurs against him in a verbal dispute, leading Vang to shoot them in self-defense. Allegedly, “mud duck” was one of the slurs.
In court, one of the survivors said another hunter “might have earlier said Vang was ‘probably one of those mud ducks,’ but he denied that it referred to Vang’s race — Hmong,” the Star Tribune wrote at the time of the trial. “He said it means Vang, who is from St. Paul, is a Minnesotan.”
Zeitler, who grew up in eastern Wisconsin, first heard the term mud duck in reference to Minnesotans when he was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in the 1990s. Back then, it “was used as a lighthearted pejorative that my good-natured Minnesotan peers brushed off in the same manner that we Wisconsin folks did when being called cheeseheads,” he said.
Zeitler said he never came across any other blanket terms for Minnesotans, “but I’d gather that being called a Viking fan is probably the lowliest name anyone from Wisconsin can bestow.”
And cheesehead, which at its worst translates to “cheese for brains,” is seemingly as low as a Minnesotan can go.
“Nobody on the Minnesota side said it with any great admiration, I can tell you that,” Million said of his cheesehead-slinging days in Red Wing. “It wasn’t necessarily nasty, but it was certainly meant to be, at a minimum, marginally demeaning.”
State-style sibling rivalry?
The origins of cheesehead, however, are innocent.
It was only a small-time put-down until 1987, when Milwaukee native Ralph Bruno made a wedge-shaped hat out of a sofa cushion and brought it to a Milwaukee Brewers game. It didn’t take long after that to gather momentum as a nickname and as a fashion accessory at the state’s professional stadiums — especially Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers.
As the cheesehead moniker spread, “I thought it was a compliment,” Bruno said in an article that ran in the Star Tribune that year. “Being from Wisconsin and liking cheese … it didn’t offend me.”
After all, cheese is something Wisconsinites take pride in. Cheesehead, therefore, is a name that few would find insulting.
“I love cheese, and I love the Packers,” said Tom Dufek, the Madison-based co-founder (along with a Minnesotan) of Plain Spoke canned cocktails. “We have eight kinds of cheese in our fridge right now, so I think it fits.”
How does Dufek respond to someone who calls him cheesehead? “I think we call them ‘Minnesotans,’ ” he said.
The only other response to the question of a Minnesota nickname came from Erica Pearson, a Star Tribune reporter who was raised in northwestern Wisconsin. “Oh, yeah, we call them swampies,” she deadpanned. “Because our lakes are better. Don’t quote me on that.” (Sorry, Erica.)
Although no one else we spoke to had heard that term, there were plenty of wordier insults hurled at Minnesota’s bodies of water.
“I did hear that Minnesota’s motto should be ‘The Land of 10,000 Lakes and 5,000 Fish,’ ” said Des Moines Register news reporter Tony Leys, who left the Badger State for Iowa 31 years ago.
Pete Sullivan, an editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said, “Minnesotans are thought of as the people usually confused with Wisconsinites, but who only have one Great Lake.”
Perhaps Minnesotans and Wisconsinites aren’t all that different, after all, sharing an identity crisis that extends across much of the Midwest.
That’s what Mike Draper, author of “The Midwest: God’s Gift to Planet Earth,” thinks.
“The main thing we have going for us are these small rivalries,” said Draper, who also owns Raygun clothing shops in Des Moines, Kansas City and Chicago. “Otherwise it’s this mass in the middle of the country no one can tell apart.”
When they were being formed, some Midwestern states had border disputes that continue to fuel modern-day grumblings, Draper said. Wisconsin lost the Upper Peninsula to Michigan after Michigan lost Toledo to Ohio. Kansas, a free state, and Missouri, a slave state, saw violence erupt along their shared border.
But “Minnesota and Wisconsin would have been carved out of the same territory,” Draper said, leading us today to a more peaceful coexistence, with only grudges about dairy products and lakes to come between us.
That doesn’t mean Minnesota doesn’t get its share of ridicule.
Among Wisconsinites and others in the Midwest, there’s a perception that Minnesotans see themselves as separate from — perhaps even better than — the rest, Draper said.
His store sells a T-shirt called “Midwest Rivalry.” This is what’s written inside Minnesota’s state outline: “I am very complex. Really. I am kind of my own region.”
And in Wisconsin, under an arrow pointing west, it says: “World’s Biggest Eyeroll.”
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