The New Immigrants

Curtiss, Wisconsin, was settled more than 150 years ago by Norwegians and Germans. Today, most of its residents are from Mexico. Yet the divergent paths of immigration to this outstate farm town are more similar than you would think.

Located in the middle of north-central Wisconsin, Curtiss is a town you pass by on your way somewhere else. There are no “Up North” tourism attractions, no prominent lakes, forests or rivers. The closest city, Wausau, is 41 miles to the east.

My father-in-law grew up on a dairy farm 2 miles outside of Curtiss, part of a closely knit Norwegian community. Every other year, give or take a few, my husband Bob and I travel to Curtiss on a mid-July Sunday for family reunions involving the descendants of various Oles and Peders and Tandlokkens from the Lillehammer region of Norway.

When I think of Curtiss, what comes to mind are dairy farms. Lots of them. In fact, Clark County, where Curtiss is located, has more dairy herds than any other county in Wisconsin.

With its history of dairy farming and 19th-century immigration, Curtiss is an iconic Wisconsin village. But it also foreshadows Wisconsin’s future. Sleepy, middle-of-nowhere Curtiss, with 279 people, is now 70 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census’ latest American Community Survey.

“The older white families that lived here, they’ve died or moved out, and now it’s mostly Hispanic,” says Randy Busse, the village president. Busse, a father of five, jokingly says of his family: “We’re the oddballs in town.”

A century ago, Busse would’ve been anything but odd. European immigration was the norm, as Norwegians and Germans, in particular, called Curtiss home.

These European immigrants are now invariably honored as hardworking people who built Wisconsin. Looking through the rose-colored glasses of history, we forget the tensions that existed – the stereotypes of Irish as drunkards, the criticisms of German immigrants who sought to maintain their language and culture.

I wondered: A century from now, how might Hispanic immigrants be viewed, as second and third generations learn English and become “Americanized”? And what might the small town of Curtiss tell us today about this latest wave of American newcomers?

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‘The New Immigrants’ appears in the August 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
The August 2015 issue is on newsstands August 3.
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