Souvenir shopping: What says ‘Wisconsin’?

I have just finished writing a story about Wisconsin for a newspaper in Ireland, and it ends with formulaic lists under this heading: “where to go and stay and what to buy.”

The latter part threw me. What souvenir is distinctly Wisconsin, the state that markets itself as “where originality rules” and – as Gov. Doyle announced recently, through a new state logo – a place to “live like you mean it?” 

It is a delight, but rare, to find a souvenir that helps define a specific part of the world but isn’t mass marketed. You can snag just about anything – a beer stein from Germany, nesting dolls from Russia, molas from Panama, berimbau from Brazil – on eBay or from a domestic retailer whose specialty is global imports.

What is the most unique souvenir in our state? We certainly have plenty to eat and drink that is genuinely Wisconsin, but what is there that is meant to last years and doesn’t carry a “made in China” stamp?

Wisconsinmade.com suggests many things: pottery, handmade candles, soaps, jewelry, suncatchers. I don’t mean to minimize the quality and breadth of inventory at this online clearinghouse but, hey, it’s not like we have a global lock on any of it.

At www.SouvenirHunter.com is a global network of websites about “authentic and official souvenirs and memorabilia,” antiques to T-shirts.

The list for Wisconsin is about cheese, sausage, beer and mustard (because of the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum’s stash). Then there is a link to the Russell Moccasin Co. in Berlin, which has been producing hand-sewn and custom-fit boots and shoes since 1898. The company caters to an elite class of outdoorsmen.

Consider the Alligator/Ostrich Premier Chukka, “handmade to your exact measurements.” A pair sells for $813, in your choice of chocolate brown, black or cognac. Other boots are designed for safaris or Outback adventures. Some styles can be lined with “snakeproof, thornproof Turtleskin SnakeArmor or ThornArmor” for an extra fee.

The products might be one-of-a-kind, but they aren’t a measure of the Wisconsin lifestyle, so let’s keep looking for the right souvenir. I was reminded of two ideas while in La Crosse this month, for the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism.

Nothing compares to the staying power of Wisconsin’s Cheesehead and Cheddarhead merchandise. Both product lines, in response to name calling by Flatlanders that began in the 1980s, have entered their second decade of business.

Downtown on La Crosse’s popular Pearl Street is the shop Cheddarheads, which defines and honors the passion and quirkiness that distinguish Wisconsin from other Midwest states.

“You might be a Cheesehead,” one T-shirt proclaims, “if you can polka to Led Zepplin, your dream date is a brewery tour, your favorite suit is blaze orange, your wedding party wore green and gold …”

This is one definition of “Wisconsin pride,” and shop owner/cartoonist T.J. Peterslie has been in business since 1986. He also has been working to have 120 of his Cheddarhead panels published into book form. About all he needs is a publisher.

There used to be about 80 of his T-shirt designs on the market at one time. Now it’s more like 25; the lower number makes his business easier to manage.

Near Milwaukee, Ralph Bruno and his crew continue to churn out yellow foam wedge hats and other Cheesehead merchandise at Foamation Inc. “It was blind faith,” he told me in 2006, as his company was about to enter its 20th year.

When seeking a $5,000 loan to start the business, it was hard to find a banker who would take him seriously, so Ralph used his own credit card at 18 percent interest. Today more than 70 products make up the Cheesehead merchandise line, and Foamation also takes on custom orders, like corn-shaped Huskerheads for Nebraska sports fans.

“It’s the whole Wisconsin spirit of taking a negative and turning it into a positive,” surmises Jeffrey Price, whose House of Wisconsin Cheese on Madison’s State Street is big on state souvenirs, including Cheesehead items. That is how he explains the staying power of this merchandise in Wisconsin.

When one generation gets its fill, the next finds its way to these products, which also routinely become gifts of endearment – or irritation – for out-of-state residents.

For T.J. in La Crosse, business remains good, but warehousing can too easily mushroom into a challenge – especially in Wisconsin, where the sizing needs to run from small to triple XL.

For more:

Foamation Inc., 3775 S. Packard Ave., St. Francis (Milwaukee County outlet store) – www.cheesehead.com, 800-FOAM-FUN

The Cheddarheads, 215 Pearl St., La Crosse, and 122 State St., Madison – www.cheddarheads.com, 608-784-8899

House of Wisconsin Cheese, 107 State St., Madison – www.houseofwisconsincheese.com, 800-955-0238

Russell Moccasin Co., 285 S.W. Franklin St., Berlin – www.russellmoccasin.com, 920-361-2252