Wisconsin banned selling yellow margarine for 72 years, so residents smuggled it in from Illinois
That margarine in your refrigerator? Until 52 years ago, it was against the law to buy it in Wisconsin.
In 1895, the state, to protect its dairy farmers, banned the manufacture and sale in the state of yellow oleomargarine. If you wanted to buy margarine in Wisconsin, you could only get it in unappetizing white. And, on top of that, you had to pay an extra tax on it for the privilege.
Wisconsin wasn't the only state to try to, um, cream margarine sales back then. But as the federal government began easing restrictions, other states began backing off, too.
By the time Minnesota rescinded its ban on the sale of yellow margarine in 1963, Wisconsin was the last holdout.
As the barriers went down in neighboring states, Wisconsin consumers headed for the border to get the cheaper, appetizing-looking butter substitute. And thus began the golden age of the "oleo run."
In the 1950s and 1960s, heading over to Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa or even Michigan to pay less for margarine that looked like butter was a budgetary necessity for some, a pastime for others. Brewers Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Uecker used to like to say he actually was born in Illinois, while his parents were there to pick up some oleo.
Here are some of the highlights of those wild days.
1953: Lawbreakers were everywhere
The state's agriculture chief admitted that there was "widespread violation" of state law that required consumers to buy a $1 license before bringing colored margarine back into Wisconsin, not to mention an extra 6-cents-a-pound tax.
1954: Even a sheriff was on the wrong side of the margarine law
In Appleton, Sheriff Lyman B. Clark was caught up in a scandal when he was accused of "smuggling" illegal colored oleomargarine into the Outagamie County Jail to feed to prisoners. Clark, who denied any intentional wrongdoing, was later fined $50. (He didn't seek re-election.)
1958: A 'police state,' but for dairy
A spokesman for the American Soybean Association, which opposed the yellow margarine ban, called the state's tax "a yellow curtain."
"It is an open secret that Wisconsin citizens travel across state lines into Illinois and Iowa to purchase yellow margarine," he said. " … The state has inspectors at the border to detect violators. This certainly smacks of police state methods."
1963: 16 tons, times 2
During a debate in the Legislature over repealing the state's 15-cent-a-pound tax on oleomargarine, a Democratic state representative from Racine claimed that 64,000 pounds of oleo — 32 tons — was bootlegged into Wisconsin each week because of the state's ban on yellow margarine and high oleo taxes.
1964: Legal and lonely
Only 59 Wisconsin families "legally" used colored margarine, according to state tax records. (For comparison, the Milwaukee Journal's annual Consumer Analysis survey showed that an estimated 134,500 bought margarine, yellow or otherwise, monthly.)
1964: Women lead the charge
Members of the Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs organize over-the-border shopping trips to Illinois to stock up on the contraband. The group ends up leading the fight for repeal in the Legislature.
1965: Failing the taste test
State Sen. Gordon Roseleip, a Republican from Darlington and one of the staunchest supporters of a ban the sale of colored margarine, took a taste test — during June Dairy Month — and flunked it, identifying oleo as butter.
In 1990, a year after Roseleip died, his daughter revealed the reason: His family had been secretly feeding the 270-pound legislator smuggled-in margarine, coloring it yellow and passing it off as butter, to help control his weight.
1966: 'A cross of oleomargarine'
The state Assembly approved a bill legalizing colored oleomargarine, leading Assembly Leader Frank Nikolay to say the measure would "crucify the family-sized farmer on a cross of oleomargarine."
1967: God made butter
Roseleip, still fighting to keep yellow margarine out of Wisconsin — and still unaware he was regularly consuming it — makes his last stand in the Legislature: "Why did God Almighty manufacture butter? To build good bodies for the future of this nation. … This oleo isn't the true stuff, don't kid yourself."
1967: A yellow-letter day
Gov. Warren Knowles signs the bill repealing Wisconsin's 72-year-old ban on the sale of colored oleomargarine. At the bill signing, he's flanked by 10 women, several of them from the Wisconsin Federal of Women's Clubs, who had been leading the fight for repeal. The women, including Knowles' wife, were all dressed in butter yellow.
Today: Revenge of the oleo-bashers
One last remnant of Wisconsin's anti-oleo campaign is still on the books: Restaurants and public institutions are barred from serving margarine as a substitute for table butter unless a diner asks for it or both butter and margarine are offered. If you're caught and convicted, the maximum penalty is a $500 fine and three months in jail for a first offense — and up to a year for each offense after that.
The penalty is similar to those for class B and C misdemeanors such as harassing phone calls or electronic messages; disorderly conduct; food stamp fraud of less than $100; and letting a prisoner escape.
The law is not enforced, but recent efforts to end the law were unsuccessful.