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The Changing Faces of Innocence: Wisconsin's Immigrant Children

The Changing Faces of Innocence: Wisconsin's Immigrant Children

This photo exhibit is designed to capture the multinational character of children who have come to Wisconsin in successive waves of immigration throughout the state's history. By focusing specifically on children, this project vividly uncovers a rarely-told chapter in the history of Wisconsin's immigrant tradition. The medium of photography gives voice to a group that has been and continues to be rarely recorded in the printed word.

This exhibit was especially created for the Sesquicentennial through the cooperative efforts of the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin and the Madison Public Library.


Immigrant Family at Ellis Island

Immigrant family at Ellis Island

Before Wisconsin attained statehood in 1848, the frontier territory was already a natural home for American Indian children as well as early English, Irish, French, German, Scandinavian and Swiss settlers. Immigration decreased during the Civil War, and after it was concluded, Polish and other Eastern European children came over with their families in increasing numbers, well into the next century. This photo depicts a family around the turn of the century while waiting at Ellis Island, the primary gate of immigration at that time. Ellis Island regulations required immigrants to check in their parcels and belongings, but some clung to their possessions as they waited in their best clothes to undergo medical exams and immigration control. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Italian children joined the wave of emigration to Wisconsin rural towns and cities. After the Second World War, immigrant children increasingly came from Latin America and Asia. The period from 1975 has witnessed an intensification of this trend, particularly with the thousands of Hmong refugee children who escaped the communist regime in Laos and refugee camps in Thailand to immigrate to Wisconsin and other areas in the United States. Communities in Wisconsin formed in Milwaukee, Green Bay, Wausau, Eau Claire, Madison and Appleton. Wisconsin now has the second largest Hmong population in the United States after California. Today, on the streets of Madison and Milwaukee and on the playground, children can be heard speaking Russian. The arrival of succeeding ethnic groups has meant that the appearance, language and cultural heritage of immigrants has changed over the course of time, just as definition of who is native has been transformed throughout the state's history.

Whi (X3) 13380
Classified file 529


Ukranian Refugees

Walja 3, Lida 5 and Wira Holubiw, ages 3, 5 and 7 are Ukrainian refugee girls on their journey from a Refugee camp in Poland to Woodruff, WI

Immigrant youth have settled in Wisconsin as young entrepreneurs, refugees and adopted children. The driving force behind emigration has differed by ethnic group and historical circumstance. In the early years, Amish farmers, English Dissenters and Free-thinkers embarked on a journey which led to Wisconsin in order to practice their religion freely and to enjoy civil liberties. Immigrant families have also sought a better life for their children based on economic difficulties in their homeland which included high taxation and land mortgage foreclosures as well as poor working and living conditions. Crop failures in Switzerland in 1845 prompted the Swiss, for example, to emigrate and settle in New Glarus and surrounding townships. Faced with a similar situation in the late 1840s, the Irish came to Wisconsin and settled in Erin Prairie and in Washington, Ozaukee, Lafayette, Brown and Sheboygan counties. Eastern European Jews sought refuge from pogroms in Eastern Europe around the turn of the century, only later to be joined by European Jews escaping or surviving Nazi campaigns of racial persecution. This picture depicts three shy Ukrainian sisters on route to the United States from a displaced persons camp in Poland, where the children were born after the Second World War. Through the Church World Services, a Wisconsin resident sponsored this family uprooted by war, and the family was given a farmhouse in Woodruff, WI.

Whi classified file 3937


Vegetable Stand

Menomonee River Boom Co. Garden
Marinette, WI Sept.. 5, 1895

In addition to factory jobs, many families chose to settle in Wisconsin because of the state's farmlands, which were reported to be vast and inexpensive. Families took great pride in their gardens' bountiful yields as this picture suggests, and yet this photo was used for a very specific reason -- to attract settlers to Northern Wisconsin. The picture appeared in a 1895 guide titled Northern Wisconsin, a hand-book for the homeseeker. The guide boasted: "The gardener with his wife and child stands beside the sweet corn, which bears numerous large ears ready for use. In front of them is the table on which we observe cabbages, carrots, rutabagas, squash, onions, cucumbers, etc., all grouped so as to give a good idea of what can be produced in a well cared for garden in this section of the state." However, families who settled in some areas of Northern Wisconsin found that the productivity of the soil was often short-lived.

Photo by Harvey Pictures
Whi (H44) 94


Edgar and Jennie Krueger


Edgar and Jennie Krueger, September, 1904

Immigrant families brought with them a wealth of cultural traditions, and gradually many of these customs become a part of the eclecticism that we call American culture. From St. Patrick's Day to Christmas, ethnic cultural traditions have found a broad appeal. The tradition of the Christmas tree, for example, originated in seventeenth century Germany and was brought over to the United States by German immigrants. Our present image of Santa Claus has its roots in the drawings of Thomas Nast, a German-born immigrant and political cartoonist. The Easter egg hunt is another custom first enjoyed by German children which has become an integral holiday tradition within American culture.

Whi (K91) 297

Cow Training

"Training While Young" cc. 1907

Many immigrant families depended on their children, relying on the speed with which children learned English, but also on their children's earning capabilities. Rural and urban children were employed in various sectors of the economy, from side jobs like peddling gum and newspapers or shining shoes to working in textile millls, factories and farms. In cities throughout Wisconsin, immigrant children could be found working in the brewing and textile industries, as well as in workshops, bakeries and butcher shops which were often family owned. In mid nineteenth century Milwaukee, young girls often went into domestic service at the age of eleven or twelve. From 1870-1900, the number of children between the ages of ten and fifteen who were employed more than doubled from 750,000 to 1,750,000, and many of these children were of course immigrants. In rural Wisconsin, immigrant children and succeeding generations of children assisted their parents on the family farm. In this picture, Edgar Krueger is seen trying to train two twin calves, while Edgar's sister Jennie looks on from a distance.

Whi (K91) 311- Krueger Collection


Children Dancing

April 22, 1963
Jerry Sterr, Richard Leine, Guy Schiller and Michael Unger

German cultural traditions have been passed down to succeeding generations through various forms. The city of Milwaukee was known as the "German Athens" on Lake Michigan for its professional German theater established as early as 1855. Turner Hall was established in 1854 in Milwaukee and the Sociale Turnverein, the Social Gymnastics Organization soon offered a gymnastic school for boys, a rifle squad, singing and dramatic troupes, exhibitions, sports competitions, debates and occasional balls. Moreover, they strongly encouraged girls to partake in sporting events, challenging a cultural taboo. Festivals and of course the Milwaukee Folk Fair provided the ideal venue for German singing and dancing groups to perform. The boys featured in this photo perform in a Bavarian folk festival held annually in Milwaukee from 1935.

Photograph by John A. Murray
Whi (X3) 50935, Classified File 3775


Hispanic Mural

July 9, 1971 Youth Center at 810 S. 6th St. Milwaukee

Young immigrants often develop an American identity while still retaining an identification with the history and poltical events of their native country. In this photo taken in 1971, Joseph Medina, 14, Ester Burgos, 15, and Roberto Lara, 18, paint murals on the exterior building of The Spot, a youth center run for Latin American teens at 810 S. 6th Street in Milwaukee. The mural incorporates the Puerto Rican and Mexican flags as well as the political figures Perdo Abizu Campos, Emiliano Zapata and Che Guevara. These highly expressive images refer to the historic struggle for independence in Latin America, which continues to weigh heavily on the minds of these Hispanic youth, as a central component of their self definition. Local area businessmen admired the murals and offered to pay the young artists to decorate their buildings.

Whi (X3) 51535, CF 885



Appleton Diversity Fest

Appleton Diversity Fest, July 13, 1997

Festivals from Festa Italiana to Indian Summer expose the state's increasingly multiethnic youth to a wide variety of distinct ethnic traditions, as immigrant customs become part of our native cultural heritage. Sue Ann Moua and Maria Peeples captured this spirit when they attend Diversity Fest held in Appleton, Wisconsin in the summer of 1997.

Sue Ann Moua and Maria Peeples
Whi (Luke 4)


This program is supported in part by the Wisconsin Humanities Council with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Exhibit created September 20, 1998