Friday, April 6, 2012

The Wisconsin Oleo War

I saw a post on facebook the other day claiming oleomargine was originally manufactured to feed turkeys; and when it was discovered it actually killed the turkeys, it was then manufactured for human consumption.
I couldn't find where it killed turkeys but I did discover that to my surprise, Oleo isn't a new 20th century product, originating clear back to Louis-NapolĂ©on Bonaparte III  who offered a reward to anyone who could invent a tasty substitute for butter.  Apparently even in the 19th Century people though real butter was expensive. Click HERE for the history of oleomargarine on Wilkipedia.

What I do know is my mother was involved in the Oleo Wars in the 1950's.  Yes, my own quiet sweet Mother was a Butter Rebel.   Although we lived in Iowa, we crossed the Mississippi River over to Prarie Du Chein, Wisconsin to shop at the Piggly Wiggly. (remember, in previous genealogy posts my mother's family were French-Canadians who came down the Mississippi River)  I think mother thought the Piggly Wiggly was much cheaper except for...............

Butter!  You HAD to buy Butter in Wisconsin, as oleo margarine was outlawed.  Apparently the dairy industry in the 1950's had a HUGE clout in the policies of Wisconsin and clamoring housewives be damned.

So Mom would pile us into the car and head the car for the short drive to Prairie Du Chein.  When we got to Marquette where the bridge over began, as you went up the incline right before the actual bridge started, there was a Mom & Pop grocery store. 
Main Street of Marquette,Iowa.  If you look above the shorter building, you can see the guard rails on the approach to the old bridge my Mom used to take to drive to the Piggly Wiggly.  The bridge has since been replaced so I think this is the now the approach to nowhere.
The store had a huge sign (up on the bluff over it if I remember right but I was pretty little but apparently old enough to read) that said "LAST CHANCE FOR OLEO" and in much smaller letters under that "Green Stamps".    Mom was always careful to stop at this store AFTER the trip to the new, modern, huge (and very small by today's standards) Piggly Wiggly in the Butter State.  Years later I came across a partially filled book of green stamps from this store but I don't know what happened to it.  I also don't remember what my Mom redeemed her green stamps for.  Probably a gravy boat or something!

So Mom never bought butter in Wisconsin and we always stopped for Oleo in Marquette and whatever else she thought was cheaper on the Iowa side of the river.  I do remember the oleo was white and it came with a coloring packet you stirred into to make it look like butter.

I dunno; maybe it did kill those turkeys.


  1. Fun post. As a kid in Nevada, I can remember mashing the red bubble of color and working it through the white stuff so it would turn yellow like butter. My aunt had a dairy farm in New Mexico and was quite involved in getting laws passed that prevented the sale of margarine that was already colored yellow. Now in my old age, I use only butter -- whipped butter, that is. My aunt would be proud.

  2. Happened on this today -- and so happy to read it. I live in Prairie du Chien and work at the library in McGregor. I remember my parents talking about Butter and Oleo - and I think the store that sold Oleo in Marquette is still open, but as a Hardware store (unless I've confused my locations, but there aren't too many locations to confuse in Marquette.) I remember the bridge too; it was taken down when I was four, but I still remember it swaying (and I would hold my breath, hoping we'd all get over it safely)

  3. Wow this is like hearing from a long lost cousin! Glad you stopped by!

  4. My folks always bought oleo and then later tub margarine. It wasn't until I was married that I was in a house where there was only butter. Now I actually find margarine a bit strange.

  5. I remember the days of my youth in Wisconsin when colored oleo was illegal. Every year, around Christmas, the TV stations would always do a story about some granny doing an oleo run to Illinois or the UP to buy the stuff for her Christmas cookies. You'd think it was Al Capone's wife making a booze run. Still a fond childhood memory. And I remember, when the stuff was made legal, the boxes used to have tax stamps on them. But all I buy is butter. Unsalted.