aimee suzanne kruse-ross | neville now | june 2015
In 1948, coinciding with Wisconsin's centennial, the first Alice in Dairyland was crowned to serve as the state's agricultural ambassador. Margaret (McGuire) Blott was the first woman to hold that honor and a special exhibit dedicated to Alice was erected at the state fair. A highlight of the exhibit was a 10-foot robotic “doll," created in Margaret's likeness. The technological marvel could sit, stand and even “speak" to visitors. The exhibit was so well received that selecting a new Alice in Dairyland became an annual tradition, one that endures to this day.
During its early years, the role of Alice in Dairyland was similar to that of a beauty queen. Qualifications for the role of Alice were simple enough. At the time, candidates were expected to have “beauty and health, general personality and the ability to present herself and her message before large groups." Today the role of Alice has evolved and is that of an experienced public relations professional chosen to represent Wisconsin's $88 billion industry.
Over the past 70 years, Brown County has had the honor of hosting the Alice finalists on four separate occasions: in 1958 at St. Norbert College, in 1967 at Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena, in 1978 at the Carlton Inn West and 2017 in a sold-out ceremony at Lambeau Field.
To honor the return of the ceremony to Brown County, the Neville Museum, with assistance from the UW Extension, sought to present a special collection of artifacts worthy of Alice's storied history.
“This was an amazing partnership with the UW Extension," says Neville Executive Director, Beth Lemke. “They asked if we'd provide a case, and I said we can do better than that; we'll make an entire exhibit."
With few initial historical artifacts on hand, designing a full-scale exhibit took considerable time.
“From start to finish, designing and building the exhibit took about one year," says Neville Museum Curator, Lisa Kain. “One of our biggest challenges was gathering information from the previous 69 Alices. We really didn't have much to start with."
A group effort was launched to curate the items and their histories. Says Lemke, “This was a community collaboration from various sources that all worked really hard to bring this project to reality."
The result is an exhibit that pays homage to the 69 ladies to serve as Alice, as well as highlights in more detail several of the unique women to serve in that capacity. The exhibit, however, isn't solely focused on Alice, but offers a glimpse at both agriculture and the state of Wisconsin as seen through the eyes of Alice.
On display are many Alice in Dairyland effects including an original crown and jewelry featuring Wisconsin-mined amethysts and a mink and pearl-studded collar courtesy of the state's fur trade.
Other items are evidence of Alice's role as a state ambassador and the collection boasts the keys to both the city of New Orleans and Memphis, which were presented to Alice during her travels.
The exhibit offers a little something for everyone and that includes children. Many of the displays offer a hands-on method of education that kids will find fun as they learn about Wisconsin's agriculture. One such display is a felted “garden," which allows children to “harvest" various Wisconsin-grown vegetables from the ground.
“We tried to incorporate elements that would interest and educate children," says Kain. “So you'll find a lot of tactile displays that include flip panels, puzzles and more."
The resulting gallery of Alice in Dairyland is not to be missed, offering a family-friendly glimpse at Wisconsin history and tradition that will appeal to both seasoned historians and newcomers alike.
“Alice in Dairyland" runs through July 9, 2017 at the Neville Public Museum and is featured in both English and Spanish. For more information on this and other exhibits, please visit Nevillepublicmuseum.org.