Woods and waters, cheese and beer

Schmeeckle Nature Reserve, Stevens Point, Wisconsin. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

What is the difference between Minnesota and Wisconsin? 

A foreign journalist asked me this question a few years ago. I prepared to extol the supremacy of my native Minnesota, only to emit a series of clicks, ums and ers. The journalist couldn’t tell the difference. My delay in responding only seemed to prove her point.

Of course, I believe Minnesota to be superior; I just can’t pin down exactly why.

Natural beauty, I suppose. Minnesota has more parks, trails and lakes. We’ve got the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and vast federal forest reserves.

But then again, Wisconsin is no slouch. They’ve got way more Great Lakes shoreline than us, second only to Michigan.

I’m supposed to say the Minnesota Vikings are better than the Green Bay Packers. That’s not quantifiably true, but my grandpa spent decades cheering for the Vikings while cursing the Packers. I was conditioned to prefer purple and gold, even though Green Bay rarely traumatizes its fan base the way the Vikings do. 

Wisconsin has horizontal stop lights. I mean, that’s weird, right?

Most of my experience with the Badger State came from attending college at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. But that’s not a great sample. You literally see Minnesota from campus and Superior is basically just three or four Iron Range towns duct taped together. 

Well, it was time to run a proper experiment. My family recently journeyed into the beating heart of central Wisconsin to tour a college with my oldest son. 

“I’m seeing a lot more cedars,” said Henry as we headed past Solon Springs. “Mixed deciduous forest.”

This is where I tell you he’s transferring to a natural resources college. The non-tree people in the car only noticed that there seemed to be more tractor-trailers on the highways.

The people at the college were friendly. The waitstaff at local establishments were courteous and prompt. Bemidji and Stevens Point could be cousins. St. Cloud and Wausau are more alike than either would want to admit. 

One night, we played mini-golf at a place that looked like a Hobby Lobby truck spill. A video arcade features games popular when I was 9. Inexplicably, a large rabbit was available for petting “only on the head.” As odd as they were, these observations only seemed to cement the similarities between Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In politics, Minnesota and Wisconsin are seen as contrasts. Minnesota reliably elects Democrats statewide, whereas Wisconsin has been more Republican-leaning in recent years. But much of that comes down to geographic variation.

Minnesota has one big metropolitan area where a majority of its population lives. Wisconsin has two smaller metro areas and a larger number of medium-sized cities. Its population is more widely distributed.

Political scientists explain that this is one of the reasons the two states differ in political makeup. Place is culture. Culture is politics.

In reality, the same blend of “Coexist” and “Let’s Go Brandon” bumper stickers could be found in Wisconsin as seen on Minnesota roadways. The people in the cars were what you’d expect.

There’s a theory that we most dislike people who remind us of our flaws. Similarity is attractive when it involves traits that we’re proud of, but not when it reminds of our deepest fears and self-loathing.

Wisconsin is known as one of the drunkest, most obese states in the union. Minnesota appears to be less of these things, but how much of that comes from the yeoman’s work of Twin Cities granola crunchers? Without them, we’d easily be as drunk and fat as Wisconsin, I just know it. 

So when Minnesotans and Wisconsinites claim to hate one another, maybe what we hate most of all is what we see in the mirror. 

Go Vikings. Or whatever.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. A bit dated, but may be of interest. It helped with our decision to relocate to Minnesota from the East Coast awhile ago.


  2. joe musich says

    It must be mentioned that he gop did more agressive and better job of gerrymandering Wi. the sneak up leadership of Scott Walker and his chips planet promises. The people are more oganized and are taking their state back. I was surprised attending Far Aide a couple of years ago how democartic the area surround Milwaukee was then in talking with thew citizens. I saw many more gop sigs up north around Duluth last fall. I am left with a were are going to be surpriswed feeling,

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