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Every few years, articles describing “strange but true laws in each state” make the rounds on social media. While these lists are amusing, they are often riddled with factual inaccuracies. Take, for example, one popularly referenced law: You may not tie an alligator to a fire hydrant in the state of Michigan. This is actually an exaggeration of a city ordinance that forbids tying anything to a fire hydrant. So, it isn’t really a state law, and it definitely doesn’t reference alligators.
But don’t despair. There’s no shortage of strange laws and ordinances that are real and in effect today. Wisconsin has quite a few of these, and many of them involve dairy products—no surprise considering that one of its state symbols is a dairy cow.
Because we care about these weird laws as much as you do, we took the time to research our favorites. Read on for our roundup of Wisconsin’s strangest laws, regulations, and city ordinances.
Let’s begin with one of the most frequently cited state laws, which reportedly requires that “all apple pie in Wisconsin must be served with a slice of cheese on it.” Sadly, despite the law’s prevalence among weird-law lists, the law itself is just a myth.
Connie Von Der Heide, former director of reference and outreach services at Wisconsin State Law Library, exposed the truth of the matter in 2009 when the Wisconsin State Journal asked her to tackle the topic. She noted that a law in effect from 1935 to 1937 required restaurants to serve butter and cheese with every meal, but she added that the law never required restaurants to put cheese on any part of the meal. Presumably, the myth is rooted in Wisconsin’s infamous association with cheese and the fact that, as a state in the Upper Midwest, all its residents must like apple pie.
In 1999, Vermont came close to making this myth a reality when it designated apple pie as the official state pie. The proposed bill stipulated that servers make a “good faith effort” to serve apple pie with “a cold glass of milk,” “a slice of Cheddar cheese weighing a minimum of ½ ounce,” or “a large scoop of vanilla ice cream” (Title 1 V.S.A. § 512). However, the final version of the statute omitted this language, and it’s as dry as apple pie without cheese (or milk or ice cream). It simply states, “The state pie shall be apple pie.”
Did you know that Wisconsin banned the sale and use of margarine from 1895 to 1967? The prohibition emerged from what was known as the Wisconsin Oleo Wars (after oleomargarine—another name for margarine) and was only lifted in the late 1960s. Moreover, despite a 2011 effort to remove them, some notorious margarine-related restrictions remain in Wisconsin Statute 97.18. Wisconsin legislators must love their butter!
Section 97.18(4) renders it illegal for a restaurant to serve margarine as a butter substitute unless specifically requested:
The serving of colored oleomargarine or margarine at a public eating place as a substitute for table butter is prohibited unless it is ordered by the customer.
Section 97.18(5) prohibits servers from providing margarine to schoolchildren, prisoners, and hospital patients unless a doctor has ordered otherwise:
The serving of oleomargarine or margarine to students, patients or inmates of any state institutions as a substitute for table butter is prohibited, except that such substitution may be ordered by the institution superintendent when necessary for the health of a specific patient or inmate, if directed by the physician in charge of the patient or inmate.
While it may sound ridiculous, those who violate ordinances may be subject to hefty fines or even imprisonment. And the penalties get worse for repeat offenders. According to Section 97.18(6), those who commit first offenses risk being fined between $100 and $500 and imprisoned for up to three months. Second offenses (and beyond) can cost between $500 and $1,000 and require up to one year in the county jail!
We Wisconsinites love our cheese, but did you know that we’ve created guidelines to protect the integrity and reputation of Wisconsin cheese? While the reason behind the regulations makes sense, these standards made our list of strange laws because they present cheese as a complex legal topic.
According to Wisconsin Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (ACTP) Rule 81.01.01(3), the formal definition of “cheese” is a dairy product that is prepared from the pressed curd of milk and includes the following varieties with or without rind formation: Brick or Muenster, Cheddar, Colby, Granular, Monterey (Jack), Swiss, and Washed Curd.
ATCP rules also outline specific requirements for the taste of different cheeses. For example, ATCP Rule 81.40(1) states that the flavor of Wisconsin certified premium grade AA Cheddar must be “highly pleasing,” while ATCP Rule 81.42(1) states that grade B Cheddar need only be “fairly pleasing.” No definitions for these terms are provided. All other types of cheeses mentioned in the ATCP’s rules have similar standards.
Although the ATCP rules don’t define things like “highly pleasing,” they do describe 18 terms for cheese flavor characteristics and 20 for cheese body and texture. The regulations include definitions for the following terms:
Not even Wisconsin’s restrooms are spared from odd laws. Under Wisconsin Statutes Section 146.085, the “owner or manager of any public building” may not allow “an admission fee to be charged for the use of any toilet compartment.” Just a few sections later, Section 146.22 forbids the Department of Health Services from creating “any rules which either directly or indirectly prohibit the use of manual flushing devices for urinals. The department shall take steps to encourage the use of manual flushing devices for urinals.” If you need to use a public restroom, rest assured that you won't have to pay an entry fee. And, in the men’s room, you’ll find urinals with a handle.
Every Wisconsin company dreams of setting its business hours to a time zone other than Central. Wait… that doesn’t even make sense. All your local customers operate on Central time. Be that as it may, the state has expressly forbidden such a practice, and violators may incur a fine between $25 and $500 (as well as 10 to 30 days in prison).
Now, we turn our attention to some of Wisconsin’s strange city ordinances, starting in the city of Wausau. If you visit Wausau in the winter, you better not have a snowball fight. Why? Wausau Municipal Code Chapter 9.08.020 states:
No person shall throw or shoot any object, arrow, stone, snowball or other missile or projectile, by hand or by any other means, at any other person or at, in or into any building, street, sidewalk, alley, highway, park, playground or other public place within the city.
That’s right—Wausau officials have lumped snowballs in with arrows, stones, missiles, and other projectiles. We suspect this ordinance isn’t enforced all that often, if ever.
In Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, don’t practice any tricks while bicycling on city streets. Be sure to also keep your hands on the handlebars and your feet on the pedals at all times! Sun Prairie City Code 10.32.020 says that no bicyclist shall “practice any trick or fancy riding in any street in the city.” The code prohibits riding a bike on city streets “with the feet of the rider removed from the bicycle pedals,” and specifies that bikers may not “remove both hands from the handlebars.”
Section 70-153 of the Sheboygan City Code states that “no persons shall, with purpose or intent, sprinkle their property in any manner to the distress or annoyance of others.” Go ahead and water your lawn, but make sure your sprinkler doesn’t cause your neighbor “distress or annoyance.”
Finally, we turn to our own backyard in Hudson, Wisconsin. Hudson City Code Section 140-8(C) imposes a well-meaning but tough-to-enforce provision regarding window and door screens. It states that from May to October, dwelling units must put a screen and self-closing device on every door to the outside. Additionally, there must be a screen installed on every window that residents will open during that time frame. See for yourself:
Screen requirements. From May 1 to October 1, in every dwelling unit, for protection against mosquitoes, flies, and other insects, every door opening directly from a dwelling unit to an outdoor space shall have supplied and installed screens and a self-closing device, and every window or other device with openings to outdoor space used or intended to be used for ventilation shall likewise be supplied with screens installed.
While the stated intent—keeping mosquitoes and insects away—is admirable, the practical challenges of regulating every dwelling’s doors and windows make it at least chuckle-worthy. The last time we checked, Hudson was known for being a great river town, not for being the screen capital of Wisconsin!