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Updated: December 28, 2018
Every few years, articles make the rounds on Facebook about "strange but true laws in each state." While these lists are always very amusing, they are almost always riddled with factual inaccuracies. Take, for example, one of the most popular "laws" referenced ("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 for every exaggerated claim, there is often an equally weird law or ordinance that actually exists. Wisconsin has quite a few of these, many of which involve dairy products - no surprise when one of its state symbols is a dairy cow! We took the time to research these laws and regulations to find out which ones are real and actually in effect in Wisconsin in 2019. Below, you can read about some of the strangest laws, regulations/rules and city ordinances that appear in Wisconsin today.
We start our tour of strange laws with one of the most frequently cited examples from Wisconsin. Sadly, the law itself is just a myth. It's entertaining nonetheless and deserves mention because it's strange even for a fictional law. The made-up law states that "all apple pie in Wisconsin must be served with a slice of cheese on it." The myth has seemingly taken hold because of Wisconsin's well-known association with cheese and the fact that, as a state in the Upper Midwest, we must like apple pie.
The Wisconsin State Journal asked Connie Von Der Heide of the University of Wisconsin Law Library to tackle this topic due to the myth's popularity on many Top 10 weird laws lists on the Internet. After conducting research, what was her answer? It's not real. She did note that a law in effect from 1935 to 1937 required that butter and cheese be served with meals in restaurants, but that law is no longer in effect and it never required that cheese be put on any part of the meal.
A fellow cheese-loving state (Vermont) came close to making this myth a reality in 1999, when it officially made apple pie the state pie. In the bill that cemented apple pie's status in the state, there was language that required a "good faith effort" to serve all apple pie in Vermont 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). The final version of the statute omitted this language, though, and is as dry as apple pie without cheese (or milk or ice cream); it simply reads "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 was a result of what became known as the Wisconsin Oleo Wars (after oleomargarine - another name for margarine). While the total "oleo ban" was finally lifted in the late '60s, some restrictions on margarine sale and use remain on the books today. In 2011, there was an effort to remove some of these provisions, but that was defeated. Wisconsin legislators must really love their butter!
The most notorious margarine-related laws still in effect in 2018 are part of Wisconsin Statute 97.18. Section 97.18(4) makes it illegal for a restaurant to serve margarine as a butter substitute unless it is specifically ordered by a customer:
"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) forbids margarine to be served to schoolchildren, prisoners and hospital patients unless there is a doctor's order that the person must have margarine:
"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."
So what happens if you violate these laws? Fines and imprisonment. It sounds ridiculous, but it's true! And the penalties only get worse for repeat oleo offenders. According to Section 97.18(6), first offenses can cost between $100 and $500 in fines and lead to up to three months' imprisonment. Second offenses (and beyond) carry fines of $500 to $1,000 and between six months and one year (!) in the county jail!
We Wisconsinites love our cheese (that's why we embrace the nickname "cheesehead"), but did you know that we've gone as far as making it an industry with numerous guidelines to protect the integrity and reputation of Wisconsin cheese? While the reason for these guidelines makes a lot of sense, they end up on this list of strange laws because they are funny to read and they make something as straightforward as cheese into a complex legal topic. For example:
Yes, even Wisconsin's toilets are not safe 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), the law 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." So if you need to use a public restroom, rest assured that you will not be charged an entry fee. And in the men's room, you'll find good old manual flush urinals (or at least urinals with the option to manually flush).
It's every Wisconsin company's dream - set your business hours to a time zone other than Central time. Wait ... that doesn't even make any sense, because all of your local customers are in the Central time zone. Despite the nonsensical implications of setting a company's hours like this, the state has expressly forbidden such a practice and will impose a fine of between $25 and $500 (as well as 10 to 30 days in prison) if you violate the law.
Now we turn our attention to some strange city ordinances that appear across the state, and we start in the city of Wausau. If you're there in the winter, you better not be planning on having a snowball fight. Why? Because Wausau Municipal Code Chapter 9.08.020 states that "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 - a city in Wisconsin has lumped snowballs in with arrows, stones, missiles and other projectiles.
Like many of the city ordinances that we feature in this article, it's likely that this ordinance is not enforced all that often (if at all).
In Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, don't get any ideas about pulling off tricks or riding your bike in any way out of the ordinary while on city streets. And, most importantly, be sure to keep your hands on the handlebars and your feet on the pedals at all times! Sun Prairie City Code 10.32.020 (appropriately titled "Manner of operation restricted") says that no bicyclist shall "practice any trick or fancy riding in any street in the city." It also forbids anyone from going into the street on a bike "with the feet of the rider removed from the bicycle pedals." Bikers also may not "remove both hands from the handlebars."
Sheboygan City Code, Section 70-153 states that "No persons shall, with purpose or intent, sprinkle their property in any manner to the distress or annoyance of others." So go ahead and keep your grass looking nice, but if your sprinkler causes your neighbor "distress or annoyance," watch out for the city's wrath.
For the final city ordinance we looked at, we turned to our own backyard (Hudson, Wisconsin). Hudson City Code Section 140-8(C) imposes a well-meaning, but tough to enforce provision about the use of window and door screens. It states that from May 1 to Oct. 1 of each year, every dwelling unit in the city must put a screen and self-closing device on every door to the outside. There must also be a screen installed on every window of the dwelling that will be opened 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 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 broad wording of this ordinance and the practical implications of having every house in town have a screen on every door and open window make it chuckle-worthy. And the last time we checked, Hudson was known for being a great town located on the river, not for being the screen door and window screen capital of Wisconsin!
We hope you've enjoyed this selection of odd Wisconsin laws!
Nicolet Law Accident & Injury Lawyers serves clients throughout western Wisconsin in the areas of personal injury, bankruptcy/debt relief, workers' compensation, disability claims and real estate litigation.