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Doug Moe: Epic battle in history: Butter vs. margarine

Doug Moe: Epic battle in history: Butter vs. margarine

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A great moment in Wisconsin political history — for some of us, it may be the great moment — occurred in June 1965 when a blindfolded state senator named Gordon Roseleip stood in the Senate chambers and tried to distinguish butter from oleomargarine.

He failed.

“That’s oleo,” Roseleip said after being fed a small amount by a Senate colleague, Marty Schreiber, who later became governor.

It was butter.

Two years later — in May 1967 — as a bill to make oleomargarine legal in Wisconsin was about to be passed, Roseleip, a Republican from Darlington, took to the floor of the Senate and roared: “If you want to shake when you’re 60 just go ahead and eat that greasy stuff. It is not good for the human body.”

A moment later, Roseleip said, “Why did God Almighty manufacture butter? To take care of the little ones.”

He then lashed out at Schreiber, of Milwaukee, for fooling him with the test: “I was just a little greenhorn from the pastures of southwestern Wisconsin and I was taken advantage of by a city slicker.”

This week in Michigan, a filmmaker named David Rich is in post-production on “Margarine Wars,” a fictional comedy set in 1967 Wisconsin, when the long-running battle over margarine was reaching a climax.

Rich, 59, is originally from New York state and moved to Arizona for health reasons, he told me when we spoke by phone this week.

It was in a doctor’s waiting room in Arizona, Rich said, that he struck up a conversation with a couple who said they were from Wisconsin. Rich told them he did some acting and stand-up comedy and was thinking of trying to make a film.

The couple suggested he do a film on the time in Wisconsin when oleomargarine was illegal and smuggled across state lines.

Rich was stunned. “Margarine was illegal?”

The couple assured him it was.

“I thought, ‘Whatever medicine they’re taking is getting to them,’” Rich told me this week.

But he did some research, and learned it was true.

In 1895, the Legislature passed a law forbidding the manufacture or sale of butter-colored oleo. In 1910, A.E. Graham of Janesville was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for selling oleomargarine as butter. Into the 1960s, states bordering Wisconsin had billboards announcing, “Last chance for oleo.”

Rich recruited some other writers, and by the spring, he had his “Margarine Wars” script.

The plot involves a hippie driving from New York to California in 1967. He’s traveling in a VW bus (of course) and the bus breaks down in the fictional Wisconsin town of Butterfield. One thing leads to another, and soon the hippie is smuggling margarine.

“He has to dodge margarine checkpoints,” Rich said.

The film was shot in Macomb County, Mich. — better tax incentives than Wisconsin, Rich said — and is scheduled to be released later this year.

Rich likes its chances. “It’s very funny.” He said the cast includes Doris Roberts from “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

“And Terry Moore,” Rich said. “She was married to Howard Hughes.”

On May 24, 1967, Gov. Warren Knowles signed a bill allowing yellow oleomargarine to be sold in Wisconsin.

Gordy Roseleip, who owned a candy and ice cream store in Darlington and once tipped the scales at a nimble 270, served 12 years in the Senate.

He was defeated in 1976 by Kathryn Morrison, Wisconsin’s first woman senator. Roseleip died in 1989, at 76.

It turns out it really wasn’t Roseleip’s fault when he so famously flunked that taste test in 1965.

This week, I reached his daughter Beverly Anderson of Darlington (she served 12 years as Darlington mayor), who said concerns about her father’s health — “my dad was a very large man” — led the family to do the unthinkable: smuggle in margarine.

“I used to drive to Dubuque (Iowa) to get it,” Anderson said.

The family served the colored margarine at the table. Roseleip assumed it was butter.

No wonder he was confused at the Capitol.

“We never did tell him,” Anderson said.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.


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