Oleo Run

It was a common occurrence as a child growing up in the 1950s to hear the adults in my family complain about all the cars with Illinois plates crowding our freeways, yes, our free highways, enjoying Wisconsin’s State Parks and attractions. Their complaint: Wisconsinites financed the Illinois Tollway, opened in 1958, every time we crossed the state line, yet Illinois tourists got a free ride in our state.  My family would also complain about the high price of butter and the fact that oleomargarine purchased in Wisconsin by law was an unappetizing white, like lard, that required coloring by hand.  It was enough to send us south of the border to Illinois.

For that reason, on a weekend every couple of months, we would pile into our 1956 cream-colored and bronze-metallic, two-tone Chevy Bel-Air sedan and take the back roads, avoiding the tollway, either scenic Highway 32 along the Lake Michigan shoreline, or the faster Highway 50 to Illinois for our oleo runs. Mom would be behind the wheel with Dad and baby Cindy in the front seat and the two grandmas, Grandma Lenzke and Great Grandma Flanigan in the back with my sister Roz and I. When young, I always got a window seat. I was prone to motion sickness, but if I had a window cracked open for fresh air and could see the horizon, my Kraft paper lunch bag would not be needed.

Until 1967 it was illegal to buy oleomargarine colored to imitate butter in Wisconsin, the Dairy State.  My working-class family could afford to have the milkman from Progressive Dairy deliver milk in glass bottles to our backdoor once a week but adding butter to our order was not in the budget. Oleo purchased by the case and shared with family members and neighbors was a better bargain and the impetus for our road trips across state lines to Illinois to smuggle contraband spread.

Small roadside gas stations and liquor stores would sell oleo in cases. Mom and Dad would purchase two or three cases to share with our grandmothers, family members and neighbors. Depending on the time of year, the load might double, like when the women in my family baked for the holidays.  When us kids were lucky and behaved, we would drive a little further to Zion, Illinois, home of the Zion Cookie Factory outlet store, one of the first outlet stores that graced the highways near the Wisconsin-Illinois border.

Photo credit: Paul Shane, AP

The Zion Cookie Factory was renowned for their fig bars that were sold throughout the world. The factory distributed cookies wholesale to five and dime stores and grocery stores in the Midwest where you would buy them in bulk by the pound. My favorite cookies were the small chocolate chip cookies which resembled the Famous Amos cookies of today.

What I remember most about the cookie factory was the smell of fresh-baked cookies greeting us when we opened the door.  Roz and I would argue over whose turn it was to be lifted by our father to grab a ticket from the take-a-number dispenser that would reserve our place in line. As we’d restlessly wait for our turn, we’d survey the display cases full of the cookies piled in bulk by their individual flavor as our mother and grandmothers would calculate how many pounds of each variety they would need to purchase and how the orders needed to be bagged.  Like oleo, they were purchasing cookies for other family members and neighbors too. They had small handwritten notes with individual special orders.

We would tug at their dresses and whisper our choices until we were shushed and told to be quiet little girls and wait patiently. Patiently wait for cookies, this was an impossible request! To distract myself from the cookie temptations, I would stare at the poster on the wall that featured a commanding grizzly bear dressed in a forest ranger’s uniform and hat, pointing at me with his hand-like paw. As a third grader learning to read, I could decipher the message, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires!”

With our bags of cookies in hand we returned to the car, put our loot in the trunk and began our journey home. Somewhere after crossing the state line in Wisconsin, but before we were home in Racine, Roz and I would beg for a drink of water. We weren’t really thirsty; we simply wanted a drink out of Grandma Lenzke’s collapsible, Mirro aluminum drinking cup made in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, which she kept in her purse with the Lifesavers candy we’d also politely ask her to share with us. Mom would pull over and stop at a gas station or a rest stop with a bubbler.  Yes, that was just one more thing we agreed we liked about Wisconsin, we might not have colored oleo, but we had freeways, scenic parks and attractions and knew where to find a bubbler (in Illinois they didn’t even know what a bubbler was, can you believe it?).  We escaped back to Wisconsin with our illegal contraband and once again eluded the state patrol, another successful oleo run.

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