How Wisconsin is Helping Lead the Bitcoin Movement Across the Greater US Landscape

Bitcoin use in the United States isn't limited to big cities. Even in Wisconsin, pockets of cryptocurrency fans gather.

AccessTimeIconJul 5, 2014 at 10:30 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 11, 2021 at 10:57 a.m. UTC

A whitetail doe and her fawn run through the woods at the Donges Bay Gorge, a parcel of Lake Michigan-fronting land wedged between new McMansions in Mequon, Wisconsin. The nature preserve is one of the many properties in this part of the Midwest whose future protection could be funded by bitcoin.

The properties are owned or managed by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, a non-profit entity that posts its bitcoin address on its website for potential donations.

“Donate your bitcoins and we’ll plant trees,” said executive director Shawn Graff, a cryptocurrency enthusiast who brought the idea to the board in 2010 and saw the bitcoin donation option through to reality. So far, the group has received three bitcoin donations.

He continued:

“It’s not huge, but you never know, maybe someday each bitcoin will be worth several thousand dollars. Or there might be a crash and somebody might give us a million bitcoins – and one day they’ll be worth thousands of dollars again.”

Bitcoin enthusiasts in the country

The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust is managed out of a historic railroad depot, tucked behind a townhouse complex in suburban West Bend, WI. It’s not a likely spot to envision the future of cryptocurrency. Yet Graff, in his neat polo shirt and khakis, exemplifies the kind of bitcoin enthusiast you can find everywhere in the middle of the United States, far from hubs like New York or San Francisco where bitcoin conferences convene and investors pour dollars into new cryptocurrency ventures.

Wisconsin, after all, is the state where Mark Clear, a candidate for the State Assembly, recently accepted – and had to give back – a bitcoin campaign contribution. It’s also the state where Jamie Russell, of Eau Claire, is mounting a legal case against the alleged fraudster, who he said pocketed $150,000 in bitcoin that he was supposed to convert into physical coins.

A Milwaukee meetup

On a Thursday night, a dozen bitcoin enthusiasts gather at Hotel Foster in Milwaukee’s hip East Side neighborhood. A deer head mounted on the wall melds with illuminated chandeliers and a chalkboard full of sophisticated cocktail names that create an eclectic space that still screams “Wisconsin”. On an upstairs patio, a passionate but orderly discussion proceeds about ways to broaden bitcoin acceptance in the city.

Several businesses here take bitcoin, said BitcoinMKE member Tareq Fares, including a club called The Bad Genie – where Fares, a CPA by day, DJs at night – a gas station, and a smoke shop on Old World 3rd Street called 414 Glass & Grooves that is about to launch its acceptance of bitcoin with a weekend party.

The next target, Fares said, is a juice bar where the owners are interested but aren’t making bitcoin acceptance a high priority.

“Next time you’re in the area, stop by and ask them about it,” Fares urged the others at the meetup.

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The conversation shifts to the North American Bitcoin Car Giveaway Tour 2014, which will roll through Milwaukee in mid July; then, to September’s Bayview Bash, where the group will have a table later this summer.

The men, sitting around nursing Lakefront Brewery beers, are all serious about bitcoin. There are fewer newbies than typically turn up at bitcoin events in San Francisco. Also unlike San Francisco, none of the members here tonight work in a bitcoin-related business – although some of them would like to.

Group member Paul Sanchez said he doesn’t understand why bitcoin companies aren’t spreading their hiring across a broader swath of the country:

“How can the merchant adoption grow unless CoinBase and BitPay are actively seeking salespeople in places like this?”

Until recently, Sanchez operated Crazy Chef restaurant, where he accepted bitcoins and sold a “Bitcoin Burger”, with a bitcoin symbol on the bun (he painstakingly marked each bun with a heated coat hanger). He posted his QR code on the menu, to make bitcoin payments easy, and encouraged his waitstaff to accept bitcoin tips.

He has since sold the place, and the new owners don’t seem to be interested in picking up the bitcoin mantle, Sanchez said.

“There was always a bitcoin conversation going on there,” Fares said, a little wistfully.

BitcoinMKE hosted bitcoin superstar entrepreneur Andreas Antonopoulos in February, at an event that drew 100 people in person and several hundred more online. Chris Bresette is a trumpet player trying to get other members of the local band De La Buena to embrace bitcoin. He said that event “was the biggest event since I’ve been with the group”.

The group's founder, bitcoin advocate Will Pangman, has since moved on.

Bitcoin around Wisconsin

Wisconsin's college town capital Madison, where Clear accepted that short-lived bitcoin contribution at a fundraiser, is another bitcoin hotspot. The city has its own Meetup group and its own bitcoin-accepting businesses, like the Bandung Indonesian Restaurant.

Bitcoin use isn’t limited to Wisconsin’s major cities. Businesses that accept the digital currency are scattered here and there. Even in outdoorsy, tourist mecca Door County, you can use bitcoin to take a kayak tour or ride a zipline at Door County Kayak Tours.


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