Odd Wisconsin Archive
Summer is blazing in full force, and those winter days when it seems like one's breath could freeze in the air, fall to the ground, and shatter are just a vague memory. But summer, too, has its unpleasantness, notwithstanding this description from a popular 19th-century emigrant handbook: "... Summer seems to burst at once upon us, and when it comes, the full and gorgeous foliage of the woods, and the exuberant luxuriance of the fields, give an idea of abundance and fertility which is delightful... the sun-sets in the State of Wisconsin, surpass even those of Italy and Greece."
But no romantic idealization can trump the eyewitness accounts of Wisconsin in the dog days of summer. The burning sun, algae blooms on the lakes, oppressive heat, dehydration and exhaustion have been part of our heritage for centuries. Here are some examples.
In the first week of July 1721, Fr. Pierre Charlevoix was traveling the shore of Green Bay when he found that "the sun was so hot and the water of the bay so warm that the pitch of our canoe melted in several places." And after the sun went down, there was relief from the heat but not other forms of summer persecution: "To crown our misfortunes, the place where we halted for our encampment proved to be so infested with mosquitoes and gnats that it was impossible for us to close our eyes, although we had not slept for two days; and as the weather was fine and the moon gave us light we resumed our journey as early as three o'clock in the morning." [Wisconsin Historical Collections 16: 411]
His contemporary, Sieur de Lamothe Cadillac, explained in 1718 how summer heat produced two names for the Ho-Chunk. The French used the word "Puans" for an Algonkin word they transliterated as "Ouinipegou" which has survived in the name Winnebago, and which meant 'ill-smelling': "The Puans derive this name from their river, which is very muddy. It is so full of fish of all kinds that it is difficult to understand how it can hold so many. Consequently during the heat of summer on account of either the quality of the water or the too great quantity of fish, the water is entirely covered with them and as it immediately becomes foul and putrid, it is hardly possible to approach the bank on account of the stench and the water is consequently very disgusting. It is for this reason that the nation is called that of the puans, for both in their persons and their habits they are the cleanest among the savages; and their women are the least dirty and are exceedingly careful to keep their cabins very clean and tidy, not a very common quality among other savage women." [Wisconsin Historical Collections 16: 360]
The heat was still equally oppressive a century later. On June 28, 1820, young James Doty and 4 companions were being guided along the shore of Lake Superior by a pair of Indians. They were seeking a huge copper boulder whose value had been the subject of many tales and speculations, and had to leave their canoe and hike overland. "I never underwent as great fatigue," Doty wrote in his diary. "The mercury in the thermometer stood at 90 in the canoe — on the mountains the heat was oppressive. To see the wind waving the tops of the trees without a single breath reaching us rendered the heat more intolerable. We passed several fine springs of water but our blood was so heated that we dared not taste them. At length we became so completely overpowered with fatigue & heat, the doctor particularly, that we were obliged to rest every 90 or 100 rods and when we arrived at the path I could not have gone 40 rods farther... They led us directly to the rock or mass of copper which lies at the foot of the bank & close to the water. We were greatly disappointed as to size, its length being but 3 feet 8 inches, its breadth 3 feet 4 in, & its thickness about 10 or 12 inches, & containing 11 cubic feet as measured & computed by Capt. Douglass. The copper is embedded in stone of which I should think it did not compose one half; the copper might perhaps weigh one ton."
You can see Doty's original handwritten journal entry in our Turning Points in Wisconsin History collection.
Intense summer heat also preceded the famous Peshtigo Fire, according to one witness: "In the year 1871 but little snow and rain had fallen and there had been an unusual drought. Forest fires had raged in many localities in August and September. The heat was oppressive and the smoke so dense that vision in broad daylight was seriously obscured on the waters of Green Bay. In full day-time mariners were compelled to resort to the compass to find their way into port. Flakes of black and white ashes and cinders fell in the streets of the city of Green Bay." [Wisconsin Historical Collections XIII: 389]
So if you're struggling to cool off this week, wiping away sweat and swatting at mosquitoes, you can rest assured that your forebears in Wisconsin went through much the same experience -- just without air conditioning or refrigerators.
:: Posted in Curiosities on July 5, 2006