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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Summer Heat

The start of summer has been hot, wet, and sunny all at the same time. Wisconsin is a riot of plants bursting up from fertile ground and brimming streams pressing their banks. As a popular 19th-century emigrant handbook put it, "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."


No such romantic idealization can trump actual eyewitness accounts the dog days of summer in Wisconsin. 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.

Green Bay, 1721

In the first week of July 1721, Fr. Pierre Charlevoix found that the sun on Green Bay "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, "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]

Fox Valley, 1718

Sieur de Lamothe Cadillac explained in 1718 how summer heat had produced a popular name 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. It meant 'foul-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..." [Wisconsin Historical Collections 16: 360]

Lake Superior, 1820

On June 28, 1820, young James Doty left the shore of Lake Superior to hunt for mythical boulder of pure copper with a pair of Indians. "I never underwent as great fatigue," he 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 did find the copper boulder, and you can read about it in Doty's original handwritten journal.

Peshtigo, 1871

Intense summer heat also preceded the famous Peshtigo Fire: "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 keep cool, wiping away sweat and swatting at mosquitoes, rest assured that your forebears in Wisconsin went through much the same experience -- without air conditioning or refrigerators.

:: Posted in Curiosities on June 25, 2013
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