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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Elves in the Attic

"It was formerly a belief of children in some German households in a midwestern city that in the weeks or month before Christmas (Weinachten), the garrets of homes were occupied by dwarfs called kobolders. These little men were described as being attired in close-fitting brown jackets and knitted brown woolen caps (zipfelkappen) terminating in a long point with a tassel. They had full white or gray beards and wore pointed cloth shoes.

"They were servants of good Saint Nicholas. In the fastnesses of the garret, these industrious kobolders were employed in making toys for the children of the household. In their spare time, especially at night, these dwarfs often engaged in bowling contests. They were very fond of the game of ninepins. The young folks could, in their imagination, hear the wooden balls rolling across the attic floor, and the noise which they made when the wooden pins were hit.

"No one was ever permitted to gaze upon them when at work or at play. No child, no matter how daring, cared to venture into the garret during their occupancy. They became very angry when interfered with. To gain their goodwill, the older children sometimes placed little offerings of hard cookies (pfefferniisse) on the attic stairs for their refreshment. These always mysteriously disappeared."

Collecting Wisconsin Folklore

This was just one of the folk beliefs collected by Society museum director Charles E. Brown (1872-1946) over the course of several decades. Throughout the first half of the 20th century he talked with Indians, lumberjacks, railroad workers, miners, ship captains, and other people whose stories usually went unrecorded. Starting in 1921, Brown occasionally printed some of these folktales in little pamphlets for groups to which he belonged, summer school classes he taught, or just for the amusement of a few friends.

During the late 1930s he oversaw the W.P.A.'s Wisconsin Folklore Project which traveled the state interviewing local residents to collect stories, superstitions, proverbs, jokes, and games which would never have made it into print. The field notes of those interviews are online in our Turning Points in Wisconsin History digital collection.

By the time he died in 1946, Brown had also issued nearly 50 booklets containing hundreds of legends from Wisconsin and other parts of the U.S. He preserved Ho-Chunk narratives told him by trusted elders, a great corpus of Paul Bunyan tales, and stories about ghosts, sea serpents, and other mythical creatures. These, too, are online at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

Scholar Joseph Campbell is said to have defined myth as "a story that never happened but is always true." These Wisconsin tales don't always have that sort of authenticity, but they'll amuse you -- and connect you to a world of stories that your grandparents and great-grandparents heard when they were children long ago.

:: Posted in Curiosities on December 12, 2012
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