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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Behind the Scenes

Twice in the last two weeks we’ve had requests from readers asking us to explain where these odd stories come from. One came from a local historical society that invited us to deliver a talk on the subject. The other was from the editor of Columns, the Society’s newsletter for members (you might want to become a member if you’re not one already). At the risk of giving away trade secrets, here’s a confidential glimpse behind the scenes at Odd Wisconsin.

When we began the Society’s Web site several years ago, the main advantage we saw in putting collections online was to deliver them directly to your home, classroom, office, or laptop. No longer would you have to trek to Madison, navigate its bewildering one-way streets, compete with football fans or state workers for a parking space, climb over snowdrifts to the Society headquarters, and then try to locate the information you sought on its amazing 14 miles of bookshelves. No, scanning technology and the Internet enabled us to convert collections into bits and bytes, bounce them off satellites, and pop them onto your screen while you sat in the comfort of your own home. We are generally happy with the results, and we hear regularly that you are, too.

But we didn’t fully appreciate that the technology would also open up our collections in new ways. For example, with the paper versions of our books, you could only find information by turning every page or, if you only wanted to know about important people or events, by using its printed index. The electronic versions of the books, on the other hand, index not just important topics but virtually every word.

Interested in what people used to eat for breakfast? Just search the term in one of our online collections. In Wisconsin Historical Collections, a 20-volume set containing the most important early accounts of Wisconsin, more than 75 breakfasts are mentioned. These include many mundane statements such as “for breakfast we had coffee, bread, butter, and sausage” or “we made out a breakfast — no milk, no butter — but tea, bread, & chickens, & currant sweatmeats.” But it also leads to enticing tidbits such as, “in asking for breakfast, I did not tell of my lack of money until after the meal was eaten;” and “pants and socks were found where I left them when I retired to rest — that is, on my legs and feet; a very slight rub of snow on the hands and eyes finished my toilet for the expected delicious repast; "Which will you have, sir, tongue or heart?" directed my eyes to the kettle boiling over with a black bloody froth with a sickening putrid smell.” There's certainly Odd Wisconsin potential in those last two.

If the simple word "breakfast" leads to such riches, what happens if you try terms such as "scoundrel," "amazing," "hopeless," or "hilarious?" Full-text searching of tens of thousands of pages in Wisconsin Historical Collections, the Wisconsin Magazine of History, and hundreds of books and articles at Turning Points in Wisconsin History appears likely to yield a nearly inexhaustible supply of strange tales. Wisconsin Historic Images, similarly, leads to thousands of strange pictures. Our 50,000 pages of local history and biography newspaper clippings can’t be searched in quite that depth, but every word in 16,000 headlines is searchable. Go over to WLHBA, for example, and give “hermit” a try. You’ll discover the seeds of two Odd Wisconsin columns.

So coming up with evidence of bizarre behavior is no longer too difficult. The biggest challenge, since Odd Wisconsin must flow from the Society relentlessly every 48 hours or so (two or three columns a week here, and another every Wednesday for the Wisconsin State Journal), the real challenge lies in coming up with a constant stream of ideas.

Luckily, readers often use the feedback button to suggest stories concerning eccentric characters they’ve wondered about, or tales they’ve heard repeated. The true history of two Ojibwe warrior sisters was suggested by a reader up north; the petrified D’Artagnan hoax and the Ridgeway ghost story each came from inquirers who’d heard the tale somewhere else and wondered if it were true. Historical Society staff have also suggested many topics, including smelt wrestling, Bogus Bluff, and the Capitol shooting of 1842. Over the years we’ve also been blessed with two wonderful part-time student assistants who have had, among other duties, the pleasant assignment of finding weird stuff in the stacks and bizarre doings in the digital collections.

Anniversaries of historic events, birthdays of well-known people, and current news headlines have all suggested searches in the online collections for strange-but-true tie-ins. The latter has occasionally gotten us into trouble, since providing historical parallels to current public events can make it appear that we are taking sides on contemporary controversies. Apart from always preferring knowledge to ignorance, reason to prejudice, and tolerance to persecution, we don't take sides on current events because we feel, 1) it is not our role and 2) it is not what our readers come here for. And in truth, as we survey popular culture today, we usually end up caring much less about the present than about the past.

The fruits of this odd labor will ripen this summer, when the first collection of Odd Wisconsin stories will appear as a book from the WHS Press. The anthology will include some of your old favorites (such as “Death By Chocolate. Really”) as well as a number of new tales never published here. You'll be able to buy it online as well as find it in your local bookshop.

Is there something from Wisconsin’s past that you’ve always wondered about? Did you hear some strange story long ago and wonder if it’s true? Would you like to read more stories about ghosts, death-defying escapes, eccentric characters, frogs, or some other specific topic? Click the “Email Us” link just below, and we’ll route your suggestion to the folks who produce Odd Wisconsin.

:: Posted in Curiosities on February 8, 2007

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