Erika Janik grew up in Redmond, Washington, but now knows more about Wisconsin history than she ever thought possible. She has master's degrees in American history and journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has written many essays and articles on Wisconsin history for the Wisconsin Historical Society online collections and as editor of the Society's membership newsletter. She coordinated the Society's digital collection "Turning Points in Wisconsin History," wrote dozens of topical essays on state history as well as a short history of the state, composed encyclopedic dictionary entries on Wisconsin, and continues to provide regular feature stories for the Society homepage. Her work has appeared in "Wisconsin Trails" magazine, "On Wisconsin," "Renewing the Countryside," "Isthmus," and the "Wisconsin State Journal." Check out her latest book, "A Short History of Wisconsin."
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: What motivated you to write about odd Wisconsin stories?
Erika Janik: Oddity is often a great way to get people who think they don't like history, to like history. Odd stories catch you off guard and make you rethink what you thought you knew. The project began on the Wisconsin Historical Society website as a way to potentially reach new audiences through a blog — and it just grew from there.
WHS Press: How did you go about doing your research for this project?
EJ: Amazingly, these stories are just sitting out there in the Historical Society's online collections. You start reading a few old newspaper articles, looking at a few old photos, and the oddballs start popping out all around you.
WHS Press: Who do you hope reads "Odd Wisconsin?"
EJ: Anyone who likes a good story. History is really about stories — too many people were taught that history is a collection of names and dates. Sure, names and dates matter but the stories are what make history fun, important, and relevant. I don't think you need to be from Wisconsin, either, to find someone or something in this book that you can connect with on some level. Everyone has a crazy relative.
WHS Press: What about Wisconsin history did you find most surprising?
EJ: That so many interesting people and things happened here! I didn't grow up in Wisconsin but I am constantly amazed by what and who have come out of this place. The Gideons? Everyone has seen those Bibles in the hotel drawer but who knew that the idea was hatched in Wisconsin? I love, too, that someone thought to record it — even the strange stuff like the woman who lived alone among the rattlesnakes.
WHS Press: Which of the stories was the most interesting to you? What about it fascinated you?
EJ: It's hard to pick one. I think what I found most interesting were all of the spiritualists and healers. Or really anyone with a fantastical idea. Why not sell parcels of land in northern Wisconsin that come complete with a house, barn, and animals? Why not be healed by the waters of Waukesha?
WHS Press: What's your favorite image in the book? Where did it come from?
EJ: The anti-woman suffrage poster is my favorite image. It came from the Wisconsin Historical Society's image database, Wisconsin Historical Images. As a woman, I know I feel like a menace to "the home, men's employment and all business" every time I vote.
WHS Press: How do these odd stories help us understand more about the culture of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest?
EJ: I think these stories remind us that our history is more than what we read in a standard textbook. That it is about more than politics, rich white men and women, and war. Culture is an intangible thing but something you can begin to get at through stories. Odd stories tell us something about the time, the place and the people involved — what they believed in, what they thought about, what they feared. I think these odd stories also help to debunk the stereotype of the plain, stern Midwesterner. Wisconsin is a colorful place.