Praise for "Odd Wisconsin"
Dennis McCann, "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel"
"With its progressive tradition and proud history, we like to imagine Wisconsin as a place of character. But we are a place of characters, too — as any statewide ballot will attest. 'Odd Wisconsin' celebrates that nicely twisted side of our state's face mask, from oddities to eccentricities, from heroic eagles to Confederate spies, from pigs in the legislature's basement to the sea monster that rattled Pere Marquette, all squares in the crazy quilt that is our past."
Larry Meiller, Wisconsin Public Radio
"[A]n amazing collection of stories about people and things that have made this state a great place in which to live. ... A fun book from start to finish."
Harriet Brown, editor, "Wisconsin Trails" Magazine
"Dipping into the pages of 'Odd Wisconsin' is like opening a box of your favorite chocolates-every one is a delicious treat! Gorge yourself on the whole thing, or savor them slowly, one by one. From the Scotch Giant (his shoes were 13.5 inches long and nearly 4 inches wide) to the smallest railroad in the world, from the rattlesnake-harvesting Sarah Hardwick to the Tarzan of Rhinelander, these odd morsels of Wisconsin's history are pure pleasure."
George Hesselbergk, "Wisconsin State Journal"
"Wowsers, this book is a hoot and a half. ... I've always thought we don't pay enough attention to the characters in our midst. 'Odd Wisconsin' takes care of that deficiency and gives some attention to the funny, ironic, goofy, and sad tales of our history. It might settle a few bets, too."
David Mollenhoff, author of "Madison: A History of the Formative Years"
"If you delight in irony, novelty, and surprise, buy 'Odd Wisconsin'. ... It's the kind of book that makes you eager for the next cocktail party so you can share this cool stuff."
Susan Lampert Smith, "Wisconsin State Journal" columnist and author of "Greetings from Wisconsin"
This book feature by Bobby Tanzilo appeared on OnMilwaukee.com on October 9, 2007
"[A] great compendium of the crazy stories and items stored in Wisconsin's attic."
"Odd Wisconsin" captures state's quirky characters
Great things come in small packages sometimes. Witness Erika Janik's compelling volume, "Odd Wisconsin: Amusing, Perplexing and Unlikely Stories from Wisconsin's Past," a 180-odd-page book packed full of interesting scenes from America's Dairyland.
In it, you'll read about the founder of Britain's Selfridge's department store chain -- born in Ripon -- about Thomas Jefferson's descendants living in Madison, about Socialist Victor Berger's witty one-liners and much more.
"The book began as a blog on the Wisconsin Historical Society Web site in 2004," says Janik, who works at the Wisconsin Historical Society, whose WHS Press published the book.
"The idea of doing a blog was the idea of the webmaster but the content kind of grew out of doing research for other projects. In the process of doing more 'serious research,' I and other people here would run across this fabulous stuff that was just too good to put back in the folder or box and pretend we didn't see. Once you start looking in the collections at WHS, odd stuff just starts popping out everywhere."
Janik says finding enough material for a book was no problem. In fact, the problem was just the reverse.
"There are way too many stories to pick from!" she says. "I picked some of my favorites that had been in the blog and rewrote them, and then added a whole bunch of new ones that I had recently run across or that we hadn't done yet on the Web site. It was a hard decision, though. Wisconsin is full of oddballs."
In fact, Janik has found so many stories — and continues to uncover more and more — that a second volume is already in the works, she says.
"There are certainly enough odd stories to warrant it. Finding stories is an ongoing process. There are many things that I haven't quite figured out how best to present yet."
In the meantime, we wondered if Janik has a favorite among the dozens included in the current book. Maybe the story of Marie Antoinette's clock in Milwaukee or the crazy postcards of Waupun's Alfred Stanley Johnson Jr. (some of which make an appearance in the Italian film "Nuovomondo")?
"One of my favorite stories is the prohibition investigation of Wisconsin in 1929," says Janik. "This poor investigator came to Wisconsin to see how well people were adhering to the laws and found, as he wrote, 'a utopia of the wets,' where 'John Barleycorn has his day.' There are some fantastic lines in there. I'm also a big fan of any story that makes me think, 'that happened in Wisconsin?!' Like that the Gideons (of BIble fam) began here. I love that."
Janik is not a native Badger and so, she says, the research for the book has opened up a window on wacky Wisconsin history for her. It's given her a bit of an off-kilter introduction to the state.
"Everything has been surprising in a way. The Gideons were really surprising to me; that Wisconsin is home to the world's only spiritualist school (still in business in West Allis) and that there were so many famous mediums here, and that there was a man who actually claimed to be the lost son of Louis XVI ... and that people believed him! I was also surprised to learn that one of the children Thomas Jefferson had with his slave Sally Hemings ended up here in Wisconsin and are buried here in Madison."
Every era has had its oddball stories and Janik says that compiling and writing "Odd Wisconsin" has helped her realize what a key part of who we are is reflected by these quirky tales. It also can help make history more fun to explore.
"History is so often thought of as a boring line-up of names and dates but history isn't that at all," Janik ays. "History is really about stories and learning these kind of odd stories tell us something about the time, the place and the people involved in Wisconsin's development and growth."
This book feature by Dennis McCann appeared in the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" on Friday, August 19, 2007
Odd Wisconsin, Odd Wisconsin
A few years ago Madison writer Erika Janik began a blog on the Web site of the Wisconsin Historical Society to share odd moments from our state's history. It says something about just how odd we are that Janik's blog has grown into a full blown book, "Odd Wisconsin: Amusing, Perplexing and Unlikely Stories from Wisconsin's Past." Indeed, Janik says in her introduction, the book "is your history, my history, our history - and it is a history in which we can take a kind of quirky pride, because it is hard to believe that any state could be odder than Wisconsin."
Oddly enough, I'm proud to be part of a state that odd. But just how odd? Janik offers some 300 stories to make her case, from the Kaukauna gold rush of 1900 (which could have been subtitled "Fools Rush In"), to pigs under the floor of the Legislature to the Tarzan of Rhinelander.
If I may steal a blurb from the back cover (and I certainly can, since I wrote it): "With its progressive tradition and proud history, we like to imagine Wisconsin as a place of character. But we are a place of characters, too - as any statewide ballot will attest. "Odd Wisconsin" celebrates that nicely twisted side of our state's face mask, from oddities to eccentricities, from heroic eagles to Confederate spies, from pigs in the legislature's basement to the sea monster that rattled Pere Marquette, all squares in this crazy quilt that is our past."
Or, as my pal George Hesselberg so eloquently put it, "Wowsers, this book is a hoot and a half..."
This book feature by Nan Bialek appeared on BayBiewNow.com on October 31, 2007
Author spotlights Wisconsin's oddities
Erika Janik, originally from Redmond, Wash., finds many things about Wisconsin odd — but in a good way.
Along with her co-workers, Janik, an editor at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, is serious about researching the finer points of Wisconsin's past. During the course of their research projects, she said, they kept turning up quirky little stories "that were too unforgettable to put aside."
She explained, "Some of the most incredible things have been found by chance almost."
These are things that make you say, "hmm." Like the photograph of an all-woman band serenading a herd of dairy cows. Or the fact that Tarzan swung limb-to-limb through what is now Nicolet National Forest to pluck Jane (a Wisconsin farm girl as it turns out) from a life-threatening fire. It's all found in the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, "Tarzan of the Apes."
All this was much too juicy to keep to themselves, so in 2004, Janik and her cohorts began posting about 500 of the more unusual items on a blog on the Wisconsin Historical Society Web site.
"We were getting about 1,000 hits a day and the Wisconsin State Journal picked it up as a syndicated column," Janik said. "Obviously, it was so popular we thought we should turn it into a book."
The resulting paperback, "Odd Wisconsin," is a collection of entertaining stories about the characters, curiosities and mini-mysteries that make our state unique.
Did you know, for example, that Wisconsin's original Constitution, handwritten in 1848, has disappeared? There was a mix-up at the printer.
And that wasn't our very first Constitution. When the pioneers gathered in Belmont to draft a Constitution, they came up with radical ideas for the time. They granted married women the right to own property and gave blacks the right to vote under certain conditions. All this appeared to be too much for the voters, who rejected the document.
"Odd Wisconsin" is populated with the famous, semi-famous and infamous characters who wrote some of the most fascinating, if obscure, chapters in the state's history. A pie-craving Frank Lloyd Wright shows up, along with a fire-fighting Bob LaFollette and a state legislator who found a temporary cure for long-winded lawmakers.
Readers will meet a gardener who "grew" a chair and the men who came up with the idea of the Gideons Bible and learn that "sex, drugs and rock and roll" was not unknown among voyageurs in the 1700s.
"The whole thing has been really fun," Janik said. "This is how I really see history - it's a story about people who are just like you and me. History so often is names and dates and rich white people you need to remember."
In Janik's hand, however, history is a blast. From the past.