Wisconsin Historical Society Press
Badger Boneyards: The Eternal Rest of the Story
By Dennis McCann
176 pages, 25 b/w photos and map, 6 x 9"; E-book also availableBuy
The bodies are buried, but the stories are not. From the ornate tombs of Milwaukee beer barons to displaced Chippewa graves and miniscule family plots, "Badger Boneyards: The Eternal Rest of the Story" unearths the stories of Wisconsin. Football great John Heisman is buried here, as is the state's smallest man, a woman whose tombstone names her murderer, and the boy who would not tell a lie and paid the price.
Even in a graveyard, peace proves hard to come by: Wisconsin's Native American tribes have fought for undisturbed grounds and proper burial. A patch of Belgian graves now resides beneath a parking lot while the headstones cluster nearby, and the inhabitants of a Bayfield cemetery were unearthed by a raging flood. Sometimes the dead are recalled with only a first name, and sometimes no name at all. Following the clues in tips from readers, unusual epitaphs, and well-worn stones, Dennis McCann finds the melancholy, the humorous, the tragic, and the universal in Wisconsin's cities of the dead.
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Dennis McCann is a Wisconsin native and longtime explorer of the state’s nooks, crannies, and, yes, its burial grounds. A University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism graduate, he joined the "Milwaukee Journal" (later the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel") in 1983 as farm writer and state rover. His previous books include "The Wisconsin Story: 150 Stories/150 Years," "Dennis McCann Takes You for a Ride," and "Rough Stuff," a collection of his columns from "Wisconsin Golfer" magazine. Now a freelance writer, he spends most of his time with his wife, Barb, a retired teacher, at their home on Lake Superior in Bayfield.
Q&A with Dennis McCann
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write "Badger Boneyards?"
Dennis McCann: In my years as a traveling newspaper columnist, I often wrote about Wisconsin's history, and of course much of that could be traced through cemeteries. I was surprised when I began looking back at how many columns included a cemetery in some way, whether I was writing specifically about a cemetery, about a person or people buried in one, about the community a cemetery served and so on. In fact, I had the title in mind years before I had a book to go with it. I saw it as a book not exclusively reserved for cemetery profiles, though there are some of those, but one in which a cemetery would be part of each chapter.
WHS Press: You traveled around the state to visit these cemeteries. Did you go in knowing whose grave you were looking for or did you stumble across them and decide to dig deeper?
DM: The answer is probably a little of both. Sometimes I would go to a cemetery knowing ahead of time who or what I would find and write about. For example, I knew John Heisman, of the football trophy fame, was buried in Rhinelander and that Frank Lloyd Wright's grave was in Spring Green, even though his body no longer was. Some were cemeteries I had visited previously, but others were new to me. I sought advice from several people on cemeteries that deserved my attention. In a few cases, I was walking through cemeteries and simply found something interesting to pursue; the Native American cemetery at Oneida was an example of that. And of course, sometimes I walked through a cemetery and found nothing that piqued my interest.
WHS Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned during your research on past Wisconsinites?
DM: One of the pleasant surprises has been the reaction of so many readers at talks I have given about the book. Many people really enjoy cemeteries. I am constantly asked if I have visited such-and-such a cemetery, or if I know about a really unusual marker in this city or that rural area. I said early on that writing a sequel would be really easy given the stories that readers have shared with me since the book came out. At one talk a reader brought a photograph of the sign for Croak Cemetery, which she thought would amuse me. It did, but it didn't surprise me; my uncle is buried there.
WHS Press: "Badger Boneyards" tells the stories of people buried in Wisconsin cemeteries. Do you have a personal favorite story?
DM: I like the John Heisman story, mostly because it surprises so many that he is buried in Wisconsin, and the story of the poor girl whose marker describes her not only as a murder victim but names the killer as well. But my personal favorite story is in the first chapter, where the "old-time cemetery man" describes his job as a gravedigger in such colorful ways.
WHS Press: What do you hope readers take away from "Badger Boneyards?"
DM: It would please me if readers were inspired to go from the book to their hometown cemetery and see what they can find of interest. Some people are squeamish about cemeteries for some reason, perhaps because of the idea of ghosts or fear of the dead or something else, but I think of them as parks with a different purpose. Take a walk, read the markers and see what you find. Not all boneyards will yield good stories, but that makes finding good ones all the better.Author Interviews
Click here to listen to Stephanie Lecci's interview with author Dennis McCann. This interview originally aired on Wednesday, October 27, 2010 on the "Lake Effect" program, 89.7 FM WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio.
Click here to watch Meredith Clanfield's interview with author Dennis McCann. This interview originally aired on the Wisconsin Eye television program "Wisconsin in Words" on Friday, October 29, 2010.
Click here to watch author Dennis McCann interviewed on "The Morning Blend" television program. This interview originally aired on TMJ4 Milwaukee on Wednesday, January 19, 2011.
Doug Moe, daily columnist, "The Wisconsin State Journal," author of "The World of Mike Royko" and "Lords of the Ring"
"Dennis McCann, one of Wisconsin's best storytellers, not only knows where the bodies are buried, he knows that many of them have great tales to tell. McCann’s natural curiosity and affection for cemeteries make 'Badger Boneyards: The Eternal Rest of the Story' a delight that constantly informs and surprises."
Michael Bie, ClassicWisconsin.com<br />"Nobody tells a story quite like Dennis McCann. In 'Badger Boneyards' he weaves the same blend of humor and humanity that made him one of the most widely read newspaper columnists in the state. This is a thoroughly entertaining collection of true stories written by one of Wisconsin's favorite writers."
John Gurda, Milwaukee historian
"Dennis McCann's latest book is the last word on Wisconsin's cemeteries. From Bayfield to Prairie du Chien to Milwaukee, he describes the final homes of our former residents with the warmth, humor, and fundamental compassion of a born storyteller."
Erika janik, author of "A Short History of Wisconsin" and "Odd Wisconsin: Amusing, Perplexing and Unlikely Stories from Wisconsin's Past"
"The past is never dead, as McCann vividly recounts in these sometimes funny, often sober, but always enlightening tales of Wisconsin's disrupted spirits, famous sons and daughters, and unknown citizens. 'Badger Boneyards' is an entertaining and insightful look at Wisconsin's history through its past lives."
Jerry Minnich, author and general editor of "The Wisconsin Almanac"
"Not since the days when Sunday family picnics were commonly held in cemeteries have these 'cities of the dead' offered so much story-telling material. And what better guide to the stories cemeteries tell than Dennis McCann? His dogged sleuthing unearths tale after tale about some of Wisconsin's most fascinating historical figures. This is a treasure of a book."
Tim Cuprisin, OnMilwaukee.com
"There is the sensitivity to small-town life that is the hallmark of McCann's writing, along with his playful use of language. … He never makes fun of his subjects, but revels in telling their stories. His cemetery stories are far more about life than they are about death."
Claire Duquette, "The Daily Press" Ashland
"Cemeteries are gardens of reflection. Serene resting places, they inspire one to wonder about the souls buried there and the stories they could tell. So it is no wonder that Bayfield author Dennis McCann has unearthed a wealth of fascinating stories in his new book, 'Badger Boneyards: The Eternal Rest of the Story.'"
Jim Higgins, "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel"
"Longtime travel columnist Dennis McCann has turned his distinctive blend of storytelling and humor to the sites where most of our human journeys end. McCann recounts 30 tales of Wisconsin cemeteries (plus one each over the borders in Michigan and Iowa) … [landing] on boneyards big and little, with a special preference for the small and striking."
Gary Knowles, "Dane County Lifestyles"
"If there's a journalistic 'Dr. Frankenstein Award,' McCann would be an odds-on favorite to win. He proves convincingly that the dead can be brought back to life. It's a fascinating book that's hard to put down."
Doug Moe: Author digs up buried stories
Some friends of mine just bought a house on Virginia Terrace with a backyard that overlooks Forest Hill Cemetery.
It gave them momentary pause while they were considering the purchase. Did they really want to live next to a cemetery?
Dennis McCann, a longtime Milwaukee newspaperman, would have no such qualms.
"You couldn't ask for better neighbors," McCann was saying recently.
McCann, who took a buyout from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2007 after nearly a quarter-century with the paper, likes cemeteries. In a new city, he’ll gravitate toward them in the way others might seek out museums or bookstores or bars.
In a preface to his new book, "Badger Boneyards: The Eternal Rest of the Story," McCann writes, "As a traveling newspaperman, I often found stories in cemeteries the way political reporters find them at city hall or sports reporters find them in a gym."
McCann, who turns 60 next month, said he's had the title in his mind for years. Then, shortly after he left the Journal Sentinel, he was asked to lunch by Kathy Borkowski at Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
Borkowski asked if he had any book ideas.
"I want to write a book about Wisconsin cemeteries," McCann said.
Recalling the conversation recently, McCann laughed. "She got this funny look on her face."
Still, Borkowski asked for some sample chapters, and once McCann produced them, they struck a deal.
That's probably because when McCann sits down to write his stories, marvelous things happen.
A Janesville native, McCann now divides his time between Madison and Bayfield. He worked on the Janesville Gazette before moving to the Milwaukee Journal in 1983. He'd always admired Bill Stokes — who traveled the state for the Journal, uncovering one entertaining feature after another — and soon it was McCann who was doing the roving, searching out local legends and colorful characters, and introducing them to his readers in fluid prose that made writing look easy, which it is not.
As McCann notes in the new preface, he often found himself in cemeteries: "It might sound funny to say the dead have inspired a lot of stories for me, but it's true."
One of McCann's favorite tales from "Badger Boneyards" is titled "The Virgin Em and Her Many Husbands," and it began in the reading room of the La Crosse Public Library.
Reading a book on the history of La Crosse, McCann came upon a profile of Emma Eastman, a woman seemingly unwilling to give divorce a chance. She married nine times, and is spending eternity with three of her husbands who are buried near her in a cemetery in McGregor, Iowa, just across the Mississippi River from Wisconsin.
McCann drove straight to McGregor from La Crosse and got the story.
The new book tracks some famous graves, including that of John Heisman in Forest Home Cemetery in Rhinelander. The annual award recognizing the nation's best college football player is named for Heisman, who has a simple, ground-level stone next to his wife, Edith.
At least Heisman, presumably, is still under the stone. In a chapter titled "The Man Who Isn’t There," McCann tells the strange story of Frank Lloyd Wright's exhumation in March 1985 from his grave at Unity Chapel near Taliesin in Spring Green.
Twenty-six years after the architect's death, his body was sent to Taliesin West, in accordance with his widow's dying wish.
Madison's Forest Hill Cemetery — my friends' new neighbor — gets a chapter, too. McCann focuses on the Confederate soldiers — Civil War prisoners — buried in an area of Forest Hill called Confederate Rest.
McCann calls Forest Hill "as much a history park as a burying place," a description that holds for many cemeteries, and goes a long way toward explaining their considerable if unlikely attraction.
This feature by Jim Higgins appeared in the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" on July 21, 2010
Badger tales that start at the end
Longtime travel columnist Dennis McCann has turned his distinctive blend of storytelling and humor to the sites where most of our human journeys end.
In his new book "Badger Boneyards: The Eternal Rest of the Story" (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $16.95), McCann recounts 30 tales of Wisconsin cemeteries (plus one each over the borders in Michigan and Iowa). McCann, a former Milwaukee Journal and Journal Sentinel travel writer, lands on boneyards big and little, with a special preference for the small and striking.
In Door County, he visits the burial site of a Potawatomi leader - between the first and ninth holes at Peninsula State Park golf course. In Rhinelander, he finds the grave of John Heisman, for whom the famous college football trophy is named.
His single Milwaukee stop is Forest Home Cemetery, final resting place of so many beer barons, mayors, governors and "enough generals to mount a sizable army." In Ixonia, in Jefferson County, he pays his respects at the grave of John Lewis (1856-'81), described on his marker as "the smallest man on record." McCann reports the famous Tom Thumb was said to have "towered over" Lewis, who was listed as 27 inches high.
Some of the burial grounds give McCann a platform to tell larger historical stories.
In "Where No Priest May Enter," he uses a Sauk City cemetery to write about German-inspired Free Congregation, or free-thinker, movements. In Hurley, McCann visits Sharey Zedek, the Jewish section of the community cemetery, and describes a Minneapolis cardiologist's quest to uncover the roots of that Jewish community and recover his own.
"History, after all," McCann writes, "is a living thing, even when it is uncovered after decades among the dead."
This feature by Tim Cuprisin appeared on OnMilwaukee.com on July 12, 2010
OnMedia: Dennis McCann's "grave undertaking"
That "grave undertaking" crack in the headline comes directly from Dennis McCann as we talked about the classic McCann cracks that you'll find in his new book, "Badger Boneyards."
His own subtitle for the book is pure McCann: "The Eternal Rest of the Story."
He spent nearly a quarter century traveling Wisconsin for the Milwaukee Journal, and its successor, the Journal Sentinel, becoming one of the paper's most recognizable writers. His focus was often small towns and the characters that inhabit them. Along the way, he'd stop in the graveyards.
"I really find them to be peaceful places, sort of as parks with a different purpose," he tells me.
There's no heavy mysticism to McCann's 32 easily digestible stories in the 156-page paperback from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. There is the sensitivity to small-town life that is the hallmark of McCann's writing, along with his playful use of language.
"If you step away from it, you can treat it in a lighter manner because it is part of life," McCann says of what could be a heavy subjects. He never makes fun of his subjects, but revels in telling their stories. His cemetery stories are far more about life than they are about death.
And he steps back when he has to.
For example, he doesn't write about the recently deceased, relating a story of a fascinating find at one tombstone: leg braces with shoes still attached. But the death was fresh enough for McCann to shy away from using it in the book. The owner of leg braces was left unidentified.
McCann left newspapering back in 2007, taking a buyout and, like many journalists, moving into the post-newspaper phase of his career. For the record, he's a friend of mine, as well as a former co-worker.
He had written a book of 150 Wisconsin stories to mark the state's sesquicentennial and afterward this project came up. Spending most of the year up in Bayfield, McCann's still doing a bit of freelancing, mostly about golf. And he's still traveling the state.
His next project?
"Let's try and sell this one first," he tells me.
This feature by Claire Duquette appeared in "The Daily Press" (Ashland) on July 9, 2010
Storied cemeteries chronicled in "Badger Boneyards"
Cemeteries are gardens of reflection. Serene resting places, they inspire one to wonder about the souls buried there and the stories they could tell.
So it is no wonder that Bayfield author Dennis McCann has unearthed a wealth of fascinating stories in his new book, "Badger Boneyards: The Eternal Rest of the Story," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
McCann honed his reporting skills working nearly 25 years as a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal and later the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. He moved north to Bayfield six years ago with his wife, Barb, retiring from the daily deadlines of the newspaper world in 2007. But the muse is still with McCann, who regularly pens articles for Wisconsin Trails magazine and Wisconsin Golfer, among others.
To find stories for the book, McCann criss-crossed Wisconsin, digging up an engrossing series of anecdotes ranging from the amusing to the tragic.
"They’re not spooky or in any way ghost stories," McCann said. "But they all involve a cemetery in some way."
McCann, who has long had a fondness for cemeteries, said he came up with the title "Badger Boneyards" years ago, and had two chapters for the book in his head for some time before committing them to paper and approaching the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, which offered to publish the book.
"I was really happy the historical society was interested," McCann said. "I have a lot of respect for what they do."
Filling the pages of "Boneyards" are stories about places, people and even a shovelful of Wisconsin trivia, such as the story of how Tombstone Pizza of Medford got its name.
There are some stories about people — McCann admits that a reference to Tom Blake's headstone in the Washburn cemetery is an excuse to tell the unlikely tale of a Washburn native whose surfboard designs revolutionized the California sport. And the story of the "Virgin Em" and her nine (!) husbands is a colorful tale of an enterprising woman.
Some of the tales involve people McCann met while visiting cemeteries, including "Digger," a caretaker in a Norway, Mich., cemetery. Or discovering how an historic Jewish cemetery in Hurley has helped one modern-day Minneapolis cardiologist discover his family roots.
Other cemetery stories resonate with history, such as the chapter on the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery, a stark monument to one of Wisconsin's darkest tragedies, the Oct. 8, 1871, Peshtigo fire.
And how about the best cemetery just for strolling?
The Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, a favorite destination for Sunday afternoon picnics 100 years ago, is still charming, McCann said.
"It's beautifully landscaped, and has great funerary architecture," he said. "The rich and the powerful are buried there, but also ordinary people."
Since the book has been published, McCann says he's been given lots of tips on other great cemeteries and cemetery stories.
Because, as McCann says, there is just something about cemeteries that have appeal all in themselves.
"They're so similar to a park — quiet, green, restful," he said. "Some people may find them eerie, but they are parks that serve a different purpose and ought to be appreciated."