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.
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.