Q & A with Bob Willging
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write "History Afield?"
Bob Willging: The Wisconsin Historical Society Press has given me two tremendous opportunities to write about my passion, Wisconsin sporting history. My first book, "On the Hunt," chronicled the history and development of white-tailed deer hunting in Wisconsin. I packed a huge amount of information into that book and hope it serves as a hunting season reference for years to come. "History Afield" is different. Although it still focuses on the history of sporting pursuits in Wisconsin, it consists of many short chapters covering a wide variety of subjects, from duck hunting to fishing, outlaw beaver trapping to early north wood's resorts. Many of the stories originated with a column I wrote for several years for Wisconsin Outdoor News called "History Afield." I developed the idea for the column as I realized that stories from Wisconsin's sporting past and its rich heritage were disappearing as the old timers who knew these stories passed away. I sought to gather new information on some of the better known stories – like Calvin Coolidge's summer on the Brule River – but also investigated never before told tales. So I guess writing "History Afield" was my way of bringing a few stories of Wisconsin's golden age of sporting life to light and ensuring they are easily accessible to new generations of sporting enthusiasts.
WHS Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned from the interviews and research you conducted for this book?
BW: While conducting research for the stories in the book I strived to use original sources as much as possible to avoid simply repackaging what already is in print. Through the years of collecting and chronicling stories about Wisconsin's sporting history, I've had the good fortune to run into many people with great stories to tell. Sixteen chapters in History Afield contain information gleaned from personal interviews with folks who had some real connection to the story.
It was always a delight to see the twinkle in someone's eye as they recounted their favorite memories from long ago experiences. One of the most interesting interviews for me was one with Marvin Kaukl who described his first hand experiences with the early days of the State Game Farm in Poynette. While I did know about the Game Farm's pheasant raising operation, I had no idea that at one time the farm was a hub of activity related to furbearers and that the state had actually stocked raccoons on the landscape. Another great experience was the opportunity to chat with Vern Frechette, the last living survivor of a drama that unfolded on Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay in 1933 as a fierce spring storm threatened the lives of twenty-nine fishermen trapped on an ice flow. He told me the tale as if it happened the weekend before rather than 70 years ago. I had never realized how treacherous fishing on the Bay could be. It was a real thrill to speak one on one with Vern.
WHS Press: In what way was writing "History Afield" a personal experience? How do you feel connected with the book?
BW: When I was somewhere around twelve or thirteen years old, I was scrounging in my grandparent's attic in their home in Dubuque, Iowa. I had never known anyone in this family to have an interest in hunting or fishing, but in a stack of old newspapers and magazines I discovered a single copy of Outdoor Life. It was the March, 1953 issue. I smuggled it home and read the stories over and over again. I was intrigued by the feel of the old stories and their ability to take me back to a different time. I didn't think about it then, but this may be where my fascination with sporting history and tradition began to kindle. I keep that magazine, along with other old outdoor magazines I have collected through the years, close at hand on my bookshelf today. While reading those stories as a kid, I spent many hours imagining what it must have been like living in a bygone era. As an adult researching and collecting information for "History Afield," the feeling was the same; I immersed myself in each story and in a way each story became a personal adventure.
WHS Press: What do you hope readers take away from "History Afield?"
BW: This really depends on who the reader is; how old they are, what their outdoor experiences are. I believe the older reader will in some way be transported back to the days of their youth when people spent a lot more time outdoors than they do now and hunting and fishing were simple but fulfilling pastimes. They know what it was like in "the good old days" before life became so complex and artificial. I think the stories will open the door to a lot of reminiscing. I am hopeful that younger sportsmen and women will foremost find the stories entertaining but also take away a new understanding of Wisconsin sporting history and tradition and perhaps a new respect for the old ways. I believe folks of all ages who are not really into hunting and fishing will still greatly enjoy the book. The stories are extremely varied and offer some unique glimpses in one aspect of Wisconsin history that is not often written about.