Odd Wisconsin: Amusing, Perplexing, and Unlikely Stories from Wisconsin's Past

By Erika Janik

Paperback: $16.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-383-1

208 pages, 75 b/w photos and illus., 5.5 x 6.875"


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While Bob La Follette's exploits as leader of progressive politics are legendary, his early morning exertions to save valuable government documents and executive department paintings during the disastrous 1904 capitol fire are largely unknown - until now. "Odd Wisconsin" captures the Wisconsin people, places, and events that didn't make it into conventional state histories, lowering a bucket into the depths of Wisconsin history and bringing to light curious fragments of forgotten lives.

This unique book unearths the stories that got lost to history even though they may have made local headlines at the time. No mythical hodags or eight-legged horses here! "Odd Wisconsin" features strange but true stories from Wisconsin's past, every one of which was documented (albeit by the standards of the day). These brief glimpses into Wisconsin's past will surprise, perplex, astonish, and otherwise connect readers with the state's fascinating history. From "the voyageur with a hole in his side" to "pigs beneath the legislature," "Odd Wisconsin" gathers 300 years of curiosities, all under the radar of traditional stories.

To receive a review copy or press release, to schedule an author event, or for more information contact the WHS Press Marketing Department: whspress@wisconsinhistory.org.

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."

Interview with Erika Janik

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: What motivated you to write about odd Wisconsin stories?

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?

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?"

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?

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?

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?

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?

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.

Author Interviews
Erika Janik was interviewed on the Wisconsin Public Radio program "University of the Air" on January 13, 2008. 

On August 7, 2007 and October 16, 2007, the Wisconsin Public Radio program the "Larry Meiller Show" interviewed Erika Janik.


"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." - Dennis McCann, "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel"

"[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." - Larry Meiller, Wisconsin Public Radio

"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." - Harriet Brown, editor, "Wisconsin Trails" Magazine

"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." - George Hesselbergk, "Wisconsin State Journal"

"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." -  David Mollenhoff, author of "Madison: A History of the Formative Years"

"[A] great compendium of the crazy stories and items stored in Wisconsin's attic."
 - 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:

"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.