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One of Dennis McCann’s favorite Badger state tales is about another Wisconsin storyteller.
McCann chuckles recalling Eugene Shepard, a showman who when tasked with livening up the 1896 Oneida County Fair, captured a Hodag — a fierce beast of the Northwoods, in lumberjack lore — and charged fair attendees to hear the daring tale of its apprehension.
Of course, Hodags do not exist. But Shepard wasn’t one to let an inconvenient truth interfere with his style.
Displayed in dim light and with — by some accounts — Shepard’s assistants growling and manipulating its limbs (Shepard had it carved from a tree trunk), the Hodag was a hit. Even people who knew it was a hoax were entertained by Shepard’s act.
Shepard and the Hodag are just one of 150 classic Wisconsin tales related by McCann in his new book, “The Wisconsin Story: 150 People, Places and Turning Points that Shaped the Badger State.” The story of how this book — published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press — came into being isn’t bad, either.
It dates back more than two decades, to the approach of the 1998 sesquicentennial celebration of Wisconsin gaining statehood in 1848.
Newspaper editors love big round numbers and celebrations. At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where McCann had been employed since 1983, the first idea was to send McCann, their star feature writer, the length of the Wisconsin River in a canoe. Dennis was dubious. Word came back: How about 150 historical essays that would run one-a-day in the paper and then be collected in a book? That sounded better.
The day of the sesquicentennial celebration in Madison was May 29, 1998. McCann had a room at the Concourse Hotel and the first box of books — published by the newspaper and titled, “The Wisconsin Story: 150 Stories/150 Years” — was delivered that day to his hotel room.
“I had the guy who delivered them stay while I opened the box,” Dennis recalls. “There was nobody else I could show my first book to.”
McCann, a Janesville native who took a buyout from the Journal Sentinel in 2007, today splits his time between Madison and Bayfield.
Not long after he left the newspaper, McCann had lunch with Kathy Borkowski, then director of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. She asked if he had any book ideas. “I want to write a book about Wisconsin cemeteries,” McCann said. “Badger Boneyards: The Eternal Rest of the Story,” came out in 2010 and is, like most of what comes from McCann’s keyboard, a delight.
I particularly like the story of Emma Eastman, nine times married and buried near three of her husbands in a cemetery in Iowa across the Mississippi River from Wisconsin. McCann included Emma because he read about her in a history of La Crosse and because her story was too good to leave out. Some people just won’t give divorce a chance.
He wrote several other books for the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. Then in 2017, Borkowski visited McCann and his wife, Barb, in their Bayfield home. They sat on the screened porch overlooking the lake. At one point Barb said her favorite among Dennis’ books was his first. Borkowski was unfamiliar with it.
“I went down in my basement,” Dennis says, “and found one of the last remaining copies [of “The Wisconsin Story”]. It had been out of print for almost 20 years. I brought it up to show Kathy.”
It wasn’t long before Borkowski — who left the director post in 2018, and was replaced by Kate Thompson — said, “Maybe we should think of redoing this.”
The Wisconsin Historical Society Press edition came out this month. McCann is especially pleased with the production values of the new edition. “It looks wonderful,” he says.
The stories still resonate. Readers will find famous names — Charles Lindbergh, John Dillinger — but McCann’s favorites are “some of the quirkier ones,” including the tale of the Wisconsin man believed to be the first to ever have milked a cow on an airplane.
The man’s name was Elsworth W. Bunce. He had been a Milwaukee Journal paperboy. The cow’s name was Elm Farm Ollie. Some Madison residents belonged to a fan club that commissioned an opera about her. They called it “Moocini’s Madam Butterfat.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.
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