Wisconsin Past and Present

Examples of Wisconsin Past & Present

(Bits of Wisconsin history with particular relevance to what’s in the news this week)

January 18, 2010

Tom Barrett – who crossed the state this week campaigning for governor – is  fighting more than Republicans and an apparent voter backlash against President Obama in places like Massachusetts. He’s fighting history.  A sense of humor might help.

It has been 118 years since a Milwaukee mayor was elected governor – and the last one is better remembered for making people laugh than for his accomplishments in office.

George W. Peck was a newspaperman and the author of the “Peck’s Bad Boy” sketches and books. He was also elected mayor of Milwaukee in 1890 and served as governor of Wisconsin from 1891 to 1895.  Like Barrett, Peck was a “staunch Democrat,” according to a story in the Milwaukee Free Press when he died in 1916. The same edition of the paper recounted one of the jokes that gave Peck his reputation as a humorist.

“My father could have bought the whole of what is now Grand Avenue (in Milwaukee) for a silver watch,” Peck once bragged. Asked why on earth his father had not done so, Peck replied, “He didn’t have the silver watch.”

December 16, 2009

Sure, the flu is a drag and getting a shot can be a little uncomfortable. Reading William Titus, a Wisconsin writer who grew up outside Fond du Lac in the mid-1800s and whose words have been preserved by the Wisconsin State Historical Society, might not cure you. But it should at least make you feel better. “Sweating and bleeding the patient were approved methods of treatment” in Wisconsin back then, according to Titus.

“Goose grease, skunks’ oil, bear fat and even slabs of pork fat were supposed to be beneficial when applied externally.”

Proof the treatments were not, as Titus wrote, “uniformly efficacious”? A walk through the cemetery and a look at all the “young people whose names are inscribed on the tombstones of the period.”

December 2, 2009

Organized amateur baseball teams playing in places like Eau Claire, La Crosse, Green Bay and Madison could soon have an opponent in Mequon, it was reported this week – although there are already concerns about just how many fans would show up given the suburb’s proximity to Miller Park.

Maybe – as an inducement – they could do what the old amateur baseball teams did in the state back in the mid-1800s. According to a 1925 article in the Baraboo Daily News, Wisconsin baseball teams in the 1860s used a “live ball” made largely of rubber. “The result,” reported the paper, “was a game consisted mostly of a display of heavy batting and base running, with the score usually going up to some forty or maybe fifty runs.”

This eventually became “tiresome,” and in an effort to keep scores down they eventually switched to a “dead ball” that rarely went outside the infield.
Sounds like what J.J. Hardy was trying to hit before he was traded to the Twins.

November 23, 2009

Residents of Watertown in the 1850s and 1860s would likely commiserate with – or maybe just roll their eyes at – all of us latter-day Wisconsinites bemoaning difficult career changes. After fleeing Germany in the late 1840s, a slew of German educators, lawyers and “other learned men” found refuge in the Jefferson  County town.

It wasn’t at all unusual after that, according to an article that ran in the Appleton Post-Crescent in 1924, to hear the local baker exclaim that he had “successfully translated the latest philosophical tract of Bacchilydes” or hear the butchers and tavern-keepers arguing about Theocritus and Homer and Schopenhauer and Kant.

It was, one man who grew up in Watertown remarked, “a strange and fascinating mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous.”

October 31, 2009

Most sane people nowadays dismiss psychics and spiritualists as pretenders and quacks – even this week. Not so back in the 1800s. One former Wisconsin governor, Nathanial Tallmadge, claimed quite seriously that he communicated with the famous senator, John C. Calhoun – who was dead. He even claimed that Calhoun’s spirit once played the guitar for him. Other prominent Wisconsinites – including U.S. Senator William Vilas, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice William Lyon, and Historical Society superintendent Lyman Draper, sought advice and healing from famous Wisconsin psychic Mary Hayes-Chynoweth, according to the Historical Society’s own records.

Perhaps they were smarter than we moderns think. Under the influence of a strange “power,” it is said that Hayes-Chynoweth could speak in languages she didn’t know and foresee the future. She really did foresee northern Wisconsin’s iron ore boom, and made both her own family and some friends fabulously rich.

October 26, 2009

You heard about the 125-pound black bear that ambled into the beer cooler at Marketplace Foods in Hayward this week? If he’d been like one of his ancestors at Jack Ryan’s saloon in Mercer a century ago, he would have popped one open.

Ryan, according to the Charles E. Brown papers kept by the Wisconsin Historical Society, had a bear cub that stood on its hind legs and drank beer with amused lumberjacks.  Ryan even tried to take the 75-pound bear for a ride in his car – something that didn’t go so well until his wife Kitty got involved.

“Give me that poor bear,” Kitty told her husband.  According to the Historical Society, she “took the bear by the collar” and put it beside her in the back seat. When the bear tried to escape, she “took him by the ears and cuffed him just as she would one of her own.” The bear “soon settled in a corner of the seat and rode along like a good boy . . .”