Ghostly Travels

October 30, 2009

Visiting ghosts in the local graveyard has been a popular activity for community historical and theatrical organizations for a few years now.  Many of us can’t resist the temptation to spend a bracing autumn morning or darkening fall evening midst the tombstones of our forebears.

The Adams County Historical Society held its Annual Cemetery Tour last Saturday.  I’ve served as researcher, script writer, tour guide–and ghost–for the Adams County tours for five or six years now.


Headstone of 19-year-old Lewis Knight, one of six men of Company E, 16th Wisconsin, who died at Shiloh in 1862. Strong's Prairie Cemetery, Adams County.

Our county has always had a small population spread over a large area, which means we have several dozen cemeteries located throughout a couple dozen towns.  Our modus operandi, therefore, is to load up a school bus full of ghost hunters, travel to two country cemeteries, meet five or six ghosts in each, then adjourn to a nearby country church whose members feed us a home cooked dinner that is worth the trip all by itself.

At the cemeteries, our tourists find ghosts poised at their graves, in period clothes, waiting to come to life and tell their stories.  Given the right story and the right ghost, they/we are transported to the past. The setting eases the journey. There is something about a graveyard that prompts reflection, opens us to past lives, our own and others.

Selecting ghostly storytellers can be a challenge.  As it is among the living, the population of our county among the dead is rather small.  Records are often absent. Memoirs few, and the editors of our weeklies did not pen lavish obituaries on everyone who passed, even in the era when such obits were standard newspaper fare.

So the first rule of selecting ghosts is that we actually have to know enough about a person to tell their story. No fiction, at least not deliberately, although this writer is sorely tempted not to let the facts impede the telling of a good story.

In part because records are available, but also because the sacrifice was so great, we visit with the ghost of one Civil War veteran each year.  In proportion to its population Wisconsin suffered more casualties in the Civil War than just about any other northern state. Evidence of that sacrifice is found in our cemeteries.

Of course, we visit the graves of the conventionally significant–the “firsters” who founded the towns, left their names on the map, acquired a measure of wealth, fame or infamy.

We also try to find the ghosts of  ordinary folks, or at least those generally perceived as ordinary, even though we know every grave in every cemetery marks a life unique unto itself.

So we find the 19th century farm “wife” remembered as the mother of six, eight, a dozen children, who invariably lost one or more in infancy. The tiny stones of the babies flank  her marker like children gathered round to hear her tell a pretty story–as perhaps she once did in life.

We also look for the long-lived. On our last tour, we visited the ghost of a woman born in 1899 who died in 2001. She, and we, were able to reflect on change over three centuries.


Headstone of Alson Kent at the foot of the only oak tree in Strong's Prairie Cemetery.

Occasionally we have a touchy moment, when the descendant of a ghost appears and wants to be sure we have grandma’s or grandpa’s story straight. We do, usually.

We can’t talk about ghosts without mentioning at least one sort-of eerie experience. In 2008 we told the story of Alson Kent, a seventeen year old boy who died in a logging accident. A huge oak tree he was felling snapped unexpectedly, kicked back off the stump, and crushed the youngster before he could escape.  Coincidentally or not, Kent is buried at the foot of the only large oak in the Strong’s Prairie Cemetery. It matches the newspaper description of the tree that killed him.

See you on the next tour.

–Michael Goc

The producers……

October 28, 2009

“If I’m supporting them, maybe they can support themselves,” exclaims Jacqui and she isn’t talking about teenagers.  She’s talking about her sheep.  Jacqui runs Dumgoyne Farm, named after a hill near her childhood home in Scotland.  She is one of thousands of small agriculture and art producers, the folks behind the colorful stalls at outdoor markets, displays in intriguing little shops and web sites chocked with visually delicious offerings.

Dumgoyne Farm features specialty fibers from “a menagerie”, including a herd of about 60 sheep.  I don’t want to forget the llamas.  (And I’ve learned that llamas have fiber, not wool.)


"The flock's in the forest," says Jacqui.

Jacqui’s comment about the sheep supporting themselves comes from the fact that many of her wards are rescue animals.  She gave them a home so now their wool can help pay their room and board.  And it does.

Small producers of agricultural and related products are important economically, and their numbers seem to be on the rise.   In Lafayette County, near where I live, 40% of the labor force is self-employed.  That‘s a lot.  Half of those workers are farmers.  And consumers of all stripes seem to be seeking better knowledge of where their stuff comes from which bodes well for the smaller businesspeople.

In this instance, Dumgoyne is an offshoot of a larger agricultural concern and provides additional “value-added” income through the sale of quality fibers.  You can pick-up a ram lamb, too, if you’re in the market.  They feature registered Icelandic sheep and various other breeds comprise the rest of the herd.  The attraction is obvious: Dumgoyne Farm’s fibers are rich and extraordinary.

Products are marketed through Savor Wisconsin (a great, free service to buyer and seller alike), at a wool and fiber expo, through a web page and Dumgoyne especially word-of-mouth.  “Some of the people I sell to have unbelievable skills,” says Jacqui.  “They’re crafty people, if I may.  We know each other, help each other out.”dum-wool1

Among other reasons, it is obvious agriculture is a means to an end in this case.  Caring for rescue animals is an important part of Dumgoyne Farm because it is an element of the belief system of the farmer:  Jacqui loves being with and having animals.  The last time I called Dumgoyne Gus the macaw was doing some serious decibels in the background and other birds were making a chorus of it.  The dogs watch over the sheep and occasionally warm the couch if needed.  Small animals, large animals, birds and bunnies – all have a place there.


Khazimir wonders who's reading this

The sheep support more than themselves.dum-wool2

Farming of any kind is hard work, especially in winter and if the operation involves animals.  “Sheep can get stuck in the snow”, says Jacqui, so she uses the pasture nearest the house.  Hard, prolonged winters create havoc with watering and feeding and stress animals and people alike.  Trucks, skid steers, tractors and almost anything with a motor will give you problems.  It isn’t an easy occupation and it carries a lot of risks and less control sometimes than one would hope for.

That being said, spring, summer and fall can be pretty nice.                      dum-wool3

If there’s a common thread to what makes many of the farmers I know tick, it seems to be lifestyle and independence.  A lot of these folks would farm regardless of the type of operation – they like being outside, they’re the decision-maker and they could be content in differing types of farming.


A woolen mask and hands. Happy Halloween!

Some like to market their goods directly – meet the customer and share the story.  Others are less gregarious.  Some are truly committed to a rural lifestyle and others to producing the healthiest consumables they can.  Some are the latest of many generations in the same business.

I’m going to make an effort to talk to more producers over the next month or so – maybe blog a bit more about what I learn.  Their perspective is a part of the connection that may have been be a bit lost over the last few decades.  But it is starting to be found again through the success of Buy Local movements and the efforts of caring consumers who demand to know where their goods come from and that those who produce them get a fair shake.  That’s a partnership we all can bank on.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Wisconsin Rural Partners

Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)

It’s all part of our history

October 21, 2009

I read today that the average fuel efficiency of U.S. cars has improved by three miles since the Model T Ford. In other words, according to the study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, in the last 101 years, American cars are only getting an average of three more miles to the gallon.

In the same publication, I also read that the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit restored protections of more than 40 million acres of public land. This overturned what the last President did to make what the preceding President had done valid once again.

I think we can learn a lot from history. I gather American car manufacturers have had other things on their minds and American Presidents don’t share a consistent vision for public lands.

Actors Patrick and Samuel Porter in "Camp We-Kan-Tak-It" at the Boerner Botanical Garderns. Photo by Debbie Kmetz.

Actors Patrick and Samuel Porter in "Camp We-Kan-Tak-It" at the Boerner Botanical Garderns. Photo by Debbie Kmetz.

One historical and notably American act I’ve always thought seemed sensible is the Civilian Conservation Corps. After a performance by the Milwaukee Public Theatre called “Camp We-Kan-Tak-It” about life in a CCC camp I attended last week, the audience was asked “Would this work today?”

Seventy four years ago, the Emergency Conservation Work Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt. The largest peacetime army in history, the Civilian Conservation Corps was mobilized to improve domestic infrastructure.

I’ve romanticized the whole thing, smiling proudly when reading a memorial at a state park commemorating the work of the CCC and lately rooting for our current President’s talk of creating jobs, stimulating the economy, and restoring National Parks with a modern Conservation Corps.

The performance only encouraged my hopefulness. The script and musical lyrics were written by a small team of historians and enthusiasts to convey the concerns of the day, the reasons men had for enlisting, and what life was like living in the camps. I learned that the men made $30 a week for 40 hours of work, but kept only $5. The rest was sent home to their families. There were also classes offered at night, such as a journalism class that produced a camp newspaper.

“The Humdinger,” a resource guide produced by Voices Theater and the Milwaukee Public Theatre to resemble a CCC camp paper, explains: “From 1933 to 1942, the CCC gave jobs to three million unemployed young men, brought relief to their families, and helped conserve America’s natural resources.”

The rates of unemployment in Wisconsin cities have pretty much doubled in the past 12 months. Milwaukee’s stats have risen from 5.5% to over 10%. This is nothing close to the national average during the Depression, which soared as high as 75%. Thank goodness! But why wait until we’re in utter crisis to take a lesson from history?

Clearly, there is much of American history to be proud of. I say use the wisdom of experience to shape a positive future.  As for auto engineering, I hope there are many good ideas yet to be had.

by Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Arts vs. Athletics

October 16, 2009

football picSometimes in a small town in the upper midwest, it seems on a Friday night that the town has emptied out. The streets are quiet, the bars are empty, and the televisions are silent. The town isn’t really a ghost town. It’s just that between 7PM and 10PM the entire town is at the local high school football stadium cheering on the 11 boys in uniform on the field and the other 50 uniformed boys on the sideline. It doesn’t bother me ; it’s a bonding experience for all generations. But, it can but a damper on the local Friday night art scene. Bringing in an out of town performer is risky and potentially financial suicide for a small performing arts center. And yet, those art loving individuals continue to dream and book the acts.

Here in Hayward, Wisconsin, we are the proud owners of the Park Theatre. Now when I say we, I’m not talking my husband and I. I’m talking about the small non-profit that envisioned a thriving performing arts center resurrected from the old original movie theater. It seats just over 200 and is slowly undergoing a metamorphosis ParkNiteMarqueeEditas the money trickles in. Monthly, there are small but perceptible alterations –enlarged stage, new lighting, new sound, a paint job. Occasionally there is a packed house but more often the audience is … intimate. It can seem more like a house concert or a simple gathering of friends than a public performance. And yet, those art loving citizens continue to dream and book outside performers hoping to beat the odds and perhaps even make money on a concert.

Such was the environment a week ago: a football Friday night in the midwest. Not just a football Friday night but a cold dreary Friday night. Don’t worry, cold and dreary does not stiffle the football crowd but it can damper the spirits of the art crowd. On this particular night, however, Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard were in town. For those of you who do not know of Prudence, a beautiful jazz singer and her pianist and accordian player Dan, you are missing out on one of the great joys of life. Her voice can be smoky and thick and sultry one moment and silky smooth the next. Close your eyes and you are transported back to the 1930s in line with her songs of Hoagy Carmicheal and  Ira Gershwin. Despite the reputation of the performers, it was still a risky proposition to host them on a football friday night in the upper midwest.mooncountry150

I have to admit that I held my breath that evening as I rounded the corner to enter the theater. I was in a “sit in the back of the theater” kind of mood. A “sit quietly and escape from life” kind of mood. I was somewhat worried that based on the size of the crowd I would need to move up front in order concentrate the audience; a request I have heard more than once. Truth be told, I shouldn’t have worried. I probably didn’t even need to sing “Impossible” from Cinderalla all the way to the theater. When I walked through the door, the place was packed. It was close to standing room only. It was then that I realized that our little town and its desire to nuture an arts community is not only succeeding, it is beginning to thrive. Although I doubt I will ever experience the day when athletic events are scheduled around the performing arts schedule, it is nice to know that we no longer need to take the back seat.

–Dayle Quigley

Talent Honed By Effort

October 14, 2009
Emily Fons

Emily Fons

The singing started at 10:00 am and ended at 5:00 pm, after thirty-seven splendid vocalists completed a total of seventy-four solo performances. It was the Metropolitan Opera’s 48th National Council Auditions for the Upper Midwest Region, Wisconsin District, held on Saturday, October 10, at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield.  That completes the reporter’s work.

For the performers it was part job fair and part job interview session–a very public interview session–sweetened with the possibility of a cash prize.  For the untroubled spectator who cares more about experiencing fine singing than witnessing the outcome of a competition, attending the auditions is–as one decidedly non-operatic singer crooned a few years ago– like “knocking on heaven’s door.”  You’re not in paradise yet, but mighty close.

Verdi, Gounod, Britten, Bellini, Wagner, Bernstein,  Gluck,  Richard Straus, Handel, Donizetti, Bizet, Stravinsky, Moore, Puccini, were on the program. And Mozart, lots of Mozart, whose work is, as one vocalist informed me, ” a litmus test for singers.” If you can’t sing Mozart, you shouldn’t try out for the Met.

They could sing Mozart.

Here was a corps of highly-trained performers, motivated since childhood to perfect the “instrument” bestowed on them at birth, seeking  an opportunity to display the result of talent honed by effort to pursue their live’s work.  Watching these artists at work is almost as good as listening to them sing.

But it was an audition, which meant that only some succeeded. Six singers received offers to perform in Milwaukee and Madison. They will also move on to the Regional Auditions and, perhaps, to the final test at the Met in New York.

Wisconsin-born, mezzo-soprano Emily Fons was the winner, as measured by an invitation to the Regionals, job offers from Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera and Skylight Theater,  plus cash prizes, including the People’s Choice award bestowed by an audience made up largely of family and friends of her rivals.  Such is opera. Such is art as it should be.  Hard but honest.

And they’ll be back at work for the 49th audition next year.

–Michael Goc

Last minute heads up: You’re invited!

October 7, 2009

I got a call last night from a friend saying there were a limited number of seats left for a special dinner being served at one of my favorite restaurants and she hoped I would join her. It was a hard invitation to turn down!

I had to hold back, though, because for the next five days I’ll be taking in my fill of tasty morsels at the Wisconsin Book Festival. Little bites of literature, presented by the authors themselves. I just get to sit back and savor, like a child hearing a good story read aloud.

For example, tonight.

It’s last minute I realize, but you are all invited to join me for a night of spoken word and poetry, performed by Madison youth, as well as wonderful West African food cooked by the fine chefs as Africana Restaurant. The event begins at 5:30 PM and will be amazing!

The young winners of the 2009 Bus Lines competition (sponsored by the Madison Arts Commission and City of Madison-Metro Transit) will be bringing their original works to the stage, then you can read the poems later printed inside buses around the city.

Also, the winners of Poetry Out Loud, a national program sponsored by the Wisconsin Arts Board, will perform. If you haven’t been to a poetry slam, or heard the voices of teens come alive with passion and pride, this is going to rock your world!

This short film about the national movement to make space in  schools, on public stages, and at festivals such as the Wisconsin Book Festival, for the talents of young people, and the oral tradition of poetry, is worth watching.

If you don’t make it out tonight, there is more! Check out the full Wisconsin Book Festival schedule:

I hope to see you there!

by Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council.