Napowan Scout Camp is located in the pine forests of central Wisconsin, next to Hills Lake and Lake Napowan, off 24th Avenue. Each year, thousands of Boy Scouts from around the country enjoy camping, fishing, boating, nature hikes, archery, and much more at one of the most exemplary summer camps in the Midwest. It is owned and operated by the Northwest Suburban Council of the Boy Scouts of America, of which I was a part.
In the early 1990s, when I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 22 based at St. Mary’s School in Des Plaines (now defunct), I went to Camp Napowan for two, week-long excursions. On one occasion, my dad and I were sharing a tent when we were hit by a torrential downpour. We didn’t realize what a poor choice our campsite was until water started building up several inches deep! We ended up sleeping in the car that night, and I don’t think my dad has gone camping since.
One of the most interesting things about Camp Napowan was the legend they used to tell about its founding. The Boy Scouts of America established the camp in 1946, right after the end of World War 2. Prior to that, the legend goes, it was local farmland. During the Great Depression, the farmer that owned that land got into an altercation with a tribe of gypsies he allowed to temporarily settle on his property. Local townspeople killed the gypsies on a place called “Boot Hill,” but before the last of them died, they put a curse on the land. To this day, every time a black cat with a single white paw appears at Camp Napowan, trouble follows.
Our camping trips culminated with a retelling of this story over a bonfire, and at one point an audio version was even available on CD. I searched for years to find it, until I finally tracked someone down who owned a copy. The following three part series is as close an approximation of the tale as I’m able to record. I hope there are others out there who read this story and recall fond childhood memories.
The story of Boot Hill begins on October 28, 1929, a day known as Black Monday. On that day, the economy crashed, sending this country into the largest economic depression we’ve ever seen. For most people, making ends meet was a difficult task. Jobs were hard to find because there were so many people in need of them, but not enough of them to go around. In central Wisconsin, the Depression was as bad as it was anywhere.
Most of the locals were subsistence farmers. It was their only option next to starvation. Most farms were small and provided barely enough food for one family. Many people relied heavily on barter. They would provide a bushel of potatoes for a bushel of carrots or apples, or they would combine labor and help neighbors build structures or plant crops. Everyone was so poor, there was nothing extra and nothing wasted.
At the height of the Great Depression in 1934, a troop of gypsies was traveling through central Wisconsin. Before the Depression, they wandered from town to town and city to city, living off the fat of the land. They joined circuses and carnivals, performed tricks, and told fortunes. But when people didn’t have money to spend on circuses and carnivals, the gypsies were forced to find other work. This particular tribe of gypsies was comprised of 150 people. They were led by an old man, knows as “the Chieftain.” He lived a long life and possessed much knowledge. His people looked to him to find work, and ultimately, food and water.
The longer they wandered, the more distraught the gypsies became. Tribesmen were getting sick, horses were dying, and there was no food or water. From town to town they went, looking for work. The Chieftain approached as many people as he could and explained how his people were dying and in need of food and water. They were willing to do any job, no matter how difficult or dirty, just as long as they got some provisions. As things were, however, no one could afford to hire so many people for a task, but even if someone could hire that many people, they weren’t going to hire gypsies. Gypsies had a bad reputation.
The image in most people’s mind were of filthy people who lie, cheat, and steal. Local people thought they couldn’t be trusted as they wandered from place to place in their nomadic lifestyle. And with their fortunetelling and crystal balls, the mystic aspect of gypsy life was too much for most outsiders to understand. It was said that the gypsies practiced black magic, a form of magic that is fueled by dark or evil forces. Some people even said that gypsies could change their form from human into that of a cat.
So when the Chieftain approached a man and asked for his help, it must have been hard to forget the baggage that was associated with gypsy life. Still, the Chieftain had no choice. “We will plant your crops, or plow the fields, or spread manure,” the Chieftain said. “We will do anything, for we are desperate and in need of help.” But each time he was turned down. One day, in the spring of 1934, the tribe was wandering through Wild Rose. By this time, they were but 120 in number. Children and old people were dying and too weak to make the journey. The Chieftain approached local farmers and told them of their plight, but each time the farmers told him they could not support so many people.
Finally, the Chieftain approached a man named Joe Miller, who owned a potato farm. Today, the land is owned by the Northwest Suburban Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Where the dining hall is today, there was a potato warehouse. When Joe lived on this land, there were no trees, no trails, and no campsites. There was only sand, potato fields, and Joe’s farmhouse. Joe lived there with his wife, Sarah, his 13-year-old son, also named Joe, and his 11-year-old daughter, Katherine. Joe did most of the farming, and the family was barely making it from one year to the next.
“My people are dying and in need of food and water,” the Chieftain said to Joe. “There were 150 of us, and now there are only 120. Please, is there anything you can do to help? We will do your most grueling labor for some food.”
“My family of four is barely making it from one year to the next,” Joe replied. “There is no way my land can support 120 people. I wish that I could help you, but really, there is nothing I can do.” When Joe returned to his farm, he told his wife about the Chieftain and his tribe. Joe really did want to help, but his family came first. When he talked it over with Sarah, she said there must be some way they could help.
“What if we let them camp on the big hill?” Sarah asked. “They could farm all the hills. We can’t farm those anyway. They could do their farming and our farming.” Joe thought about it, and finally he came up with a solution that would work. That very day he rushed back into town and found the tribe preparing to leave. When Joe found the Chieftain, he said, “Well I talked this over with my wife, and I think we can work something out. You can camp on a big hill that I can’t put to any use. There should be plenty of space for the whole tribe. If you live there, you must agree to three stipulations.
First, you must do all of the farming, mine and yours. This is your payment for using my land. You must farm the land I tell you to farm and give the crops to me. The remaining land you may farm as you wish, and keep the crops for yourselves. Second, after the potatoes are harvested, you must leave. I cannot afford to have 120 people around through a Wisconsin winter. There just aren’t enough resources. Finally, I can give you as much water as you like, but as for food I have nothing. I will try to do something, but food is quite scarce.”
The Chieftain and his people were thrilled. That day, instead of moving onto another town, the gypsy tribe followed Joe back to his farm. He led the gypsies to the highest point on his land, exactly 1,000 feet above sea level. There, on the top of the hill, the gypsies made their camp. The timing worked out quite well. Within a few weeks of the gypsies’ arrival, Joe was ready to plant his potato crop. First, the gypsies had to prepare the land. They removed all of the large rocks and made a huge pile of them out of the way of their farming. The land was plowed and terraces were made on the hills, so they could also be used to farm potatoes. The gypsies even made waterways to irrigate the crops. When this was all done, they began to plant the potatoes.
Joe noticed how hard they were working, and took a liking to them. The Chieftain and he became good friends. After all, what they were doing for each other was quite generous. By the end of the summer, as long as the weather cooperated, Joe would have more potatoes than he could use. The summer approached and the gypsies began to recover. Food was still quite scarce, but Joe did what he could to help, and the gypsies were skilled hunters. In the meantime, Joe’s children became very close with the gypsy children.
For many years they had few people to play with, but finally they had people their own age who lived close to the farm. Every day, Joe Jr. and Katherine went to the gypsy camp to play with the children there. The gypsies performed tricks and dazzled the Miller children. Sarah Miller also took a liking to the gypsies. She thought they were very interesting people who did things in extraordinary ways. As the summer continued, Joe and the Chieftain were like brothers.
When the harvest finally came, it yielded more than anyone expected. Joe gave half of the potatoes to the gypsies, so they could use them as they pleased. He kept some of the potatoes for next year’s planting, and the rest he used to barter his way into family security. He traded them for many vegetables and fruits, as well as two hens, a pig, and a cow. Joe Miller became much better off than many of his neighbors. In honor of the gypsies, Joe and Sarah prepared a large feast to celebrate the harvest. The Millers gathered with the gypsies in their camp for an evening of dancing, drinking, and feasting.
There was no better way they could have ended the summer. Joe was going to miss having the gypsies around, but there was no way they could have stayed through the winter. When the feast was over, Joe reminded the Chieftain of their agreement earlier that year. The Chieftain assured Joe that the tribe would be leaving within two weeks. They needed some time to organize their camp and prepare for their next journey. Joe agreed to allow them to stay just a bit longer. [Continued in Part two…]