This week, I brought you the legend of “Boot Hill” in three parts. Read parts one, two, and three. The legend of “Boot Hill” comes from Napowan Scout Camp, located near Wild Rose in the pine forests of central Wisconsin, next to Hills Lake and Lake Napowan. In the early 1990s, when I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 22 based in Des Plaines (now defunct), I went to Camp Napowan for two, week-long excursions, where I heard the legend told around a campfire.
An audio version was available in the mid-1990s. I searched for years to find it, until I finally tracked someone down who owned a copy and sent it to me as a .wav file. While every summer camp has its founding legend, the tale of Camp Napowan’s Gypsy Curse is compellingly rich in detail and carefully interwoven with historical events.
Legends are known as folk history, or quasi-history. They are retold as a way of explaining strange occurrences and are passed on in order to warn or inform others about these unprovable events. While many legends conform to certain general themes and motifs, they acquire their credibility from localized details inserted by individual storytellers. The more details there are, the more truthful the legend appears to its audience.
The tale of Camp Napowan’s Gypsy Curse and “Boot Hill” is a nearly perfect legend. Not only is it asserted to be true, but great care is taken to establish its veracity by tying the tale to specific people and events, making it part of oral folk history. The listener is invited to check the record and examine the physical environment to prove the story is true.
“Go to Boot Hill and look for yourself,” the narrator urges. “At the top of the hill is Split Rock, the rock that the Chieftain melted through during that fateful summer. This split is not natural. It has a 4 inch gap going through the middle that could not have been caused by erosion, frost action, lightning, or any other natural occurrence.”
Additionally, the legend accomplishes three things: 1) It provides an interesting story for how and why the camp came into existence. 2) It provides guidelines and warnings for campers to follow. 3) It provides a colorful explanation for place names and landmarks around the camp.
Guidelines, warnings, and lessons are important aspects of legends and folklore. The overall theme of the Boot Hill story is that Boy Scouts must respect the land and follow the rules of the camp. Every time the rules are disobeyed, black cats appear to punish the rule breakers. The black cat with a single white paw is the literal manifestation of the “spirit” of Camp Napowan. “If we take care of Camp Napowan and conserve the land, the gypsy spirits will guide and protect us,” the narrator says. “But if we disturb their rest, they will disturb us back.”
One of the interesting aspects of the tale is the use of gypsies, specifically a tribe of Hungarian gypsies, rather than American Indians. American Indians have long been a part of central Wisconsin history and lore, and there are many American Indian tribes in Wisconsin to this day. Yet the storytellers chose to use gypsies, also known as Roma or Romani, as the antagonists. According to the Gypsy Lore Society, Hungarian-Slovak gypsies are “Mainly sedentary Gypsies found primarily in the industrial cities of northern U.S. Number in few thousands. Noted for playing ‘Gypsy music’ in cafes, night clubs and restaurants.”
These Roma never told fortunes, traveled in caravans, or performed in a circus as the storytellers explicitly described. These historical inconsistencies reflect widespread misconceptions about gypsy life that crept into the Boot Hill legend.
With such a richly detailed story, told to generations of Boy Scouts from all over the Midwest, I am surprised no one has written about this legend before. Unfortunately, the recording I have access to is dated to the mid 1990s, and I have been out of the Boy Scouts for a long time. If any of our readers attended Camp Napowan and heard the legend since then, please leave a comment or email me. It would have interesting to know about any additions or changes to the story.