Devils Lake in Baraboo, Wisconsin

I have fond memories of Devil’s Lake near Baraboo in Sauk County, Wisconsin. My family vacationed there when I was a kid in the late ’80s, early ’90s. You could say it’s a family tradition. I’ve seen photos of my grandparents and great grandparents climbing the boulders. It’s a great spot for family vacationers looking for something more low key than nearby Wisconsin Dells.

Formed millennia ago by a glacier that cut off part of the Wisconsin River, it was originally called Ta-wah-cun-chunk-dah by the Ho-Chunk, meaning “Sacred Lake”. According to legend, a Winnebago Indian fasted and prayed at the shore for twenty days, after which a water spirit called the Wock-cheth-thwe-dah (or Wakjexi) arose and told him he would live a long and happy life.

Another Indian legend tells of a green water spirit with seven heads that demanded an annual sacrifice of a maiden. River Child spoke with a sturgeon, who told him the water spirit had a vulnerability. A well-aimed thrust behind its center head’s left eye would pierce its brain.

On the day the maiden was to be sacrificed, River Child spread walnut husks in the water, causing the spirit distress and forcing it into his net. After a long struggle, he stabbed it in the left eye with his knife, killing it. River Child married the maiden and they started a village along the shore, but the ghostly screams of the water spirit arose with every storm, so they were forced to move away.

Today, Devil’s Lake State Park is a popular destination for camping, swimming, boating, rock-climbing, and hiking.

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Illinois’ Decade of Lost Legends

Over the past ten to fifteen years, Illinois has lost nearly a dozen historic (and allegedly haunted) places to development and disaster. Some, like Alonzi’s Villa in Brookfield, the Lindbergh School on Shoe Factory Road in Hoffman Estates, and Sacred Heart Chapel at Barat College in Lake Forest, were destroyed to make way for real estate development. Others, like Sunset Haven outside Carbondale, were destroyed to erase the building (and its notorious reputation) from public memory.

The Lindbergh School on Shoe Factory Road in Hoffman Estates was genuinely a historic landmark known for its unique architecture and its significance to local history, regardless of its ghost stories. For years, preservationists tried desperately to save the building from the chopping block. Unfortunately, in 2007, bulldozers knocked it down to make way for yet another subdivision, just before the housing bubble burst and real estate values plummeted.

Sunset Haven, located on the periphery of Carbondale, Illinois and owned by Southern Illinois University, was a longtime destination for legend tripping in southern Illinois. It was originally the Jackson County Poor Farm almshouse became known as Sunset Haven during the 1940s when it was converted into a nursing home. The nursing home closed in 1957 and Southern Illinois University purchased the property to expand its agricultural program. Around October 26, 2013, a crew from SIU demolished Sunset Haven, leaving nothing but a cement foundation.

White Hall at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois was demolished in 2015. Chanute Air Force Base opened in July 1917. After its closure in 1993, much of the base was divided into residential and commercial properties, but most of the core buildings remain abandoned. Inevitably, local kids exploring the abandoned parts of the base began to bring home unusual stories, particularly regarding White Hall. The building was ruled an environmental hazard and too costly to renovate.

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The ‘Burbs Turns 30

This quintessential Suburban Gothic tale lampooned middle class fears in the 1980s, but remains refreshingly relevant.

Yesterday, my favorite comedy horror film from the 1980s, The ‘Burbs, turned 30. It premiered in theaters on February 17, 1989 and grossed $11 million in its opening weekend, ultimately raking in over $36 million. Though panned by clueless critics who couldn’t see past its campy premise, The ‘Burbs has since become something of a cult classic.

This film had a profound effect on me as a kid. While on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delved deep into the American psyche. It stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun as three friends who suspect an eccentric and reclusive family is up to no good in their neighborhood. Carrie Fisher and Corey Feldman also play prominent roles.

The ‘Burbs was written by Dana Olsen and directed by Joe Dante. Olsen, who is usually known for sillier comedies like George of the Jungle (1997) and Inspector Gadget (1999), was inspired to write the script after hearing about gruesome crimes in his own hometown. Joe Dante directed Gremlins (1984), Gremlins 2 (1990), and the TV series Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992), Witches of East End (2013-2014), and Salem (2015-2016). Eerie, Indiana was also about the strange and unusual underbelly of a quaint, unassuming town.

Welcome to Mayfield Place

Ray and Carol Peterson (Hanks and Fisher) live in a picturesque home on Mayfield Place, a cul-de-sac in suburban Hinkley Hills with their son, Dave (Cory Danziger) and their dog, Vince. The Petersons live next door to a dilapidated house owned by a reclusive family named the Klopeks. Dr. Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson), his son, Hans (Courtney Gains), and his brother, Reuben (Brother Theodore), quietly moved into the old Victorian home, which used to be owned by Mr. and Mrs. Knapp.

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Five Things You Didn’t Notice in The ‘Burbs

From obscure film references to subliminal messages, this ’80s dark comedy has it all.

The ‘Burbs, my favorite comedy horror film from the 1980s, turns 30 today. It premiered in theaters on February 17, 1989 and grossed $11 million in its opening weekend, though it was panned by critics who couldn’t see past its campy premise. While on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delved deep into the American psyche.

This film had a profound effect on me as a kid, and every time I watch it I discover something new. Have you spotted these subtle hints and references?

Breakfast at the Peterson’s

Ray and Carol Peterson (Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher) live in a quaint home on Mayfield Place in suburban Hinkley Hills with their son, Dave (Cory Danziger) and their dog, Vince. The Petersons live next door to a dilapidated house owned by a reclusive family named the Klopeks. When Ray looks out the kitchen window to comment on the Klopek’s barren yard, you can see a box of Gremlins Cereal sitting on the counter. Joe Dante, director of The ‘Burbs, also directed Gremlins (1984).

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Details Emerge in Camp Napowan Story

I rescued the following post from my old website, Mysterious Heartland, and decided to re-post it here in case I have any readers interested in Wisconsin folklore or who went to Camp Napowan as a Boy Scout. Enjoy!

After posting an edited transcription of the legend of Boot Hill from Napowan Scout Camp in central Wisconsin (read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), a reader contacted me with his own insight into the story. In addition to more information about how an audio version of the tale became available, he reveals that a tragic accident in the early 2000s may have squelched its retelling. Here are his remarks:

Hi Michael,

I came across your transcription of the Story of Boot Hill on Mysterious Heartland, and I wanted to give you my recollection. I visited Napowan as a Boy Scout from 1993 to 1999. The first year I went, one of the camp staff was invited to our site to tell the story of Boot Hill. I think he was the camp director at the time, or he became camp director several years later, and I want to say his name was Eric. There were a few additional details that were added to the story in future tellings, as well as a few omissions.

I can only remember one omission regarding the event from 1992. A special needs scout from the Little City sponsored troop (which I believe is also out of Des Planes) got lost, wandered off camp property, and recalled seeing black cats with white paws when he was found. The troop is comprised of mentally challenged adults who were still in attendance during the years I visited camp Napowan. I think the lost scout was an African American guy who went by the name Horse.

Eric took a break from staffing, but returned in the late ’90s. Since he was not there to tell the story, another staff member told the story for the entire camp in 1994 or 1995. His name was Brad Shuman, and he was the director of the Nature program area. He was a creepy guy to begin with, but he did a superb job telling the story. It genuinely scarred a lot of scouts who had to later walk back to their campsites, in the dark, through many of the locations mentioned in the story.

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The Sudden Freeze of 1836

An unexplained nineteenth-century weather event froze livestock in their tracks and drove some pioneers to take extreme measures to escape a similar fate.

An obscure historical weather event blew through central Illinois in the 1830s known as the “Sudden Freeze.” It appeared without warning on December 20, 1836. The weather had been relatively warm in the proceeding days, and a light rain turned the snow to slush. In the early afternoon, a dark cloud traveling about 25-30 mph descended from the northwest “accompanied by a roaring noise.”

What happened next was described by William H. Perrin in his History of Coles County, Illinois (1879):

As it passed over the country, everything was frozen in its track almost instantly. Water that was running in little gullies or in the streams was suddenly arrested in its career, blown into eddies and small waves by the wind, and frozen before it could subside. Cattle, horses, hogs and wild animals exposed to its fury were soon chilled through and many frozen in their tracks. Where a few moments before they walked in mud and slush, was now frozen, and unless moving about they were frozen fast.

In some instances where individuals were exposed to the fury of this wave and unable to reach shelter, their lives were lost. One man was found afterward standing frozen in the mud, dead, and still holding the rein of his horse in his hand. He had apparently become bewildered and chilled, and freezing fast in the mud and slush, remained standing.

History of Coles County, Illinois, pages 339-340.

There are several stories of pioneers who were unfortunately caught outside and instantly froze to death. According to History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois (1876) by John C. Power, in the western part of Douglas County near the border of Piatt and Moultrie counties, “two brothers by the name of Deeds had gone out to cut a bee tree, and were overtaken by the cold and frozen to death. Their bodies were found ten days later, about three miles from home.”

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The Phantom Lady of Kennedy Hill Road

In January 1981, motorists parked their cars along a narrow rural road in frigid temperatures to catch a glimpse of a scantily-clad phantom.

It was a few weeks before Christmas, 1980. Kim Anderson turned down Kennedy Hill Road and headed for home after attending church early Sunday morning. Snow drifted across the country road and ice glistened on the barren fields. Without warning, she noticed a young woman, around the same age as she, walking down the road toward her driveway. The woman had long, blonde hair, and strangely, wore a pair of light colored shorts.

Kim pulled her car into her driveway and ran into the house. She threw open the curtains on the front room window to see if the woman was going to come up the driveway. She didn’t. Instead, she continued walking toward Byron. Kim didn’t think much of the encounter after that, until she began to hear the rumors.

Between mid-December and early January, dozens of people reported seeing a young woman in various stages of dress walking down Kennedy Hill Road. By January 20, 1981, the sightings had reached a fevered pitch. Wild reports circulated around Ogle County, and motorists parked their cars in the frigid temperatures along the narrow rural road to catch a glimpse of what became known as “The Phantom Lady of Kennedy Hill Road.” Newspaper reports reached as far away as Chicago, and the Rockford Register Star ran five consecutive articles on the sightings.

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