I have fond memories of Wisconsin Dells. My family vacationed there when I was a kid in the late ’80s, early ’90s. It’s changed significantly since then. All I remember is the boat tours, the American Indians shows, and the main strip with a wax museum and other interesting little tourist shops. Very similar to Lake George, New York. Today, it’s the “Waterpark Capitol of the World,” with several large amusement parks, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, go cart tracks, and more.
A local settler named Leroy Gates started offering boat tours of scenic bluffs and rock formations along the Wisconsin River as early as 1856. Photographer H. H. Bennett later popularized the dells in photos and stereoscopic prints distributed around the country. His studio is now a museum. In 1952 “Tommy Bartlett’s Thrill Show” made the area its home, and tourism really took off. Many resorts cropped up in neighboring Lake Delton.
It’s nice to see families still enjoy Wisconsin Dells, but no trip is complete without an obligatory mess of flapjacks at Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty, 411 State Hwy 13. They’ve been feeding tourists North Woods meals for almost 60 years.
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:
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.Continue reading “Details Emerge in Camp Napowan Story”
The results of the recent midterms seem to put to bed some common assumptions about U.S. politics.
As the dust settles on the 2018 Midterm Elections, I noticed two interesting things that raise questions about what we’ve come to take for granted in politics.
1) That protest movements achieve something. When I was younger, I used to love a good protest. Fondly recalling their own “Days of Rage” in the 1960s and ’70s, university professors in particular have encouraged campus activism, which in turn spread elsewhere. It makes you feel good. It makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself—a grand statement that you will not sit idly by and allow something outrageous to continue.
But do they actually work here in the United States, especially when the only outrage is over losing an election? In 2010 Scott Walker, a Republican, was elected governor of Wisconsin. Wisconsin, like Illinois, is divided between large cities, which tend to be very liberal, and geographically large but underpopulated rural areas, which tend to be very conservative. Governor Walker did as promised and limited the collective bargaining powers of Wisconsin public employees. The left lost its mind.
Massive protests erupted in the state capitol, Madison. I was there, on March 12, 2011 (see picture above). Thousands of angry people stood in the cold screaming and holding signs and walking around in a circle. They launched a recall effort in 2012, which ultimately failed when Walker won again. Now, six years later, Governor Walker was removed from office not by hand-wringing and carrying on, but at the ballot box when Democrats ran an appealing candidate with a message that resonated with voters.
That’s how you affect change in the United States. That’s the beauty of our political system. We have a chance to change our public officials through regularly-held elections. If you make a compelling argument, you can appeal to enough voters and have a chance to implement your agenda.Continue reading “Two Takeaways from the 2018 Midterm Elections”
Based on a graphic novel of the same name by Derf (John) Backderf, My Friend Dahmer (2017) traces infamous Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school years, as chronicled by a former friend. Written and directed by Marc Meyers, this moody and hauntingly subtle film won best picture at Austin Fantastic Fest. Despite competent performances by its cast, My Friend Dahmer fails to leave a lasting impression. It lacked an over-all plot, and the poorly-mixed sound was barely audible.
Jeffrey Dahmer committed his first murder three weeks after graduating high school. As a teen, he coped with his parents’ failing marriage with alcohol abuse and acting out at school, and developed a fascination with death. He went on to kill sixteen people, preying mostly on young gay men in Milwaukee. He dismembered and ate some of his victims. He was finally caught in 1991, and a fellow inmate murdered him three years later.
Out of what I assume is a strict adherence to the source material, the film never goes below the surface or attempts to explain why Dahmer became a monster or what could have been done to stop him. It subtly hints at his aberrant sexuality without confronting it. What remains is a stark depiction of events without drama, tension, or conflict.
Ross Lynch gives an admirable performance as the wannabe serial killer (although the movie doesn’t give him much to do). This is certainly a departure from his other roles in Disney films and TV shows like Austin & Ally (2011-2016). His brooding, deadpan performance couldn’t contrast more with his usual upbeat, teen heartthrob characters. Such a dramatic acting range bodes well for his future career in film, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in more dramatic roles.
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.”
Join me for the conclusion of our retelling of the story of Camp Napowan’s Boot Hill. Owned and operated by the Northwest Suburban Council of the Boy Scouts of America in central Wisconsin, Camp Napowan is home to an interesting legend passed down one summer to the next. To my knowledge, this is the only retelling of the tale available on the Internet. It is an edited transcription of an audio recording made available in the early-to-mid 1990s. Click here to read Part 1 and here to read Part 2.
The summers went by without incident, until 1959. During the fifth week of summer camp, a couple of Scouts went up to Boot Hill even though they were not supposed to. They saw a strange black cat with a white paw. It look at them with intense eyes, and ran away into the forest. The two Scouts suddenly fell ill, and went to the health office. After they told the health officer what happened, he too became sick. Before the end of the day, everyone in camp was sick with diarrhea, cold sweats, and dizziness. The Health Department was asked to come in and determine what was causing the illness, but despite their experience, it was a mystery to them. After two weeks of quarantine, everyone at camp suddenly got better.
In the early 1960s, the Northwest Suburban Council decided to open Boot Hill, because too many people were asking questions about why it was closed. Nothing out of the ordinary happened until 1969, exactly ten years after the previous incident. Two Scouts were wandering around the hill with slingshots when a black cat with a single white paw crossed their path. One Scout kicked at it while the other prepare his sling and began firing.
The cat screamed and hissed and ran up a nearby tree, where it looked at the two boys with a piercing gaze. Suddenly, the boy with the slingshot grabbed his arm in pain, while the boy who was kicking the cat felt pain in his leg. The boy with the injured arm was able to run down the hill and grab the health officer. The health officer later determined that one boy suffered from a broken arm and the other had a broken leg.
The camp administration realized there was a problem. Something needed to be done about Boot Hill. At first, they wanted to relocated Staff City, where all the staff members lived, to the base of Boot Hill, but the staff members refused to live there. Eventually, it was located near Boot Hill, with a line of trees separating the buildings from the hill. The idea was for the staff to be nearby in case anything else happened.
The next summer, the camp staff became very interested in Boot Hill, and set out to determine what happened there. At first, they only knew about the bizarre incidents that occurred on the hill. Some investigation filled in the rest. They began knocking on neighbor’s doors, but the people refused to talk about the history of that land. Except, however, for one old man. He told the staff about everything that happened in the summer of 1934. When he was done, he said, “I want you to know how I know all this. I was one of the farmers that killed those gypsies. It’s all true, I saw it with my own eyes. I’ve never told anyone, but I’m glad I was able to get it off my chest before I died.” Thee days later, he died.