Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society Press
If Thornton Wilder depicted a real place in his sensational play “Our Town,” then Freeland Dexter would have been the newsman who covered it. At the turn of the 20th century, this real, wise and witty correspondent reported all the news in the bustling railroad town of Lone Rock — from the significant to the trivial, the tragic to the comical — for the Weekly Home News of Spring Green. This fall, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press teamed with Dexter’s great-granddaughter Deanna R. Haney of Spring Green to publish a collection of his most fascinating, amusing and poignant reports in “The News from Lone Rock: Observations and Witticisms of a Small-Town Newsman” (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, October 2016, $18.95).
Dexter’s work might have been consigned to historical obscurity, were it not for the efforts of Haney, who spent hours sorting through nearly 30 years of Dexter’s columns. She wrote two books on the family’s genealogy before curating this collection. Whether he was recording who grew the biggest watermelon, teasing the local lovebirds, or taking a side on the ever-controversial question of whether the town should go dry, Dexter wrote with distinctive mirth and with an obvious affection for his town and its people. He could rail against the cruel treatment of horses in one paragraph, bemoan a lack of news in the next, and then clue readers in to the latest developments, including slang — once clarifying to readers that “dude” refers to a “50 cent man in a $50 suit of clothes.” His column did more than just inform or poke fun; he took great pride in the advances of his town, commiserated in its losses, and ruminated on universal themes.
Although he wrote about Lone Rock, the characters and situations are instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with small-town life. Looking back on Dexter’s work lends a living voice to the developments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from electric lighting to cars to international conflict, and takes readers on a journey to a world that was both simpler and changing fast.
Q. Why did you decide to collect/research your great-grandfather’s columns?
A. I wanted to honor my great-grandfather in the only way I could, by reading through his writings. My dad had this same dry wit about him, and I always wondered where it came from … now I know! On my first visit to the Spring Green Community Library, I found so many quaint stories, along with heartbreaking ones, that I just knew other people would love to read.
Q. Why did you pursue putting them into a book?
A. I knew nothing at all about my great-grandfather, except his name. I had been researching our Haney and Dexter families for my second genealogy book, and my sister sent me his obituary, as I couldn›t find one. Along with it she included a short story that he had written, and it was so clever that I wondered what else he might have written. His obit said he was a correspondent for the Lone Rock news, but it didn›t say what paper. So I started to do some research and found it was for the Weekly Home News here in Spring Green. I went to the library to check out their microfilms, and I found so many interesting items that I knew there would probably be enough for any entire book.
Q. How did you decide which columns went into the book?
A. I read through each week’s columns by Freeland, and if I found something interesting, I would print off that particular page. I made many copies (from over 1,500 papers), and then when I got home, I would circle the interesting parts with a red pencil, type them into my computer, and continue on each day like that. I tried to find not only the funny items that I called “one liners,” but paragraphs that showed what was going on in the town, what was going on in the world, both unique, happy and sad.
Q. Do you have a favorite column in the book?
A. I have several, including one about the Spanish-American War from March 10, 1898, that reads: “We read in the daily papers the opinions of most all the noted men who have been asked their view on the war with Spain, and for some unaccountable reason, they have overlooked your correspondent. I will give my opinion anyway. There will be war with Spain. There will be widows and orphans by the hundreds. There will be sunken ships. There will be cities destroyed. Spain will get whipped. Cuba will be free, and the starving people will be fed. The United States will have a big war debt and Spain will be bankrupt. If the daily papers all over the country want to copy this, we have no objections.”
And on the same date, March 10, 1898: “You have heard about the submarine boat called the Plunger that belongs to the United States; and we hear that the Spaniards also have one now. The boats can stay under the water six hours. Now, what is there in that to brag about? Why, Lone Rock has a man living here who has a boat that has been under water all winter, and he doesn’t brag about it either!”