Once upon a time an aunt regaled me with stories my grandparents told her about life in the Old Country, including the tale of the schoolteacher who walked so fast that his stiff hat brim wore a notch into a tree trunk as he speed-walked around it on his way to school. On his first day at a reputedly tough school, this same teacher took a gun out of his desk drawer and said to the students, “Turn around. See that dot up on the wall?” When all had turned around, the teacher shot and hit it directly. And he never had any trouble with those students.
Another of my aunt’s stories involved farmhands who put a bull into a barn where a friend of the farm’s owner was asleep. They then pounded on the outside of the barn, yelling, “Run! The devil’s in here!” The poor fellow did indeed run out the barn, the bull at his heels.
Such stories can enliven a family history narrative, showcase personality and reveal character absent from a straightforward genealogy chart. Folk tales may begin as embellishments of the truth: Maybe there once was a giant lumberman who evolved in story to Paul Bunyan. Who knows: Maybe a factual account of a tusked, feral pig or dinosaur inspired the Hodag’s creation.
Whatever the case, the family historian has a responsibility to separate fact from fable. But so long as the truth is documented and the folktale identified, the latter can illuminate the former.
Originally from the Driftless Region, Dan “Sully” Sullivan today lives in Minocqua and serves as the Oneida County field editor of “Our Wisconsin” magazine. In 2009 he wrote (under the name of D. S. Sully) a factual yet fanciful tale of his hometown. “A Town Untangled: Mystery, History, & Mayhem” records tales of eccentric elders, spooky neighbors and moonshiners, along with former mine tunnels, long-drained lakes and once formidable mansions with secret rooms. While focused on tales of a specific community, his book also reveals stories relevant to families with connections to this town.
Sullivan retraced the memories of his youth, interviewed oldsters and historians, and separated fact from fiction. He found clues in cemeteries, railroad depots, junkyards and old churches converted to communes, among other sites. Though Sullivan does not identify his hometown, southwestern Wisconsin readers will easily follow the clues to its current name.
Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Cave, Mines, and Tunnels.” Now available: “Minnesota Underground,” co-authored Greg Brick, PhD. Contact http://henschelhausbooks.com, Amazon or your bookstore.