They say sometimes you can't see the forest through the trees. Occasionally, like this pilated woodpecker, I saw in Wisconsin this past weekend you can't even get an appreciation of the nature of the bird as it was too close. last weekend, I went to visit my beloved Grandmother Lucille Danielson now six weeks of being 93 years old. She was feeling pretty good, she was recently placed on steroids because of an arthritic shoulder. Now she is full of energy, cleaning house and making meatballs, cocoa cake, and potato sausage, life couldn't be better.
I grew up in northwestern Wisconsin, Graduated from Grantsburg High School. I grew up in the woods 4 miles from Falun, (our phone exchange) and 5 from Trade Lake, both towns that reached their peaks before I was even born. It was, in my opinion, a great place to grow up, generally. I didn't appreciate the quirkiness of it all until I moved away--like the woodpecker, I was too close.
Western Burnett and northern Polk County Wisconsin are primarily Swedish immigrant areas. Back in the middle of the 19th century, a great religious upheaval was going on in Scandinavia and many were being persecuted and as the Civil War was ending, many Swedes came to America for religious freedom. Generally this was called the Piest movement ("The Reading movement" in Sweden as it was taught that one should actually read the Bible, not have it told to you) and it spawned all sorts of leaders and followers, and church denominations, some not so good.
One of the first, and he was not a good one, to make it west was Erik Janson, a man called the Jesus of the wheat fields, maybe the Pied piper of the time. He led well over a thousand followers in 1846 to eventually make it to western Illinois, founding the Bishop Hill Colony, an utopian communist community, based on his fervent legalistic interpretations of things. He was a "NO" man. Many (2000?) died enroute due to bad Atlantic storms and disease. This was no small deal. Poor and middle class Swedish families were forced to travel to Denmark, Germany, and even England to keep children, wives, and husbands from following this man's call to go to the United States, and worship God....For no apparent reason, people would just up and disappear, and parents and husbands would board any ship they could to look for their loved ones. The local officials eventually refused to issue travel documents, and many people stowed away. This colony disbanded in 1861, as Janson was assassinated a decade earlier and they were plagued by bad investments and were broke. Janson published his manifesto in Sweden after he left. It was the rant of a madman and it became clear to those inclined to follow him previously that he was no second Jesus, but the trail to America had been made.
Letters back home indicated that western Illinois was a good place for Swedish Piests, maybe just not in Bishop's Hill. Other leaders of breakaway sects came. The Swedish baptists came in the 1850, led by visionary leaders like Palmquist, Soderstrom and Wiberg, and started churches in Moline, Rock Island, and Galesburg, after having mass baptisms in the Mississippi River, later establishing the Swedish Baptist Conference in America (BGC). Others churches such as the Swedish Mission Church were also started in the same areas.
There was one thing generally in common with all of these serious Christian groups, and they were serious about their faith, really serious. They interpreted the Bible as absolute, literally commandments from God and they felt a person could keep themselves from sin, so...they did not smoke, did not drink alcohol, did not dance, did not gamble or play cards, in fact, generally, they bordered on becoming true ascetics, in that they abstained from sex, much like the Shakers did. They gave up having fun and enjoying life to save themselves or at least to try. It was amazing any of them had any children, and if you look at Baptist and Mission family sizes, they were many children less than of other faiths of the time. Large families were rare, small families were common as were childless marriages.
As things took root in Illinois, even normal Swedish Lutherans came. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, people desiring new lands to colonize wanted to move. Five families left Illinois and on foot, followed the rails into Iowa and northward for over five hundred miles to northwestern Wisconsin and founded the first baptist church in Wisconsin. t was located on the Wood River, and called Grace Baptist Church. This church was 4 miles from my childhood home. Later, Grace moved into Grantsburg, 2 miles west, which in 1865 was not even platted yet.
Coincidentally, last week, Rev. Dr. Ken Hyatt, died. He was the husband of my grade school music teacher, and a father of a girl in my class in school. He was a Lt Commander in the Navy in Vietnam, and was a pastor at the Historical Grace Baptist Church when I was around town. For a BGC pastor (even though he trained in Dallas) he seemed approachable and open minded to me, probably from his days of being a chaplain and having to deal with multiple faiths in a terrible war.
The first Swedish Lutheran Church in Northern Wisconsin was built a few miles south of my house in Trade Lake. Trade Lake was an extra quirky town (two manufactured mineral rushes --Copper and Gold, a local genius with a mysterious demise, and even a hippie commune). I'll leave that for another story. Trade Lake was the home of our only King, "King Carl" Anderson and later, another infamous dude named "Trader" Carlson.
When I die, a few of my ashes will be deposited 200 feet southwest of my Vedelius ancestors, maybe I'll have a stone, maybe it will have a bird on it. Maybe I'd be best buried in an anonymous grave, as no one will care . My family and me own a lot of plots in that cemetery. Grandmother Lucille bought me some for a birthday gift 30 years ago, as they were having a special (3 for $75, she bought 6). Despite having ancestors and I'm sure plots at the other cemetery, I'm glad to not be buried with a bunch of Mission church members, I want to have fun in the afterlife.....why? Somehow, I became the opposite. I like doing what people tell me not to do. Is that what legalism does to some people?
In the middle of all of this legalism and Bible thumping, The Volstead Act appeared, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, banning alcohol. Congressman Andrew Volstead, a Norwegian, (distant cousin to the Queen of Norway at the time) was even a lawyer in Grantsburg WI for a year, but felt Grantsburg was both too Swedish and too conservative and moved to Granite Falls, MN where in 1902 he was elected to congress from Minnesota;s 7th district. Did Grantsburg forcing him to leave cause Prohibition? No, I don't think so as it would have just had a different name. Wisconsin's 9th (or 10th) congressional district would have never elected a Norwegian to congress however, if he had stayed. (This is not racist, Minnesota's 7th would have never elected a Swede, having Norwegians for 100 years).
It was in a sea of post WWI anti-German behavior that state after state voted to prohibit alcohol sales, even Wisconsin, majority ethnic German, became the 40th state to approve it in 1919. The people in my home area thought that America was becoming a Biblical nation back then with this vote, but, again, they couldn't see the trees in the forest, drinking got worse.
In a very colorful quote of the time, Frank Buckley of the federal bureau of prohibition was commissioned by the national commission in the late 1920s on law observance and enforcement to do a survey and rate Wisconsin’s enforcement of the federal prohibition laws. Buckley's report was based on information he gathered from law enforcement officials, inspection of records, and from personal observations.
The state of Wisconsin voted in 1929 to not enforce Prohibition by state authorities by a 2/3 statewide vote. They became the 2nd state to ratify its repeal in 1932 by unanimous vote on a state convention. Despite this seemingly regional realization of the absurdity of Prohibition and having Chicago gangsters roaming many of the towns around the Wisconsin lakes, my home area never accepted the repeal of national Prohibition as anything more than an annoyance. It was now legal to drink in Wisconsin and a few local townships and communities voted to allow liquor sales after 1934, but not mine. These religious zealots who felt being Dry was akin to the first step to salvation even used World War II as an opportunity. The fact that many male residents conscripted or volunteered were dying in Africa, Europe, or the Pacific, didn't let the opportunity pass by then by. These were churches that Sunday after Sunday, and even on most Wednesday services told us plainly we were ALL going to Hell, our only hope, and it was a slight one at that, was to live as pious a life as we could so that maybe we'd end up better off than the neighbors. Fire and Brimstone was the future for almost everyone. Banning alcohol was their duty to humanity, to save them from themselves.
Grantsburg was an exception, as they tried but couldn't vote to force the two existing taverns to close, and they hung on, stubbornly, knowing that if they closed, alcohol would be gone for ever.
Nearby Polk County didn't put up with this nonsense and along the border bars and restaurants thrived. Small hamlets like Wolf Creek, Cushing, Atlas, West Sweden, and Lewis had famous bars and West Sweden even had a dance hall with a cool Leinenkugel's sign, the biggest one I've ever seen. They thrived and the roads to these towns a few miles south of Prohibition were dangerous places to drive on Friday nights. Deadman's curve north of West Sweden, earned its name many times over.
Those unwilling to drive, fired up their "Stills" built in their bootlegging past. These were hidden in the woods usually masquerading as maple syrup operations. My Great grandfather Danielson, it was said, was never more than a few steps away from a bottle of schnapps. It was clear, he never drove to buy it. He'd only drink for celebrations but it seemed there was always something to celebrate. I've uncovered gallons and gallons of stump schnapps and homemade wine out in the woods as a kid. Even in the woods of some appearing pious individuals.
I tasted much of it, and it was good. My grandfather was always coy about it and how much was made. Many of the men, church elders at the Baptist and Mission churches, had a secret passion. I was too young, but it was clear, the women were never told and much of it was also hidden at male only hunting camps and ice fishing huts. It took decades, but from the late sixties on these laws were overturned to at least allow off-sale beer. Wood River's first referendum to allow off-sale, ended in a tie in the 80s and it took a second referendum two years later. to finally end 110 years of Prohibition.
We drove over in a snowstorm. The place had been redone. We had what is considered expensive, my wife a $25 prime rib, me a $22 shrimp dinner. Burgers were under ten bucks...expensive? I enjoyed a regular classic Leinenkugel's, paid $3 for it, the stuff you can't get outside of Wisconsin. It was worth ten bucks!
My son Tyko is laughing at the salad bar restrictive signage (you can only make one trip!). The beer was great and the food was good, too. We even had deep fried green beans...