Green Lake, Wisconsin
Late in the Fall of 2014, Ed was out on one of his daily walks, while I was working in the garden. The setting: Rural Wisconsin. I was probably weeding with my then 2 year old in tow, who was (most likely) eating tomatoes off the vines. When I saw Ed heading back, I met him halfway between our yard and the street to say Hello.
Our properties were the last two of a very quiet little cul-de-sac, in the immediate outskirts of downtown Green Lake. We each had an acre lot, and Ed’s garden was always immaculate and beautiful. There were seasonal flowers, a manicured green lawn, and a tall pole in the middle of the yard with flags that changed according to national holidays.
I was an avid gardener too, with a native Wisconsin landscape in our front yard and a fruitful 15’ x 20’ vegetable plot on the south side. Ed and I would often admire each other’s garden work, talk about new tools, yard problems/solutions, and about our endless encounter with backyard wildlife (deer, woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, wild turkeys, migrating birds and the occasional snapping turtle passing through, on its way to the lake.)
Ed Writes a Book for His Wisconsin Family
Ed was born and raised in Ripon, Wisconsin and now lived in Green Lake with his wife, Sherri. Both recently retired, they enjoyed life, traveled locally and took excellent care of their home. What surprised me about Ed was that at 76 (when we met) he drove a very stylish 2012 BMW 135i convertible (which he later changed to a decked out black Camaro), while Sherry drove a two-door Jeep Wrangler. Pretty hip retirees!
We, instead, were California and Italian transplants, having moved to rural Wisconsin because of C’s work. I found a job as director of the Green Lake Country Visitors Bureau, and Nicolas had just turned one. The three of us lived in our quiet rural community, surrounded by the freedom of nature and the wonder that only a country landscape can give (for Nicolas, who spent years 1 through 4 here, this was a truly priceless experience).
In one of our weekly talks Ed mentioned he had written a book for his family, and offered me a copy. Being an avid reader (and freelance editor and writer myself), I was very curios to read it. The booklet had lots of photos, personal recounts, and a lot of technical land transactions. In going through the chapters and looking at some of the photos, many more questions came up for me. Questions that likely required research, but that were answerable. Facts and information that a college-educated, west-coast, city-raised person like me, knew absolutely nothing about.
The Annotations Begin
Though the story was not a novel, or had a solid plot, I related to many of its themes: His great grandparent’s immigrant story from Prussia to the Midwest (mine emigrated from Italy to Argentina, then my parents emigrated from Argentina to the U.S.); the fond memories of visiting our grandparents, Grandma’s home cooked meals (always memorable), the strange tools and artifacts we’d found at our grandfather’s workshops, etc. What’s more, the farm life Ed’s grandparents had (to sustain themselves financially and to produce enough meat and vegetables to feed their family) was in line with my own passion of having a sustainable vegetable garden that could nourish my own family.
At every turn of the page there was always more information I needed. I specifically remember reading a line that referenced the size of the land his grandparents lived on as insufficient: “…assuming the area taken up by the buildings was approximately ¾ of an acre (home, barn, tool shed, stalls) that left only four acres of tillable land, hardly enough to grow crops and provide grazing land to support the amount of income producing cattle a family this size (7) would have needed.” What? What did he mean four acres of tillable land were not enough to support a family?
I nudged Ed to turn this into a longer, more thorough book, and open it up to a larger audience. If we both continued with the research that was needed to fill in the gaps, I could help co-write it. I wanted to learn more about that time period, and Ed’s simple family story was the gateway, making those lives tangible, real. I was also certain there were people like me, who would be curious and receptive to this historical past, if only we had a chance to read something interesting without having to follow ten different Wikipedia links to get information, or dig up a four-hundred-page tome at the library and sift through the interesting parts (which honestly, would never happen).
Ed’s grandparents could be both the main characters and the medium through which we could see the world and learn about a period of time that was long gone.
Valuable Rural Sources
By that point (because of my job at the visitor’s bureau), I was facilitating monthly meetings with twelve local historical societies (to promote Heritage Tourism, a valuable niche group within the tourism industry.) The more I got to know each Historical Society, and visit their museums and exhibits, the more I discovered about their areas, their people, their pasts and learned to appreciate their efforts to preserve each towns history (most historical societies in rural Wisconsin are run by very hard working volunteers).
I came across hand-made dresses, beautiful hats, shoes, photographs, kitchen utensils, entertainment items and toys used during the 1800s. Each single piece, effortlessly transporting me back to that time period. Seeing these items (and touching them where allowed) let me visualize myself walking those streets, meeting those people, being part of that reality. Side note: the Green Lake Country area is rich with Native American artifacts too, beautiful and sad memories of the Mascoutin, Winnebago, Ho-Chunk tribes that once lived there (just to name a few) along with the fur traders who visited their areas (fascinating characters.) We needed to share this information and the discoveries we were making along the way.
A New Book about Wisconsin Life
In what to Ed must have seemed like a never-ending journey (how long can you research your own family history without getting tired?) at some point we finally had a two-hundred page, solid manuscript that we liked, telling the story of Grandpa Charly through a series of vignettes, making sure that each piece had a historical context to be placed in and reliable sources we could depend on.
After many reviews, we sent it out to a few history buff friends who offered their time, uncensored insights and comments (thank you Genevieve, Bobbie and Gayle!) . The manuscript was well received and motivated us to keep going forward and finally put it in the magical hands of Amazon’s CreateSpace team. There is nothing more rewarding when after 3 years of hard work, you can articulate your concept to a stranger (like our book cover designer and our interior layout designer at CreateSpace) and see all those efforts come to life into something tangible.
This coming October, Stepping into Rural Wisconsin: Grandpa Charly’s Life Vignettes from Prussia to the Midwest will be available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle and local print on demand (for other countries). We were lucky enough to have rural historian Jerry Apps (author of “Every Farm Tells a Story” and “Cold As Thunder”) positively review our book, allowing us to use his words on the back cover. The notion that Ed and I could collaborate and make it possible for one rural Wisconsin family from the 1800s come back to life, is an incredible, rewarding feeling. I hope Charly and Hulda (and Agnes – for whom I have developed a very fond memory) are somewhere up there, happy with what we’ve written and smiling right back at us.