Wisconsin’s Own Indiana Jones

In the above image, Roy Chapman Andrews feeds baby eagles at his camp in Mongolia in 1928.

In the above image, Roy Chapman Andrews feeds baby eagles at his camp in Mongolia in 1928.

Trotting the globe in search of adventure, Andrews battled blistering sandstorms and fended off deadly snakes in adventurous pursuit of science. Born in Beloit on Jan. 26, 1884, he once said he was “born to be an explorer.” Using money saved from his job as a taxidermist, Andrews paid for his education at Beloit College. He then hopped a train for New York City after graduation in 1906.

He applied for a job at the American Museum of Natural History but was told there were no jobs available. So, Andrews volunteered to scrub the museum’s floors. He must have been done one heck of a job with those floors because he rose quickly through the ranks and was soon leading expeditions that took him around the world.

Andrews became most famous for his work in the Gobi Desert in the 1920s. Expecting to find the “missing link” for human evolution, he instead uncovered a wealth of mammal and dinosaur fossils, including dinosaur eggs. It was a find that proved how dinosaurs reproduced.

Besides fossils, Andrews also found a wealth of excitement and danger. He survived encounters with armed bandits, hungry sharks, and most Indiana Jones-like of all, dozens of poisonous pit vipers. Andrews later admitted to being so frightened that he screamed when he stepped on a coil of what he thought was a snake. It turned out to be rope. In the course of his life, Andrews was mistakenly reported dead more than once.

Political instability ended Andrews’ work in the Gobi, and in 1934, he became director of the American Museum of Natural History.

Andrews is widely believed to be the model for movie legend Indiana Jones. Although George Lucas never specifically cited Andrews or anyone else, Andrews’ life certainly makes a strong case. Andrews was one of the most famous explorers of the time and his discoveries featured in movie serials. He also looked the part – Andrews always wore a hat and carried a revolver.

In 1942, Andrews left the museum and, fortunately for us, spent the rest of his life writing about his expeditions.

Ringing in a New Year with Wisconsin’s Baby New Year

Jimmy Clark rings in 1954 as “Baby New Year” in cowboy boots, underwear, and a sash while standing atop a case of Appleton’s local Adler Brau beer and holding a cigarette (it was the 1950s – we didn’t know any better.). Clark was not the baby that year but he represented a custom that goes back thousands of years.

The tradition of “Baby New Year” can be traced back to ancient Greece. The Greeks believed that Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine, was reborn every year as a spirit of fertility and luck. They celebrated with a baby in cradle. Ancient Egyptians also symbolized the birth of the New Year with a baby.

Babies born on New Year’s Day are generally considered lucky and their arrivals heralded in the newspaper. “Lawrence Frank Upthagrove has requested Mayor Walters to telephone the Journal that he is Stevens Point’s first New Years baby,” read a 1911 article in the Stevens Point Daily Journal. It seems unlikely that baby Lawrence made that request himself but New Year’s babies are exceptional.

In Monroe, Wisconsin, the lucky New Year’s Baby of 1948 received gifts from local businesses. To stop any would-be cheaters, the doctor’s signature was required to win.

And in Menasha, Wisconsin, in 1948, Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Shukoski won the New Year’s lottery with a second New Year’s baby. The Shukoskis won their first first baby of the year in 1946. But it seems holiday births were nothing new to this family of eleven. Dad and one of the boys were born on Thanksgiving, another on July fourth, and another on Christmas Eve.

Vintage Wisconsin: The Perfect Christmas Outfit

I’ve started a new blog at Wisconsin Public Radio called “Vintage Wisconsin.” It includes things like this:

Have you picked out your Christmas outfit yet? In this great photo, a young girl takes dressing up for the holidays to a new level with this tinsel- and ornament-bedecked dress in the 1950s. 

Jesuit priest, the Rev. Claude Allouez, celebrated what was perhaps the first Christmas in Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Superior in 1665. He had set out from Montreal in August in the company of 400 Native Americans returning home to Wisconsin. He landed near where the city of Ashland is today and built “a little chapel of bark” that he decorated with “various pictures, as of Hell and of the universal Judgment.” Cheery decor, no? Allouez didn’t say what he did on Christmas, but it was probably praying and saying Mass rather than dressing as a Christmas tree.

Holiday cooking disasters have a long history in Wisconsin as well. In 1803, British trader Capt. Thomas Anderson attempted a Christmas feast for his Native American neighbors. He captured “the fattest raccoon” he could find – 32 pounds – and set to work stuffing it with venison, onions, and seasonings.

“No coonship’s body, I am sure,” he wrote, “was never so cram-full before.”

He set the stuffed raccoon by the fire intending to roast it in the morning but woke up to find it “putrid and stinking.” Mortified, Anderson went without dinner and got laughed at by his “half-famished friends.”

Despite this cooking disaster, Anderson was at it again in 1811, preparing a “sea pie” of muskrat for a Christmas feast. He made the crust and fit it in the bottom of a bake-kettle; spread a layer of muskrat meat, pepper, and salt; and continued alternating crust and meat until the kettle was full.

“But pepper and salt did not save it, nor savory crust convert muskrat into relishable food,” Anderson lamented. “On opening the pie, so sickening was the effluvia emanating from it, that all were glad to rush to the door for fresh air.”

Maybe Anderson should have tried the tree outfit instead. May your holiday feast be more relishable.

Bringing Beer Back Home

Source: Edible Milwaukee

Source: Edible Milwaukee

My latest story for Edible Milwaukee is out in the summer issue. It’s all about some of the local growers trying to revive the state’s hop and barley tradition.

Let’s just say I jumped at the chance to explore Wisconsin beer, past and present. I remember the first time I saw hops growing at the truly wonderful Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York. It was actually the hops that led me there – I saw them climbing up the poles in one of the gardens and just had to get out to see what in the world was growing in there! I’ve since been to the American Hop Museum in eastern Washington so hops in their pre-beer state are no longer foreign to me. But I still thrill at the sight of them. There’s something magical about the vines and flowers.

I learned a lot telling this story (I won’t spoil it by telling you everything before you can even read it – something I tend to do to my husband all the time) but one of the things that sticks with me is something brewmaster Grant Pauly from 3 Sheeps Brewing in Sheboygan told me. Wisconsin’s long brewing history isn’t just about the beer. It’s also about the equipment to make that beer and that the state’s long brewing history means that many of the things needed to make and sell beer commercially – from the tap handles to the cardboard six-pack holders – can be sourced from local businesses. It makes perfect sense but had never before occurred to me.

Here’s the story. Enjoy!

 

Long before Wisconsin became America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin brewed beer. The state had barley, wheat, ice, and water. It had hops. And most important of all, a beer-thirsty people called Wisconsin home.

So thirsty that in 1839, German settlers in Milwaukee, desperate for a taste of home, mixed whiskey and vinegar with a little limestone to create a head that they called “Essig whiskey heimer” (something like homemade vinegar whiskey or vinegar whiskey of home). The opening of the city’s first brewery – by a Welshman, not a German, alas – the next year hopefully put an end to that frightening blend.

Read the rest at Edible Milwaukee…

Easter Tastes Delicious: Breaking Fasts with Pastries

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From “Vintage Eats” in Edible Milwaukee (Spring 2014)

When the Easter season approaches, the yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread and sugary sweetness of flaky pastries and cakes fill kitchens as cooks prepare the foods associated with this important religious holiday. Easter is steeped in religious practices but also rich in food traditions that stretch back centuries: from the Last Supper, which in Christian theology is the day Jesus and his apostles shared a final meal, to today, when we still gather for festive meals on Easter Sunday.

Growing up in a traditional Polish Catholic home in Milwaukee, Peter Burzynski understood from a young age that Easter was the most important holiday of the year. His parents, both immigrants from Poland, opened Polonez Restaurant in 1983, where Burzynski now works as executive sous-chef.

“Polish Catholics have a unique tradition on Easter Saturday in which we go to church to receive a blessing of our food baskets,” Burzynski says. “The baskets usually feature a small sampling of what we have for the feast the following day.”

While many traditional foods grace the Easter table, baked goods, especially sweet and buttery breads, are essential to the meal. This is, in part, because of the deprivation that precedes it.

In the past, devout Christians observed a strict fast during Lent, the six or seven weeks before Easter, when they abstained from eating animal products of any kind, including red meat, milk, poultry, butter, cheese, and eggs, as a form of penitence. In some parts of Europe, sugar, honey, and olive oil were also forbidden. While few follow such strict fasts today, the tradition of feasting on special foods is still common.

These Lenten fasts make the Shrove Tuesday (or Fat Tuesday) preceding it and the Easter feast following it all the more indulgent.

The pastry Burzynski most closely associates with the season is one Poles eat the day before Ash Wednesday. It’s called a pączek, but is more commonly known in the U.S. by its plural form, pączki.

“The pronunciation is almost as tricky as getting your mouth around one of these huge doughnuts,” he says.

Burzynski says the correct pronunciation is closer to “pone-chykey,” not the “poonch-key” he so often hears in Milwaukee.

PaczkiCrispy on the outside but soft and yielding on the inside, pączki are made from an especially rich dough of lard, milk, and eggs that is fried and then filled. They were originally created to clear out pantries of fruit, sugar, and fat for Lent.

“We filled ours with either strawberry or prune filling and topped them with either powder sugar or a lemon and orange peel glaze,” he says. “If I’m going to eat a pączek, I’m going to go all the way to my daily caloric limit. That’s the only way to go.”

The earliest Wisconsinites adhered to Easter fasts. In 1661, Jesuit Father Rene Menard complained to his superiors in Quebec of harsh weather along Chequamegon Bay that limited the amount of fish so “those who wished to keep Lent suffered greatly.” Fortunately, the cold did not congeal his communion wine, and an abundance of moose after the holiday helped to refortify the supplicants. Baked goods were also likely off the table.

Easter dinner looked better in the 1830s. General Albert G. Ellis recalled American settlers, army officers, and Christianized Indians strictly observing a Lenten fast. “They ceased gormandizing ducks, venison, and porcupine, only to feast in more epicurean style on trout, sturgeon, and wild rice,” Ellis wrote. When Easter arrived, “the most joyous of the calendar,” they all gathered in the woods amidst the sugarbush to feast on roasted chicken, eggs, and fresh maple syrup.

Easter is a colorful patchwork of customs drawn from pagan and Christian traditions. Celebrations of the spring equinox were common in pre-Christian times. Early Church leaders recognized that eliminating all pagan customs and replacing them with religious ones might devastate the progress of the faith. So Christianity absorbed some of the old traditions as the custom of welcoming spring merged with the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The name of the holiday itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of light and spring, Eostre.

This convergence of traditions is perhaps most apparent in the changing date of Easter. Rather than a fixed holiday, Easter is instead governed by the phases of the moon. At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Christian bishops set Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the March equinox.

Mesopotamian Christians were the first to adopt eggs as Easter food, though eggs had a long symbolic history as representations of rebirth and rejuvenation. Eggs were often exchanged as part of the celebration of spring. Christians were the first to dye the eggs red to represent Christ’s blood and resurrection. These red eggs, traditionally dyed with the skins of red onions, are often nestled in Easter breads, like Armenian choreg.

“It’s the singular pastry of an Armenian Easter,” says Terry Peterson, describing choreg, a triple-braided egg bread.

Her grandparents emigrated to Milwaukee from Armenia in the 1920s. Only minimally sweet, choreg is flavored with mahleb, the ground pits of St. Lucy’s cherry, that give the bread its distinctive flavor. The mahleb is ground so fine that Peterson says it something you can taste rather than see. “And it must be there because it doesn’t taste right otherwise,” she says.

KolaczkiAlthough choreg is exclusively an Easter pastry, it isn’t the only one to appear on the Armenian table. Both Terry and her brother Armen Hadjinian say that Easter is when you “make every pastry you know how to make.”

Both siblings love katah, a flaky layered biscuit similar to a croissant common at most holidays.

“It’s loaded with butter and delicious,” says Hadjinian, chuckling.

Although Peterson grew up steeped in her Armenian heritage, she didn’t learn how to bake these traditional foods until she helped to organize cooking classes with some elderly women at Holy Resurrection Church in South Milwaukee.

“They all had their grandmothers’ recipes and wanted to pass on their knowledge,” Peterson says. “Breads like choreg are fairly labor intensive so it could be a lost art without someone sharing and passing on these recipes.”

Armenian breads are rolled out with special rolling pins called grdnak, a kind of fat dowel roughly three feet in length. Women customarily received their own rolling pin when they became engaged, along with a copy of the 1950s cookbook Treasured Armenian Recipes.

“It’s a rite of passage. It’s how you know you’ve arrived!” Peterson says, with a laugh.

Like a treasured chef’s knife, everyone brings their own rolling pin to the cooking classes. Peterson uses the one that belonged to her grandmother. The tradition of baking bread as a religious offering dates back to antiquity. The ancient Egyptians offered small round cakes to the goddess of the moon, each marked with her symbol, the horns of an ox.

The three braids of the Armenian choreg and other bread shapes aren’t just beautiful; they are meaningful. Three strands represent the Holy Trinity. Wreath and ring-shaped breads represent Christ’s crown of thorns while also harking back to pagan fertility symbols. Round breads represent the life-giving sun, rebirth, and resurrection.

The most famous of the round breads may be the British hot-cross buns. Baked on Good Friday, these slightly sweet circular buns often have dried fruit and chopped fruit peel in the dough. The bread gets its name from the cross cut in the top of each bun before baking.

Superstitions regarding bread baked on Good Friday date back centuries. In England particularly, many people believed that Good Friday bread would never mold, so a bun was hung in the house to keep away bad luck for the year ahead. Grebe’s Bakery in Jackson Park and Regina’s Bay Bakery in Whitefish Bay are among the Milwaukee area bakeries to make hot-cross buns.

Greeks celebrate Easter with the sweet braids of tsoureki.

“It’s a sacred, holy bread. The smell of it baking warms you inside and lets you know the holidays are coming,” says Eleni Katrantzis, daughter of Aleka Tsioulos of the eponymous Aleka’s Kitchen in Sheboygan.

Tsoureki is an eggy bread seasoned with mahlepi (the Greek version of mahleb) and mastic, the hardened resin of the mastic tree from the Greek island of Chios, the only place in the world where the tree exudes its aromatic, piney resin. The addition and type of other spices and flavors in the tsoureki varies by region and family. As does the adornment atop the freshly baked tsoureki.

Like choreg, bright red eggs nestle in the braided strands of tsoureki, symbolizing Christ’s blood.

“The red eggs are central to the Greek Easter,” explains Katrantzis. “At midnight, after the Easter service, everyone is given a red egg for a celebratory cracking. You crack one end against the end of another person’s egg, trying to crack their egg.”

The person who successfully cracks both ends of the egg belonging to the other player is said to have good luck for the year. Katrantzis and her sister Demitra Tsioulos grew up in Sheboygan, a town with a strong German, not Greek, heritage. They recall feeling out of place when they stepped out the front door of the home that their Greek immigrant parents had so immersed in the smells, tastes, and perspectives of their home country. Their mom, Aleka, was eager to share her heritage, though, and frequently invited non-Greek guests over to eat.

Cake and kolaczkiBoth women remember helping their mom in the kitchen as children. She usually gave them the mundane tasks, like “stirring milk for 40 minutes without stopping to make a custard,” laughs Tsioulos.

But these monotonous, detailed tasks gave them a deep appreciation of their culture.

“Greek pastries are complicated and require patience to master,” says Tsioulos. “The details make it authentic.”

While tsoureki is the central Easter pastry, it isn’t the only sweet treat on the Greek Easter table. Shortbread-like cookies known as kourabiedes, made with almond paste and covered in powdered sugar, are common at nearly all Greek holidays. Galaktoboureko, a creamy and sweet custard pie baked in phyllo and drenched in lemon and honey is another indulgent favorite of Tsioulos and Katrantzis.

Baking stirs memories and connections to family, culture, and home.

“These pastries have more than ingredients in them,” says Tsioulos. “They are filled with stories passed down through the generations.

A Wisconsin Chiropractic Tale

After spending several years researching alternative healing methods for my new book, I was surprised to only recently learn the story of chiropractor Clarence Gonstead. Even more so because I’ve driven by the modernist Gonstead clinic in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, countless times.

Born in South Dakota in 1898, Gonstead grew up on a dairy farm in Primrose, Wisconsin, with an interest in automotive and tractor repair. Stricken with rheumatoid arthritis at 19, the bedridden Gonstead had exhausted nearly all of his medical options when he sought the services of a Madison chiropractor. The treatment worked. Gonstead was soon up and walking. This life changing experience led Gonstead to devote his life to chiropractic – a not uncommon conversion story in the annals of alternative medicine.

Source: Wikichiro

Source: Wikichiro

To save money for school, Gonstead worked as an automotive engineer. In 1923, he graduated from the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa (the Palmers had founded chiropractic in the 1890s), and a few years later, set up his own practice in Mt. Horeb.

Gonstead didn’t stick with the Palmer’s original theory. Rather than a vertebral bone causing nerve pressure (and thus disease) as founder D.D. Palmer and his son B.J. believed, Gonstead suggested that the vertebral disc caused nerve pressure. He developed his own method of spinal assessment to locate the spinal impingement, known as a subluxation in chiropractic.

“The principles of the Gonstead Method are the simple principles of chiropractic put to work; how to understand what causes nerve pressure, how to find it on the patient, how to achieve a corrective setting of the offending vertebra, and how to know when the chiropractor’s job is done, and nature’s begins,” explained Gonstead.

Neither D.D. nor B.J. Palmer took kindly to the ideas of others, even other chiropractors, so Gonstead likely received a chilly response to his technique.

Patients, on the other hand, loved Gonstead’s methods and they came from all over the country seeking his care. His clinic, a midcentury modern structure designed by Wisconsin architect John Steinmann, was one of the largest in the world with seating for 106 patients, a lab and research facilities, and seminar rooms. He even built a hotel, the Karakhal Inn, in 1965 to accommodate patients from out of town and other chiropractors seeking to learn his method. Business was so good that a regular limousine service traveled between the Madison airport and the Mt. Horeb clinic. Patients with their own private planes could land at Gonstead’s personal airstrip on the outskirts of town. For many years, the clinic was the largest chiropractic clinic in the world.

Gonstead also had a rather notable home. Herb Fritz, Jr., an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the private home on 55 acres in the late 1940s or early 50s. Unfortunately, the home burned down in 1992.

Gonstead died in 1978 and a nonprofit foundation now runs his clinic. His method has spawned followers and practitioners around the world.

Lutefisk, Torsk and other Seafood Traditions Abound

Forget turkey, ham, or even the traditional goose. For many families, the holiday season is not complete without lye-soaked cod drenched in melted butter. Every December diners decked in colorful patterned Nordic sweaters line up at St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church in the Town of Ashippun, one of the oldest Norwegian Lutheran churches in the state, to indulge in the annual lutefisk feast.

Lutefisk is far from the only holiday fish dish. On Christmas Eve, southern Italians celebrate the Feast of Seven Fishes; Poles consume a meatless Wigilia of fish, soup, sauerkraut, pierogi, and noodles; carp and herring often appear on German tables; and many Mexicans and Spaniards eat the salted cod known as bacalao. These holiday fish feasts are products of both faith and geography.

Read the rest of my story in the new issue of Edible Milwaukee.

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Before MOOCs, There Was Radio

Waiting for a coworker for lunch today, I happened to take a closer look at a display case that I pass every day without really looking. Inside are pieces of Wisconsin Public Radio history, including a brief description of the education programs that WHA (today’s WPR) offered to listeners starting in the 1930s. Full classes, many taught by professors and other experts in their fields, covering a range of subjects and delivered over the latest technological marvel – radio – that its creators hoped to use to reach and educate people with limited access to education? Sounds like a MOOC to me.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are the latest thing in education, promising unlimited participation and access via the technological marvel of our time – the internet. Professors at dozens of universities are teaching online courses and nearly every other university that hasn’t joined in is seriously considering their options. It’s new and hip and marketed as the way to reach people in the modern world.

But isn’t this just what the radio was doing in Wisconsin nearly a century ago?

In 1930, WHA began offering music and discussion of current events to students in rural schools in Dane County. The ten-week trial program proved a tremendous success and the station planned to incorporate classroom instruction into the regular broadcast schedule the following year.

Debuting in October of 1931, the “Wisconsin School of the Air,” as it was called, was designed for use in elementary and high school classrooms around the state.  Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction assisted with the creation of lessons that they hoped would be particularly valuable to the students attending the state’s more than 6,000 one- and two-room schools. Producers believed that the radio curriculum would increase exposure to new ideas, enhance the learning experience, and most importantly of all, help to close the very real gap in educational resources and quality that existed between rural and urban areas.

Aline Hazard interviewing a guest on the Homemaker Program Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

Aline Hazard interviewing a guest on the Homemaker Program
Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

 

Radio lesson topics included government, history, music, art, nature, health, and English. The series included programs like “Let’s Draw” (an art appreciation course where students mailed their artwork to Madison for grading) and “Afield with Ranger Mac”(a nature program hosted by Wakelin McNeel) that ran for decades. Teachers received study guides and educational suppliers offered higher quality radios to schools.

WHA also initiated the Wisconsin College of the Air to extend and improve adult education across the state. One of the most popular programs on the college slate was the Homemaker Program hosted by the affable Aline Hazard. She offered tips for cleaning, cooking, childcare, gardening, and introduced the latest tools and science of home economics. Together, the Wisconsin School and College of the Air brought useful information and education into homes and schools across the state on a technological platform that was relatively accessible to anyone.

At the end of the first semester in 1931, WHA reported nearly 11,000 regular listeners. By the next year, the regular audience had more than doubled to 23,000. The audience only continued to grow so that by 1960, roughly 290,000 students used the programs.

Other states followed Wisconsin’s lead in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly as commercial networks cut back on children’s programming. Nearly all were linked to universities or colleges, just like MOOCs today.

It seems to me that MOOCs are just a modern incarnation of the School of the Air, an attempt to give everyone a quality education using technology, whether on the air or online.

 

 

Teddy Roosevelt’s Milwaukee Assassin

On the night of October 14, 1912, Theodore Roosevelt spoke to a crowd in Milwaukee despite having been shot by a would-be assassin.

Milwaukee was a campaign stop for Roosevelt who was running for president as the candidate of the newly independent Progressive Party. Roosevelt had already served two terms as president but his unhappiness with his successor, William Taft, led him to seek office on a progressive platform.

 

Unbeknownst to Roosevelt, New York bartender John Schrank had been stalking him for three weeks and across eight states. Obsessed with the thought of a third Roosevelt term, breaking the two term precedent set by George Washington, Schrank was convinced that Roosevelt’s election would lead to civil war so he decided he had to act. Schrank finally managed to get off a shot from his .38-caliber revolver as Roosevelt departed the Hotel Gilpatrick for his speaking engagement at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Unwilling to miss his speech, Roosevelt trivialized the wound and insisted on speaking. He even opened his vest at one point, revealing the wound, and declared, “It takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose.”

Fortunately, Roosevelt had poor vision and was long-winded. The metal case for his glasses and the thick folded pages of his speech absorbed much of the force of the bullet lodged in the right side of his chest.

Following his speech, Roosevelt was rushed to the hospital. An X-ray confirmed the presence of the bullet in his chest but doctors decided to leave the bullet in place as it posed no threat to his organs and surgery could be risky. Roosevelt carried the bullet for the rest of his life.

 

Footnote – I realized only recently that the site of the shooting was on Old World 3rd Street near Kilbourn Avenue, the current home of the Hyatt, where I have stayed several times. I hear there are even photos and a plaque! I should be more observant.

A Pirate Who Roved the High Inland Seas

Yesterday was International Talk Like a Pirate Day (that’s September 19th in case you want to mark your calendar for next year), a day to practice your “arrrrrrrrrs” and “ahoys” and maybe adopt a pirate name.

While we tend to think of pirates as tropical characters (at least in popular lore), pirates (lumber thieves, privateers, rum – runners) roamed the Great Lakes as well. Only one, however, was actually branded a pirate and formally charged for his actions. Dan Seavey – or “Roaring Dan” as he was known – was guilty of everything from poaching to running a floating brothel aboard his Lake Michigan schooner, the Wanderer. 

Roaring Dan Seavey Source: Wikimedia

Roaring Dan Seavey
Source: Wikimedia

Born in Maine in 1865 and the son of a schooner captain father, Seavey took to the seas as a teenager, first working aboard local vessels and then for a stint in the U.S. Navy. He came to Wisconsin in the 1880s where he met and married 14-year-old Mary Plumley, the first of his three wives. The couple moved to Milwaukee in the 1890s where Seavey had a small farm and operated a tavern with a partner on the waterfront.

Seavey soon met Milwaukee beer king Frederick Pabst who encouraged Seavey to invest in a mining company in Alaska. Seavey took his advice and pulled the first of what would become several disappearing acts. He sold his business and deserted his family to seek his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush. The company went bust within a few years and Seavey came back to Wisconsin but not to his family. He soon disappeared again, resurfacing in Escanaba, Michigan, in 1900.

There, Seavey married Zilda Bisner. Four years later, Bisner filed for divorce, claiming domestic abuse, and Seavey fled once again onto the lake.

Seavey ran many different businesses in Michigan, both legitimate and not. He tried trapping, logging, lumber milling, and marine transporting. On the side, he also practiced the pirate-y arts of bootlegging, poaching, smuggling, and pimping. All of these activities made Seavey a recognizable character throughout the Lake Michigan port cities. Not to mention the fact that he was nearly 6 and a half feet tall and weighed 250 pounds.

And like any good pirate, Seavey was notorious for his barroom brawls and prize fights. One fight occurred on a frozen harbor in Frankfort, Michigan, in 1904. Seavey fought pugilist Mitch Love bare fisted for two hours before cleaning the ice with Love and collecting his winnings.

Seavey also made a significant fortune off his floating brothel. It was a brilliant move considering that the jurisdiction of local authorities ended at the water’s edge. Crafty schooner captains like Seavey would load their boats with alcohol and ladies and travel from port to port. Weekends and paydays were, unsurprisingly, especially profitable in port towns.

On June 11, 1908, Seavey and two accomplices stole a schooner in Grand Haven, Michigan, and headed south to Chicago intending to sell the ship’s cargo on the black market. The theft initiated a chase with federal authorities. The federal ship Tuscarora steamed after Seavey carrying U.S Deputy Marshal Tom Currier and a warrant for Seavey’s arrest. The Tuscarora eventually spotted Seavey’s ship near Frankfort and gave chase, firing a cannon that ended Seavey’s run. Seavey was arrested and arraigned for mutiny and sedition on the high seas.

Seavey’s luck had not run out, though. Despite the government’s best efforts to prosecute him, the grand jury did not indict him and Seavey was set free. How he got off when he clearly stole the ship is a matter of speculation but the act and the case forever branded Seavey a pirate.