History at Home series starts with 'Wisconsin Death Trip'

Fond du Lac’s history is layers-deep and rich. It encompasses wartime, peace, crazy characters, pillars of the community and everything in between. It’s a fascinating story, one that’s at the center of a new Fond du Lac Public Library program, History at Home.

Starting October 17, History at Home will offer a free evening program every third Thursday of the month on topics that explore local and state history.

The inaugural program at 6 p.m. October 17 will be a presentation of Wisconsin Death Trip, a voyage back in time to 1890’s rural Wisconsin. Wisconsin Death Trip is a book and DVD that pairs often-grim and odd photos of funerals, weddings and family portraits with excerpts of newspaper reports from the Black River Falls area during a time of great economic depression. The collection uncovers a macabre mix of a population struggling with a fatal diphtheria epidemic, high infant mortality, joblessness, untreated mental illness and devastating fires.

The book, published in 1973 by author Michael Lesy, inspired a DVD of the same name. Both use the juxtaposition of the black and white photos and newspaper reports to create an eerie picture of the not-so-gentle past. A few excerpts:

“The authorities in the town of Hewett, Clark County, burned a house last week on account of diphtheria. Six of the children living in that house died from the dread disease.”

“Mrs. Freidel had a picture taken of her little baby in its coffin. When a fellow came up the road who did enlargements, she had just the baby’s face blown up to a two-foot picture. But, since the baby’s eyes were closed, she had an artist paint them open so she could hang it in the parlor.”

“Tramps who were refused food at the home of John Ovenbeck in the town of Friendship, Winnebago County, entered the barn at night and cut the throats of three cows, which bled to death. A card attached to the horns of one bore the following message: ‘Remember us when we call for something to eat again.’ ”

Just as the spooky Wisconsin Death Trip was chosen for October, the 6 p.m. November 21 program – Christmas on Main Street – will usher in the holiday spirit. The program will revisit the days, decades past, when downtown Fond du Lac was a shopping hub for the region with a virtual trip down Main Street, visiting favorite shops and eateries and marveling at the prices.

Programs for 2014 include:

January 16: The Lure of the Sturgeon

February 20: African Americans in Fond du Lac

March 20: The Wide-Awakes & the Election of 1860

April 17: 40 Acres and the Founding of Fond du Lac

All History at Home programs are free and open to the public. The program was initiated by a gift to the library from an anonymous donor who wished to promote the exploration of local history.

In the photo: This photo taken in Black River Falls in the 1890s is among dozens featured by author Michael Lesy in Wisconsin Death Trip, which pairs photos and newspaper clippings to paint a grim picture of life in rural Wisconsin during a time of death, disease, economic depression and isolation. Used with permission.


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