Great things come in small packages sometimes. Witness Erika Janik's compelling volume, "Odd Wisconsin: Amusing, Perplexing and Unlikely Stories from Wisconsin's Past," a 180-odd-page book packed full of interesting scenes from America's Dairyland.
In it, you'll read about the founder of Britain's Selfridge's department store chain -- born in Ripon -- about Thomas Jefferson's descendants living in Madison, about Socialist Victor Berger's witty one-liners and much more.
"The book began as a blog on the Wisconsin Historical Society Web site in 2004," says Janik, who works at the Wisconsin Historical Society, whose WHS Press published the book.
"The idea of doing a blog was the idea of the webmaster but the content kind of grew out of doing research for other projects. In the process of doing more 'serious research,' I and other people here would run across this fabulous stuff that was just too good to put back in the folder or box and pretend we didn't see. Once you start looking in the collections at WHS, odd stuff just starts popping out everywhere."
Janik says finding enough material for a book was no problem. In fact, the problem was just the reverse.
"There are way too many stories to pick from!" she says. "I picked some of my favorites that had been in the blog and rewrote them, and then added a whole bunch of new ones that I had recently run across or that we hadn't done yet on the Web site. It was a hard decision, though. Wisconsin is full of oddballs."
In fact, Janik has found so many stories -- and continues to uncover more and more -- that a second volume is already in the works, she says.
"There are certainly enough odd stories to warrant it. Finding stories is an ongoing process. There are many things that I haven't quite figured out how best to present yet."
In the meantime, we wondered if Janik has a favorite among the dozens included in the current book. Maybe the story of Marie Antoinette's clock in Milwaukee or the crazy postcards of Waupun's Alfred Stanley Johnson Jr. (some of which make an appearance in the Italian film "Nuovomondo")?
"One of my favorite stories is the prohibition investigation of Wisconsin in 1929," says Janik. "This poor investigator came to Wisconsin to see how well people were adhering to the laws and found, as he wrote, 'a utopia of the wets,' where 'John Barleycorn has his day.' There are some fantastic lines in there. I'm also a big fan of any story that makes me think, 'that happened in Wisconsin?!' Like that the Gideons (of BIble fam) began here. I love that."
Janik is not a native Badger and so, she says, the research for the book has opened up a window on wacky Wisconsin history for her. It's given her a bit of an off-kilter introduction to the state.
"Everything has been surprising in a way. The Gideons were really surprising to me; that Wisconsin is home to the world's only spiritualist school (still in business in West Allis) and that there were so many famous mediums here, and that there was a man who actually claimed to be the lost son of Louis XVI ... and that people believed him! I was also surprised to learn that one of the children Thomas Jefferson had with his slave Sally Hemings ended up here in Wisconsin and are buried here in Madison."
Every era has had its oddball stories and Janik says that compiling and writing "Odd Wisconsin" has helped her realize what a key part of who we are is reflected by these quirky tales. It also can help make history more fun to explore.
"History is so often thought of as a boring line-up of names and dates but history isn't that at all," Janik ays. "History is really about stories and learning these kind of odd stories tell us something about the time, the place and the people involved in Wisconsin's development and growth."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.