By Renee S. Jolivette
We’re clear of the Milwaukee traffic, heading north on Interstate 41.
“You remember Fond du Lac?” I say to Scott. “We drank duck farts at that supper club?”
“The place with the world’s biggest fish fry?”
“That’s not where they had the world’s biggest beer tent?”
“No. That was the Cottage Grove Fireman’s Festival.”
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My parents are from Wisconsin. Many extended family members live here. After Scott and I married, I started dragging him from our home in Northern California to family reunions like the one this past weekend in Madison. With Dad’s side of the family.
Mom’s side is in Milwaukee. We had lunch with them today at Sobelman’s. The pub, famous for its burgers, is located on a downtown street corner. It’s housed in a three-story, stone and brick building—one of Milwaukee’s original Schlitz Taverns, built in 1889.
The place was noisy, mostly because Mom’s family members all talk at the same time. I only caught snippets of the conversation that swirled around me, but everyone looked good and I was glad to see them.
Mom’s side is Polish. I’ve always assumed the chatty, cross-talking thing was a Polish trait. I once mentioned this to a mentor of mine at work—a woman with a Polish surname. She seemed offended, and my career went nowhere after that.
Now that we’ve fulfilled our family obligations, Scott and I will spend the next week travelling around Wisconsin. Tonight, we’re staying in Antigo. The area is heavily-forested, with myriad lakes and rivers. It’s also home to Sheldon’s Inc., maker of Mepps fishing lures. We’ll take their factory tour tomorrow.
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The walls of the Refuge Restaurant and Northwoods Bar in Antigo are adorned with replicas of trophy fish. We’re the only customers on this Monday night. I wander the bar, drink in hand, reading the small brass plaques. “The largest northern pike ever caught in Wisconsin weighed thirty-eight pounds,” I say. “At Puckaway Lake, in Green Lake County.”
“There’s also a Puckaway Lake in Marquette County,” the bartender says. She hangs clean wineglasses on the rack behind her. “You two want to eat here or in the dining room?”
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We drive south through town the next morning until we spot the brown wooden sign with yellow, engraved lettering:
HOME OF MEPPS
We park and walk around the building. The door to the Squirrel Tail Department is clearly marked. “They take their squirrel tails seriously,” I say.
The Mepps spinner was invented in France in 1938. Tackle shop owner Todd Sheldon began importing and selling these fishing lures in 1951, and later started manufacturing them in Antigo. He added squirrel hair to some of the products after observing modifications made by a local boy who was fishing on the nearby Wolf River.
“They pay eight cents per tail,” I say to Scott, flipping through some company literature in the lobby.
“Guess life’s cheap if you’re a squirrel in Wisconsin.”
“They strongly recommend using the rest of the squirrel. For meat and such.” I put the brochure back in its Lucite stand as the tour guide calls for us to follow her.
All Mepps lures are hand-assembled. In the squirrel tail room, women attach hair to the lures. “We also use buck tails,” the guide says as she passes around the white tail of a now-deceased deer.
“Do you ever use black tails?” I ask.
“Deer don’t have black tails,” one of the workers says.
“They do in California,” the guide tells her. “But California prohibits the sale of animal parts.” The worker accepts this new information graciously.
We proceed to the conference room. “This is where our development team brainstorms new designs,” the guide says.
I want a job where you get to think like a fish.
Chase, a black and white spaniel, rests on her bed in a corner of the room until Mike Sheldon—Todd’s son, and current company president—collects her for their noontime walk.
The tour is over. We’re invited to shop. Three hundred dollars later we’re back on the road with gifts for friends and some new additions to our tackle box.
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“Home of the American Bierkebiener.” I’m reading aloud from a sign in Downtown Hayward. “I love this state. Every town has a claim to fame. Richland Center is the birthplace of Frank Lloyd Wright. Reedsburg is America’s Butter Capital. Baraboo is Circus City. Lodi’s the Home of Susie the Duck. Shullsburg is the Home of the Name Badger State.” I pull a gooey French fry from a red-checked paper container filled with poutine as we peruse the crafts at Hayward’s Musky Festival. We stop to watch Chippewa dancers perform in their traditional, bright blue and orange costumes.
“Green Bay is Title Town,” Scott says.
“Not obscure enough. You need to spend more time here.”
“I think we’ve spent plenty of time here.”
After a quick trip through the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, we drive south and west to Ellsworth. Their Cheese Curd Festival is smaller than the Musky Festival. Just a white tent and a few blue EZ-Ups in a residential park. We snack on curd-stuffed bratwurst, buy tee shirts and head to Red Wing, Minnesota for the night.
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The Mississippi is steel grey, wide and deep. Railroad tracks parallel Highway 35 between the guardrail and the river. There’s a low line of trees on the opposite bank.
My great-great-great-grandfather left Montreal in 1852. He was the fourth person of European descent to settle on French Island, north of La Crosse. Today, we’re following Moses Jolivette’s path down the Great River Road.
We stop to visit French Island Cemetery, reading each headstone and comparing the names to those on my family tree. The one my aunt gave me when we were in Madison.
Our next stop is Jolivette Bay — a wide, still section of the river at the shore of my forebear’s homestead. I hand my Olympus point-and-shoot camera to Scott, shed my tennies and ankle socks and wade into the warm, shallow water. While he struggles to frame the photo in the glare of the midday sun, I curl my toes in the muck and gravel. Digging for some connection. For a jolt of familial energy that will surge through my body and imbue me with the pulse and lifeblood of my ancestors.
I come away with only mud under my toenails. And a decent photo thanks to Scott.
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After two nights in La Crosse, we drive back to Milwaukee on I-90. Passing cornfields and silos, red-roofed barns with colorful barn quilts. Billboards advertising sausage and cheese shops.
Thunderclouds build as the afternoon progresses. “Wisconsin makes me happy,” I say. “It’s probably the way Bug feels when he rolls around in horseshit.”
Bug is our otherwise well-mannered Chihuahua. Take your eyes off of him for a moment on a country trail and he’ll tumble headfirst into any available pile of manure. Wriggling on his back, twisting gaily, legs pointed skyward and tiny paws flopping. Wagging his tail with gleeful abandon.
“You’re comparing Wisconsin to horseshit,” Scott says.
“In a good way.”
“I’m gonna tell your cousins you said that.”
“I wish you wouldn’t. But you know what I mean. You’ve seen Bug in horseshit. He’s just so totally immersed and joyful.”
Scott grins and shakes his head.
“I’ve never had a bad time here,” I say. “My relatives are great. The towns are family-friendly, but with a bar on every corner. People are warm and welcoming—you can’t order fast food without having a conversation. And they’re always celebrating. There’s a festival for everything.” I roll down my window, turbo-charging my senses with the scent of green pastures and ionized air. “I guess one man’s horseshit is a little dog’s heaven.”
There’s a loud clap of thunder and the sky cuts loose with sheets of rain.
“Now you’ve upset the cheese gods,” Scott says.
I turn my face into the downpour. Basking in water that has evaporated from the surrounding land, from the powerful river caressing the shores of French Island. For centuries—long before Moses arrived here—it’s fallen to the ground only to be taken up and released again. I can feel his presence.
Another specter supplants him. Not French Canadian but Norwegian, also from Dad’s side. Scolding me for being soaking wet.
It occurs to me that my birthright is more practical than spiritual. Midwestern sensibilities.
“You’re soaking wet,” Scott says.
“Immersed,” I say. “Joyful.”
Barreling through the storm at highway speed makes the rain seem fiercer. The windshield wipers slap it away at a frenetic pace. Light from our headlamps ripples over the reflective lettering on a green exit sign for Sun Prairie.
“That’s where your cousin Harry lives?” Scott asks.
I nod. “It’s also the Groundhog Capital of the World.”
Renee S. Jolivette is a retired engineer with a Fiction Writing Certificate from the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Raised in Arizona, she has deep Midwestern roots and once held a summer job in Wisconsin working with the US Army Corps of Engineers on a Cold War project while living in makeshift housing in Baraboo, Darlington and Dodgeville. She currently resides in rural Northern California with her husband (pseudonym “Scott”) and their dog Bug. Her work has appeared in The Union, Current and Bronco Driver Magazine.