Last year I had a title released called Wisconsin Legends & Lore (History Press). I tried to collect a good mix from Wisconsin’s rich history of storytelling. One of my favorite parts was talking about urban legends from around the state. Urban legends are stories spun, usually about a creepy location, and people (usually young folks) get a frightened thrill daring, or even worse– double dog daring— someone to do something frightening. In Muskego, Wisconsin, there was a dare to drive down Mystic Lane late at night to look for Haunchyville, supposedly a community of angry little people that will attack you if you dare cross over into their turf. If you park your car on Bloody Bride Bridge in Stevens Point, local lore says you can look in your rearview mirror and see the Bloody Bride sitting in your back seat. These stories of looking in mirrors and chanting names, picking up phantom hitchhikers, and encountering monsters, witches, and psycho killers on back roads can be found all over the country. The stories vary slightly, but the premise is often the same.
One person well equipped to track these stories down is prolific researcher, lecturer, and author Chad Lewis. Chad has authored and co-authored books like The Road Guide to Haunted Locations series, Lake Monsters of Wisconsin, the Hidden Headlines series, and many more. Although he’s been all over the world, much of his work focuses on the Midwest. He grew up in Eau Claire (which is in Wisconsin, but close to Minnesota) and currently lives near the Madison area.
Chad admits his favorite part of writing isn’t the long hours spent staring at a screen, scrutinizing grammar, but rather the thrill of the open road, discovering new places, hearing new stories. That’s what makes Supernatural Dares of the Midwest: Curses, Monsters, and Ghosts such a perfect project for him. He’s no armchair expert– he bravely got out there and tried every dare in the book for himself.
“I pride myself that every place that I write about or lecture about, I’ve actually visited for myself. That’s just the way it works for me, I have to be there. With the dares it was important that I tried them all. I joke in the book that there’s only one that I failed at doing and that’s because many claim it doesn’t exist,” Chad told me in an interview for the Tea’s Weird Week podcast. “That dare is if you check out a certain book from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater library, you will go crazy and either die or kill yourself. The reason I failed is because the book apparently does not exist. The library has told me year after year they don’t have it, which is exactly what you’d expect sneaky librarians to say to you,” Chad laughed. He’s referring to an urban legend that the UW-Whitewater library has an ancient magic Book of Shadows locked up somewhere, part of the greater witch lore of Whitewater, which was called Second Salem because they had a Spiritualist school there in the late 1800s.
Chad traveled around Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and Illinois seeking stories of cursed gravestones, portals to Hell, and country lanes said to be stomping grounds of monsters, eventually compiling about 40 supernatural dares for his book.
But why do we do it? Why do we scare each other into these frightening experiences of potentially coming face-to-face with the ghost of Old Man Weary or a pack of Hellhounds?
“I think there’s many aspects to it,” Chad tells me. “One, it feels good. Believe it or not, fear can make you feel good. Once your mind realizes you’re probably not in any physical sort of danger, your body is still rushing your organs with chemicals, the same stuff you get from happiness, sex, excitement– it feels good, the endorphins rush through.”
The dares also give people a chance to have their own mini hero’s journey.
“I think a lot of people are looking for that test of bravery amongst there peers, especially high school and college age kids. If they can walk down a cursed marsh road with a Goatman there and not bat an eye, they get a boost of self esteem and are seen in a higher light in their peers’ eyes, so I think the social aspect plays into it, too,” Chad says.
Last but not least– a thrill in a cookie cutter, boring landscape.
“On a deeper level I think people like doing it cause when you start traveling the country, you see that a lot of the cities look the same– the same restaurants, hotels, gas stations,” Chad explains. “So people are looking for that uniqueness, that strangeness that can only be found in your area.”
As Chad says, I love these stories and I think they’re an important part of our cultural landscape, our own modern folklore.
You can pre-order Chad’s book and check out his other work at: chadlewisresearch.com
Tea’s Weird Week podcast, episode 11: I talk more with Chad Lewis about his career as a researcher into the unknown and some of the supernatural dares he encountered working on his new book. Plus me and Heidi read some of the dumb things our listeners did on a dare and discuss mask enforcing luchadores, a Joker-themed candidate in Japan, Amityville, crystal ball safety, sperm samples on the moon, and more. Miss Information reveals trivia answers, an Irish jig inspired track from Sunspot, and we close with Ratbatspider‘s track about the Haunchyville urban legend, “Keep This Short.”
I sent in my manuscript for my book American Madness which will be out August next year. I also have a little book out about a year from now called Wisconsin Legends & Lore, which is a collection of some classic Wisconsin folklore, ghost stories, and urban legends. One of the stories I read about while researching is the tragic story of the Rouse Simmons, also known as the Christmas Tree Ship, a nice Wisconsin Christmas ghost story for you this Friday the 13th.
Every holiday season, Chicagoans eagerly awaited the arrival of the Christmas Tree Ship, which would load up with evergreens in Michigan, then sail down to Chicago, where it would tie up to a dock. Families would head over, pick out a tree, and drag it back to their homes on a sled. The arrival of the Rouse Simmons meant the arrival of the holidays.
Captain Herman Schuenemann aka “Captain Santa” ran the business. He sold trees for fifty cents or a dollar, but he was known for generously donating trees to orphanages, hospitals, and poor families. His was not the only Christmas Tree Ship, but it would become the most famous. In November of 1912, Captain Schuenemann and his crew loaded 5,500 trees (imagine how piney that must have smelled!) into the Rouse Simmons, packing it as much as they could. There were supposedly bad omens, according to crew who declined to make the journey– rats seen abandoning ship, a crew totally an unlucky 13, and the ship leaving port on a Friday.
On November 23, 1912, the Rouse Simmons was sailing past Two Rivers, Wisconsin on route toward Chicago. A terrible storm hit Lake Michigan. The Rouse Simmons, already an old ship and overladen with thousands of trees, was thrashed in the wind, ice forming on the sails and ripping them. The Christmas Tree Ship (and a few other boats on the lake that night) and all hands were lost. Christmas trees from the boat washed ashore for years afterward.
Rather than be deterred by the lake that had claimed Captain Schuenemann’s life, his wife and daughters took over the business. The new Captain Schuenemann was his brave daughter, Elsie, who led the delivery of trees that same winter season of 1912. The family kept the business going until railroads and highways made the Christmas Trees ships obsolete in the 1920s and 30s..
The wreck of the Rouse Simmons was discovered by a scuba diver in 1971. They found that there were still needleless, skeleton-like trees in the cargo hold.
Legend says that you can see the ghost ship of the Rouse Simmons on Lake Michigan on stormy winter nights or on the anniversary of the night it sunk, struggling in the choppy waters to get south to Chicago.
A nice ending to this story is that a non-profit group called Chicago’s Christmas Ship, with the help of the Coast Guard, now continues the Christmas Tree Ship legacy. Using the sturdy Mackinaw, they’ve sailed to Navy Pier the last 20 years with a cargo of Christmas trees, where they work with community organizations to get trees to people who can’t afford them to make their holiday a little brighter.
You can find out more and donate here: http://christmasship.org/
More ghost stories! I host the Milwaukee Ghost Walk- Ghosts of Christmas Past tour tonight, tomorrow, and next weekend!: https://americanghostwalks.com/wisconsin/milwaukee-ghosts-of-christmas-past/
My latest book, Apocalypse Any Day Now makes a nice existential stocking stuffer: www.chicagoreviewpress.com/ApocalypseAnyDayNow