It always amazes me when folks walk through museums or by historic areas and ask “I wonder what…”, yet they never take the time to solve the mysteries at hand. Always ask the docent… especially Margrette (I apologize if I spelled your name wrong!) at the Madeline Island State Historical Museum. Every time we visit (which is once a year for the past 10 years or so… yes, we are the ones who sing along with the film) I see something I hadn’t saw the year before in the permanent collections.
This year we were looking at a photo of the Vaudeville star Al Harvieux and trying to decide where his other leg was… so we turned to Margrette and learned much more than expected! Not only did we learn that, yes indeed he did have two legs, but as a contortionist he probably had his leg out of view of the camera. We also learned that his mother insisted that he come home from traveling with Vaudeville- so he came home to the island and worked as a lumberjack (although he would do the contortionist act for parties occasionally). He was known for having built his whole house and all of its furniture with his axe- which is quite sharp still today. He also owned a tavern near the current site of the group campsite of the state park.
She continued introducing us to some other quirky personalities, including Ed Valley. He built amazing boats in the early part of the last century. But he was also known for creating wonderful women’s shoes, that were the envy of any lady. Not only did he create them, but also wore them, as well as other women’s clothes. Just before his death he ordered wood from the mainland and built his own coffin (even though most residents didn’t believe he would do it). He built it much like his boats with a rounded bottom and a front like a bow. He then hung himself. He left a note requesting that he placed in the coffin, floated on the lake and lit on fire.. and he finished with “I’ll see you in hell!” The residents decided it was still best to bury him in the cemetery.
The last story she relayed was that of the Windigo- Ojibwe cannibalistic, zombie type monsters. She told how people would become Windigo if they themselves turned to cannibalism, especially during the winter months. The Windigo would grow with each person (soul) they ate. We had a good laugh about the retirement home in Minnesota that had decided to use Windigo as the name of their facility!
The lesson… instead of waiting for the photos to tell you the stories of the people… ask the docent. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but docents are priceless!