One of the best fishing lures is made right here in Antigo

We continue our We Live Up Here series this week with a story of a family-owned fishing lure manufacturer in Antigo that uses squirrel tail hair on their famous Mepps spinners.

“Squirrel Tails Wanted,” reads the sign on highway 45 in Antigo. If you have traveled down that road, you might have wondered, like me, who buys squirrel tails? It turns out that squirrel hair is one of the essential pieces of MEPPS spinners, one of the most popular fishing lures in the world. The lures, 3 to 5 million per year, have been made in Antigo since the 1950s by the Sheldon family. Mike Sheldon, current President of the company, says his father, Todd, first became aware of MEPPS spinners shortly after WWII.


According to Mike, a GI came home from France with a few MEPPS spinners, which he passed onto his dad, Todd, who then owned a retail sporting business. He threw them in his tackle box until one day he was out fishing and not having any luck. So he gave the spinners a try and he caught his limit of fish. That prompted the elder Sheldon to start selling his lures in his shop.  

By 1956, spinning sales were so good that Todd sold the store and created Sheldon Inc. to focus on importing MEPPS spinners. In 1972 the MEPPS factory in France was up for sale, and Todd Sheldon bought it. The components for the spinners are still made in France, but all the assembly is done right here in Antigo.

Today, Todd is proud of the fact that they still assemble the spinners in Antigo during a time when many of the other manufacturers have moved their operations abroad to take advantage of cheaper labor.

Despite pressures to move the company, both Mike and his father before him believe that the community of Antigo plays a big role in staying.

Mike was born and raised in Antigo and now his two sons work for the company. He believes that Antigo is a great place to not only raise a family but he also passes on the family attitude towards his employees. In fact, most of the employees have been working there over 25 years. Betty Fleischman, their longest tenured employee, just started her 50th year with the company.

As mentioned earlier, a hallmark of the MEPPS spinners is none other than the use of real squirrel hair. This is something that Mike’s father added to the spinners after a fishing trip.


Mike recounts that this father was fishing on the Wolf River and he caught a limit of trout. When walking back to his car he encountered a young boy who was leaving as well. Mike’s father opened his creel and showed off his catch.  The young man had caught his limit too and he showed him his catch. All of them were bigger. As fisherman do, Todd asked the young man what he caught them with, and the boy pulled out a MEPPS spinner. On closer inspection, Todd noticed that the boy had tied squirrel hair to the spinner.

Todd Sheldon started tying squirrel hair to the spinners and today the company can use up to 30,000 squirrel tails per year, which are provided by hunters across the United States.


Cindy Kielman, who has been at Sheldon’s for 32 years, works in the Squirrel Department, where she receives hundreds of tails daily.

After she washes and dries the tails, she ties a small tuft of hair to a hook before it moves onto the floor where the rest of the spinner is assembled.

On the floor, Rosella Spencer says she assembles twelve to fifteen hundred spinners per day, where she attaches the hook to the body of the spinner and passes it through a machine that makes the connection.

The spinners then are packaged, using the only robot in the plant, and moved to shipping where online orders are filled for individual anglers or the giant retailers like Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops.

The MEPPS spinners are unique in that they don’t look like anything that a fish may want to eat like a worm or a minnow. Mike Sheldon explains that spinner movement, color and sound entice fish to attack in the same way a cat grabs a rolling ball of yarn.

That may be why fish are attracted to spinners, but why are so many people attracted to fishing? Nik Kolbeck is the communication director at Sheldon’s and he tells us that he thinks being with family is the biggest attraction of fishing. He often fishes with his brother and father, and each time they not only may catch a few fish but also spend some great time together.

Mike Sheldon thinks that people always seem to enjoy themselves when fishing. Mike’s dad would always tell him, “I may be known for selling fishing lures but what I really sell is fun.”

The late John Voelker, former Michigan Supreme Court Judge, author, UP resident and avid fisherman shares the same feeling in the final line of “The Testament of a Fisherman”:

I fish because I love to;

… not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of people are equally unimportant – and not nearly so much fun.

For more information on Mepps spinners and their squirrel tail program, check out their website:

This story was written by Jim Skibo and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: Gambrel by Blue Dot Sessions (

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

Castle in Tomahawk has been 30 Years in the making


We continue our We Live Up Here series this week with a story about an ambitious DIY project that has been 30 years in the making.

The story comes in response to a listener question to our Curious North series. Dennis Marquardt from Tomahawk asks: What is up with the castle on Killarney Lake?

Jim Skibo has the story.ListenListening…5:32This story is meant to be listened to

The fog lifts over Killarney Lake and Kelley Arms Castle appears on a rise. Are we on a tour of castles in Ireland? Nope. We are in Oneida County just north of Tomahawk. The castle is a three-decade long do-it-yourself project for Pete Kelley, who lives in Wausau but commutes each weekend during the warm months to the shore of Killarney Lake.

He first got the idea to build a castle when he was a teenager. While other boys his age were dreaming of playing quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, Pete was making sketches of castles.

According to Pete, by age 19 he decided to build the caste. In 1987, he started clearing the land, surveying, putting in water and the septic system, and about 5 years later, he was ready to lay the first block.

A long footbridge provides the only access to the castle across this natural moat.CREDIT JIM SKIBO

As castles go, this is a small version, but when you walk up to it is not only seems out of place in the Wisconsin pines, but its 35 foot tower, imposing walls with battlements and turrets can’t  help but leave you a little awestruck. 

Pete tells us that his daughter sums it up well. “She says you can tell people what it looks like and show them pictures, but when they see it the reaction is always the same. It is ‘Oh my God.’”

Pete has done most of the work himself, with the occasional help of a mason or a plumber. He is a licensed electrician, by training, so that has been a bonus, as he had to plan far in advance for the electrical wiring. Medieval castles didn’t have electricity, so he wanted to make the wiring as inconspicuous as possible, which often required planning way ahead when laying the block walls.

Most masons, according to Pete, don’t think about how the electricity is going to be installed. The electrical planning is especially tricky in this project as sometimes there is a gap of many years between laying the block and installing the wiring. As Pete says, “I hooked onto some lights two years ago into a pipe that I had put in 15 years earlier.”

The design of the castle was years in the making. It is not modeled after a particular castle, but rather he has borrowed dozens of architectural elements from a variety of castle designs. He even visited another castle enthusiast, Harry D. Andrews, who spent his life building a castle near Loveland, Ohio. Pete was 19 when he visited the builder, who was, at the time, over 80 years old. Because he knew that building a castle was a life’s work, he told Pete that 19 was the right age to start such a project.

Although he may have borrowed many design elements from other castles, Kelley Arms is one of a kind. The castle is really two buildings connected by a common stairway. One side is what he calls the “lab” and it includes the Great Hall, and the other side is personal quarters.

To get to the tower you must climb three flights of creaky stairs. The top of the tower is like a patio. Not only does it have a commanding view but, according to Pete, no bugs in the summer as the mosquitos don’t come up that high. The tower has a grill, refrigerator, and a pulley system to get ice to the top of the tower. The flat surfaces on parapet walls were made to the width of a beer can, so tower-top revelers would always have a place to put their cool beverage. This certainly makes it uniquely, Wisconsin.

After three decades of work, there is much to show for the effort, but there is still a long way to go. He is often asked when it will be completed. According to Pete, it is too overwhelming a project to think about when it will be finished. Instead, he focuses “on what I am going to get done this year and that is all I think about.”

This year’s project is just getting underway. He is going to focus on the south side of castle on what he calls the “Great Hall,” which will include an impressive bank of windows facing the lake.

What makes the construction of the castle even more of a challenge is that it is only reachable by foot during the summer months. A long footbridge provides the only access across this natural moat. The stone and other heavy supplies are delivered in the winter when large trucks can approach the castle after the ice freezes.  A dolly sits permanently near the bridge to help the heavy loads cross the moat during the summer months.

Although one can see that Pete has been working extremely hard on the castle, he does leave time for his medieval sense of humor.

Pete Kelley’s wife, Ann, on the impaler, a popular photo opportunity for castle visitors.CREDIT JIM SKIBO

In the front of the castle, there are two stockades and an impaler, which is a 10-foot-long vertical spike used to torture and kill prisoners. Of course, this one is just for show and, according to Pete, is one of the most popular photo ops for visitors, who are invited to climb up the device. At the right angle, the volunteer victim does appear impaled by the ling spike. 

While Pete’s long-term goal is to open up the castle for Halloween and perhaps weddings and other events, it is currently not open to the public. In fact, he discourages visitors with a sign near the entrance, “If you can read this, you are in range.” However, he does invite motorcyclists in the Tomahawk Fall Ride to stop by during their annual event. This year the Tomahawk Fall Ride will take place from September 9th through the 15th.

Jim Skibo and his wife, Becky, are junior high basketball coaches, he is also a writer and retired archaeology professor and they live in White Lake, Wisconsin with their dog, Lucky.

This story was written by Jim Skibo and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: The Silver Hatch by Blue Dot Sessions ( and luis_audp via Free Sound.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

Antigo Native Moves Back Home to Become an Organic Apple Grower

There is a growing market for locally grown food produced without the use of synthetic chemicals.

In Antigo, the 100-year-old Grandview Orchard in Antigo is slowly being transformed to organic production.

Have you ever dreamed of quitting your job and buying a farm? Lisa Rettinger has done just that. Four years ago, she quit her job in the Twin Cities and purchased a 110-year-old apple orchard just a few miles east of Antigo.

Lisa worked for about 20 years in St Paul, Minnesota as a soil scientist after graduation from UW-River Falls with a degree in agronomy. Working in the GMO industry and in chemical regulation, she dreamed of farming without synthetic chemicals. With the encouragement of her family from Antigo, she decided to, in her words, “take the leap because what I was doing was really not that fulfilling.” She followed her passion and purchased orchard.


She found that transforming an orchard completely away from synthetic chemicals was not easy. Ironically, 110 years ago when a Swedish immigrant planted the first apple tree on the site, he was using methods not that different from what Lisa is doing today. What she calls the “holistic approach” to the orchard.

The key to the holistic approach, according to Rettinger, is to stop using herbicides, which create a plant monoculture. When she first came to the orchard there was nothing growing around the apple trees. As Lisa notes, “if you are an apple pest or apple disease it is a pretty good place to be.” Monocultures, she goes on to say, “are not a thing in nature,” which consists of a “diversity of plants, insects, animals, soil microbes, and mycorrhizal fingi underground.” The use of chemicals destroys this important diversity.

Besides introducing a lot of plants that grow beneath the trees, the holistic approach also involves introducing pigs and chickens to the orchard.

The chickens are brought to the orchard in the spring when there are a lot of pests emerging from the soil. The chickens help control these unwanted visitors, and the chickens also scratch the ground, which interrupts the cycle of many pests that winter in the leaves. Lisa also notes that “the chickens are helping to add some fertility to the soil,” as her goal is to completely fertilize the orchard without bringing in any outside nutrients.

One of her most successful offshoots of the holistic approach is the sale of the free-range chickens and pigs. There is a growing market for livestock grown nitrate free. Lisa gets rave reviews from her customers who enjoy the apple fed pork.        

Although, she employs one part-time employee and an apple picking crew, Lisa does most of the work herself. She notes that the “workload is pretty tremendous.” The year round work includes, “pruning in winter, spring planting, training branches, thinning fruit,” not to mention picking the apples and making cider.

Her mom and dad pitch in when they can. Her dad often works the booth at the Antigo Famers Market and her mother bakes the apple pies sold at the Antigo and Wausau Famers Market.

Like many in the organic food field, Lisa approaches this work with a missionary zeal. She offers clinics on pruning trees, natural fruit tree care, tours, and pick-it-yourself options after Labor Day. Here, visitors can see firsthand how the holistic approach works. Much to the surprise of Lisa, the pigs are a big hit. They run free in the orchard and people pet and play with them. One thing that she likes to show people is that pastured pigs do not have the noxious odor we associate with confined pigs.


She also started two events that will go on again this coming summer that she hopes will be become a tradition. On August 3rd there is the second annual sustainable farm tour in Antigo, and the Grandview Orchard is one of five organic farms participating. The Grandview Orchard will also be hosting a farm-to-table dinner on August 17th.

Despite all the hard work, Lisa finds this lifestyle very gratifying. The best part, she notes, is not sitting at a desk 10 hours a day. She also meets many interesting people involved in organic farming. The work is constant but what gets her up in the morning is not just the fresh air but also her sincere interest in learning how to grow apples organically.

This past year she has noticed a considerable improvement in the orchard’s health. Her hard work has been paying off. She gets together often with other organic fruit growers where they share stories of the successes and failures. Her advice to someone thinking about starting an organic farm would be to “work on someone else’s farm for a while and get to know the ropes because there is a lot to growing and marketing your product.”  

In addition to selling apples, cider, a cider syrup used as a salad dressing or a meat glaze, she sells nursery stock. Beginning on April 20th, she will have fruit trees for sale. Each one is sold with advice on how to grow it successfully without chemicals.

You can check out the Grandview Orchard online at You can also visit them on Facebook to learn more about upcoming events and opportunities to visit the orchard.

Jim Skibo and his wife, Becky, are junior high basketball coaches, he is also a writer and retired archaeology professor and they live in White Lake, Wisconsin with their dog, Lucky.

This story was written by Jim Skibo and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: Closer by Blue Dot Sessions (

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

The best man I ever knew. Part 2

The best man I ever knew

James M. Skibo

(Story inspired by Michael Loukinen’s film, Good Man in the Woods)


Part 2 of 2

Sheri and Tom walked slowly over to the old man. Tom was a bit more cautious but Sheri was unafraid as she knelt down beside the old man and put a hand on his shoulder. Tom kept on eye on his ax.

Sheri asked, “You OK?” It was not until then that he even acknowledged their presence. He raised his head and gave them a little smile.

“Just an old man lost in his memories,” he said.

“Can you stand?” asked Sheri.

“Oh sure,” he replied as he put weight on his ax to push himself up. His knees cracked audibly as he straightened up. Sheri grabbed his arm as he stood. She had worked in a nursing home as an aide as a summer job during college so she had helped up lots of people, some three times her size. During these lifts, it felt like she was going to break someone’s thin and withered arm to get them upright. Not true for this man, as his arm was thick and muscled. Chuck was about 6 ft. tall and the old man was taller when he finally stood up.

Chuck reached out his hand and said, “Hi, my name is Chuck and this is Sheri. Back at the fire is Meghan and Tom.”

The man deftly switched has ax into his left hand and took Tom’s hand with his right. Tom was surprised by the man’s firm grip. His thick fingers and rough skin were sure signs of years of hard work.

“My name is Jake. Pleasure to meet you,” he said with a subtle smile. When Jake looked up, they noticed an old scar through his eyebrow where his hair did not grow back. His prominent nose was bent a little to one side, no doubt from an unset break.

Sheri chimed in, “Why don’t you come over by the fire and sit for a bit.” Chuck gave an unapproving look that only Sheri could see but still ignored.

“I wouldn’t want to bother you,” Jake said.

“No trouble at all,” said Sheri as she took him by the arm. “Chuck will go ahead and get you a glass of water.”

Chuck gave Sheri his ‘What the fuck” look. Sheri could be trusting as a child while Chuck was thinking that they were inviting a guy to their fire with an ax and a scarred up face.

When they got back to the fire and Tom and Meghan were introduced, Sheri invited him to take Chuck’s chair. After looking at him more closely, both Tom and Chuck both concluded that he was probably harmless. Nonetheless, they were annoyed for the intrusion into their idyllic evening.

He rested his ax between his legs and took a few sips of his water, and said, “Thank you for the water. You picked a beautiful campsite.” Tom gave a smile because he was in charge of picking the campsite each year. There were many variables, flatness of the ground, not too close or too far from the rustic toilet, access to firewood, view of the lake, etc.

“Want something a little stronger,” Tom asked much to everyone’s surprise.

“Sure,” said the old man. “Doctor tells me that a little nip is good for the arthritis.” Tom poured him two fingers of his $50 a bottle bourbon. Jake threw it back in one practiced motion, much to Tom’s dismay. Uncouth Packer fan, Tom thought to himself, drinking his expensive bourbon like common swill.

“Any trouble with bears?” Jake asked.

Black bears were a constant concern of the campers in this part of the woods. Not human killers like the brown bears of the West but nonetheless still dangerous as they have been known to cause bodily harm on their way to the smell of sizzling bacon or other sweet treats left unprotected.

“Couple years ago we had a bear go through our cooler that we left out. He bit into every can of soda. Since then we have been better about making sure everything is in the bear bin,” a metal container provided at each campsite.

“I know of a sure-fire way to keep bears out of the camp,” Jake offered. Everyone leaned forward, eager for some local wisdom about these camp pests. “I paint a white line around the entire camp,” he said as he waved his hand to gesture the location. He paused as they waited for the reasoning for the local wisdom. “Everyone around here knows that bears have a hard time crossing a white goal line,” Jake concluded with a wink at Tom who was wearing his Chicago Bears’ cap.

Chuck roared with delight, “He got you good!”  Everyone else joined the laughter and Chuck grabbed Tom’s $50 bottle of bourbon and poured Jake another drink.

“You live nearby, Jake?” inquired Meghan.

“I have a little place just 20 minutes away, near Iron Town,” which was the county seat. Lived here all my life, mostly working in the woods.”

“You were a logger?” Tom asked.

“Yup, I have been logging, mostly pulp, since I was a kid.”

“What is pulp?” asked Meghan.

“Pulp is wood that is cut down and sent to the paper mills. I mostly cut aspen, which we call ‘popple’ around here. In the old days, we would cut it down and peel it by hand, which you can do in the Spring only. Today, huge machines do all the cutting, but there was a time when a small time jobber like me could make a living out here with a chain saw and a pickup truck.”

“So you know these woods well?” asked Meghan. Within their group, she had the most interest in the natural environment, constantly referring back to the wildlife and plant books she carried in her backpack.

“Oh you bet, especially around here. I did lots of work around here and I’ve also been hunting and fishing in these hills all my life.”

“We saw a weasel like animal yesterday down by the lake about the size of an otter. It was mostly black but also had some brown fur. From the pictures in my book, I think it could have been a mink or a marten. Do you see them around here?” asked Meghan.

“We do get both around here but it is rare to see them. They are making a comeback but they were trapped heavy for a long time and almost completely disappeared. If it was down by the water it might have been a mink. Did it have a bushy tail?”

“It was bushy, right Sheri?”

“I think so, and I think the tail was all black.”

“Then it was probably a Marten. They have the bushy black tails. Good for you for spotting it, I have only seen a few myself.”

Meghan beamed with pride for witnessing this rare event. “We have a family of ducks on the lake with a brood of small chicks. The mothers are trying to teach the little ones how to dive for fish. We don’t see them in Illinois but according to my bird book I think it might be the common merganser.”

“There are a couple of merganser types around here. Was this one mostly brown or a little more colorful?”

“It was mostly brown and had sporty feathers at the back of their heads like a 1980s punker.”

Jake nodded, “I think you are right, it was common merganser.”

“How did you learn so much about the wildlife?” asked Meghan.

“When you spend most of your days in the woods you pick up things here and there. But I learned the most from old man who I worked with for many years. He was the best man I ever knew in the woods. He knew everything there is about the woods, from the insects in the dirt to the flowers, birds, and trees. Most of what I know about the woods I learned from him. The amazing thing is he had just one arm. The best man I ever knew in the woods was a one-armed guy.” Chuck snorted out a laugh and received a glare from Meghan.

“Oh that’s OK. When you say it aloud, it does sound funny. He was already an old man when I started working with him. He lost his arm when he was just a kid. He sat down and rested his gun next to a tree. The gun fell over, discharged and got him just below the shoulder of his left arm. He would have bled out if it wasn’t for his brother who got him to the doctor. Maybe today they could have fixed it, but back then all Doc Mather could do was cut it off.”

“After he healed up, he started looking for a job, and the best jobs around here at that time were with the mine. Many men were being hired, but he kept getting turned down. Finally, he went into the hiring office and asked Harry, the man in charge of hiring, why he kept getting turned away.”

“If you want the truth,” he said, “it’s because you are one-armed.”

“Harry, you’ve known me all of my life, you know I can do anything any other man can do with two good arms.”

“I know, but the company has a strict policy, because of liability all workers must be of sound body.”

“He walked out of the office that day and vowed that he would out work and out do any man. And he did. He worked for years in the big logging company. He drove equipment, graded timber, and moved up the chain of command. Then the big company moved out when he was in his 50s or 60s.”

“By that time, I was just starting out in the woods, working for myself. I was doing OK as I could bid on small tracts and made enough money to make a go.”

“One morning the old man stopped by my place. I knew him then but just good enough to say hello, so I was a little surprised by the visit.”

“He says, I’ve been hearing good things about you in the woods. I wonder if you would consider a proposition. If you take me on for one month, I know I can increase your profits by at least 50 percent. If not we will part ways, but if I do, then you take me on as a partner—you take 60 percent and I will take 40.”

“I didn’t think I had anything to lose, so I agreed. And so began our 20-year partnership, working in the woods. We worked 5 and many times 6 days a week regardless of the weather. Rain, snow, 20 below zero, we worked through it all.”

“He could limb a tree faster than I could with my saw. He also gave me lots of pointers  on how to make trees fall in the right direction. When you are a small-time jobber like me you do select cutting, so you are trying to fell trees amidst a tangle of trees. Getting them hung up wastes a lot of time and can be dangerous. I have the face to prove it,” pointing to his broken nose.

“The old man showed me how to read the trees better and he had lots of tricks for making trees fall where you want them to. After I would take down a tree, he would follow with his ax and he could lop off most limbs with just a single swing. All you would hear is a rhythmical sound, ‘ching, ching, ching,’ as he moved down the tree lopping off the limbs. On a big tree, he would jump right up on the log, keeping his balance as he swung his ax. He sharpened his ax each morning and it was sharp enough to shave hair off your arm. ”

“Most everything I know about the woods I learned from him. One of the most important things he taught me was how to not get lost. These woods can be tricky and it is easy to get turned around. When I was a kid I got lost a few times, especially when I was hunting and not paying attention to where I was walking. One deer season I was hunting all day not too far from here and it was starting to get dark so I thought I would head back to the truck. There was about an inch of snow on the ground. I walked for about a half hour or so and came upon a man’s fresh boot tracks. I wondered who is hunting out here so close to me. When I looked closer at the tracks, I thought, What is the chance that they would be wearing a boot that made exactly the same track print as me? I’m so thick headed that it took me a full five minutes of standing there to figure out that these were my boot tracks and I had walked in a complete circle.”

“The old man taught me the key to find your way in the woods was to always know where north is. He never carried a compass, but he could always navigate in the woods. He taught me to keep track of where the sun is. Even on cloudy days, you can most often tell where the sun is, and if you have a watch you can always figure out where north is. If you can’t see the sun, the moss on the trees grows higher up the trees on the north side. If it gets dark, you can still find north from the moon or the North Star.”

“What if it is dark and cloudy?” Tom asked a bit sarcastically.

“Then you start looking at your partner to see which body part would make the best tenderloin,” the old man replied as he laughed for the first time. The others gave a nervous laugh. “We did get stuck one cloudy night after dark and couldn’t make it out. The old man told me that the worst thing to do is to panic and keep walking. We found a protected spot, made a big fire and slept right there in the woods and waited for morning. Then it was no problem getting out.”

“He was the best man I ever knew in the woods. He was such a tough and serious guy, it was a little funny that the thing he liked best about the woods was birds, especially the little ones. The only thing he stopped working for was if he saw a bird. He knew them all from the osprey who fish down on that lake to the little songbirds. He could imitate most of the birdcalls. He could whistle like most of the birds and they would answer.”

“One day just after deer hunting season we were logging in this very forty. It was my favorite time to cut trees. The temperature would be just around freezing so you could work hard all day and not break a sweat. Frost would have knocked down all the cover vegetation, so you could see real good. It was snowing off and on all morning–those big gentle flakes.”

Jake was now staring down at the fire as he spoke, his voice so quiet that the others had to lean in to hear.

“I just got done knocking down a tree, and I stopped to gas up the saw. The old man was working on the other side of this small hill, not far away but out of sight. I was surprised that I couldn’t hear the sound of his ax limbing the trees. I filled up my saw, added chain oil, but still no sound, which was odd. I gave a yell. Nothing. I put the saw down and headed up a little rise. When I got to the top I could see him sitting against this big maple tree. It was a strange sight because in our twenty years in the woods I never once saw him sit down except for lunch. So I knew something was wrong. I took off running down the small hill. He had been sitting there just long enough for the big fluffy flakes to stack up on the brim of his cap. I yelled out his name, as I got close. Nothing. His eyes were open and staring straight ahead. I put my hand on his shoulder and give him a shake.”

“I lifted him up and put him on my shoulder and started to walk out. He was a big man and not easy to carry but I was young and strong. I had him over my shoulder in a firefighter’s carry and his hand was still gripping his ax. It banged into my leg as I walked.

“I put him in the front seat of my truck, pried the ax out of his hand and gently closed his eyes.  He probably would have preferred that I left him leaning against the tree, but instead I took my time driving the final trip out of the woods.”

“He didn’t have any close family, nor did he have much, so he had put me in charge of his estate. He did know a lot of people and there was a line outside the funeral parlor for those wanting to pay their respects. A couple cousins and me stood there and shook everyone’s hand. I really didn’t know my real father, so the old man was the closest thing. I think that I was the closest thing he had to a son. Although we never talked like this when he was alive, I can tell you that I loved him and I know he loved me too.” Jake’s voice cracked a bit. He looked up and saw that Sheri had tears running down her face, and Meghan held a tissue over her mouth. Chuck was staring down at the ground and Tom stood in the shadows back from the fire.

“By God, I didn’t mean to spoil your beautiful evening with my sad memories.”

“It’s a beautiful story, please go on,” said Meghan. Sheri and Chuck nodded their heads in agreement. Jake paused, looked down at the ax, and continued.

“I had the undertaker put his ax in the coffin with him for the service, and it was my intention to bury it with him. But when it was time to close the box I took out his ax. I suppose it was a selfish thing, but I wanted something of his as a remembrance. His ax really was his most prized possession.”

“This is the ax right here,” Jake said as he grabbed it by the handle and held it out for all to see. “Damn thing is still sharp. I never use it. The day after the funeral, I hung it over my fireplace. I take it out for just a couple of occasions. I take it out on the day he died and on his birthday. Today is his birthday. I never knew the date of his birth until it was etched on his headstone, but I celebrate every year since he died.”

“I come to this spot because it was one of his favorite spots in the woods, but also because he took his last breath just over that rise. I think of him every day, but his birthday is now, for me, like a sacred holiday. I never go to his grave as that just contains his lifeless body. I come here to the woods because this is where I feel his spirit.

“Jake, I am feeling like we have intruded on your special time,” said Meghan, sadly.

“Don’t be silly. The old man would have liked you because you appreciate the woods. Tourists come around all the time, but most don’t get off the paved road. You folks are camping in this remote spot and appreciating its beauty. I like that and the old man would have too.”

“I should be on my way, but before I go I would appreciate it if you could do this old man a favor and join me in a toast.”

They all grabbed their neglected drinks.

“To the old man, the best man I ever knew.”

The best man I ever knew


James M. Skibo

(Story inspired by Michael Loukinen’s film, Good Man in the Woods)

Part 1

Their campsite was on a hill overlooking Ice Lake. The two couples, Tom and Sheri, and Chuck and Meghan, had been coming here since before they were married. Sheri and Meghan had known each other going back to their days at Holy Cross High School in Chicago. They stayed in touch during college despite the fact that Sheri went to Northwestern and Meghan, Notre Dame. It was there that they met their spouses, who got along great, despite their constant friendly banter about the prowess of their respective universities.

“Knute Rockne,  Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, Joe Montana, Paul Hornung, George Gipp, come on, there is nothing like the Notre Dame tradition,” needled Chuck.

“Football, what’s the big deal,” quipped Tom, “Isn’t a university supposed to be a place for the pursuit of knowledge? Northwestern has far more Nobel Prize winners than those Irish brutes.”

Sheri and Meghan rolled their eyes. They knew that this could go on for hours. Despite the banter, they all enjoyed time together, away from Chicago’s fast pace. They had camped other places, but they preferred this site overlooking Ice Lake in the National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The lake is not named for its water temperature, though it was indeed frigid, but instead because ice was harvested here for iceboxes that predate modern refrigeration. The foundation for the lakeside icehouse was still visible.

They liked to camp in late summer, when the mosquitos were gone but the days were still warm. In the city this time of year it would still be hot, but here there was always a morning chill. Ice Lake had plenty of fish to catch from their kayaks, and there were hundreds of miles of hiking trails. Today was like many days in the north woods—they would not see another soul on the lake or during their afternoon hikes. Despite its isolation, they could drive right to the site, which afforded them the benefit of bringing along many amenities that made their tent camping a bit more comfortable.

They were sitting in front of the fire relaxing after a wonderful meal of fresh perch from the lake. It was after 8 PM but there still was over two hours of sunlight left this far north, and they enjoyed these long leisurely evenings after the day of fresh-air activities. Tom and Sheri were in charge of the wine, and Chuck and Meghan the gin and bourbon, which they enjoyed sampling in front of the crackling fire.

There were six campsites on Ice Lake and no others were occupied, so they had the place to themselves. Chuck enjoyed fishing the most, Sheri hiking, and Meghan and Chuck loved to kayak, but they all enjoyed these long evenings next to the fire.

It was one of those quiet, windless nights when noise traveled far, so they heard the vehicle coming five minutes before it arrived. An old rusty pickup, the most common vehicle in the U.P., pulled slowly into the parking lot. Although this was a public campground, they were all disappointed to see a visitor. They had seen few people over the last several days, and they all soaked in the solitude.

The truck slowly pulled into the parking lot, the sound of the gravel crunching beneath the tires echoed off the tranquil lake. A crow squawked from a nearby branch sharing the campers’ dissatisfaction with the intrusion.

“Who do you think this is?” wondered Chuck aloud. “Local kids drinking some beer?”

Although the campsite was remote, for Chicago standards, and in a National Forest, there were a number of small towns nearby, so it was common to see locals in the Forest. The area really came alive during White Tail deer hunting season in November. Opening day was a holiday in the area, with most people taking off work to get in the woods.  Teens also used the woods for their drinking and romance. The most annoying thing is that they often left their empties along the two-rut roads.

In the 20th century, iron mines were the biggest employers, but now just one mine was left. Most people were employed  in tourism related careers, or in the timber industry. The National Forest, under control of the Department of Agriculture, viewed the timber in the forest as a harvestable commodity. The managers of the National Forest had to find the balance between recreation and sustainable timber harvesting. They do an excellent job as most visitors come to the Forest and do not realize that these lands are under timber management.

The campers’ attention had been pulled away from the fire to the pickup, which they could see clearly through the high canopy trees. The parking lot was near the lake and their campsite was on the rise above. When the driver turned off the engine there was a chorus of disappointed sighs.

“Oh gee,” said Tom, “I wonder if we are going to see a teen make-out session. I say we sneak down for a closer look.” They all laughed, breaking the tension, as their eyes drifted back to the fire.

“I would take watching a fire over watching TV anytime,” said Meghan. They freshened up their drinks and soon forgot about the pickup truck, which seemed to be parked there just to take in the sunset over the lake.

The creak of the rusty driver’s door hinge pulled their attention back to the truck. An elderly man slowly emerged from the truck, sporting a white beard and a faded Green Bay Packer’s hat.

“Oh great, a Packer fan,” quipped Chuck, who was wearing his Chicago Bear’s hat, which was just as faded as the man’s was. Years of wearing it on weekends or while playing in his softball league will do that to a cap.

The man emerged from behind the truck limping slightly. He wore a faded pair of jeans, with patches on the knees, and red flannel shirt. As he came into better view, they could see that he was carrying an ax in his right hand.

“This has all the makings of a good horror movie,” Tom said. They all give out a nervous laugh, which broke the tension. Their commotion made him look up at them. He gave them a nod and they waved back. He walked slowly across the parking lot and into the woods. As he moved into the trees, he came in and out of view as he walked slowly up the hill. When he got to the top of the rise, he paused and stood motionless for several minutes. His body seemed to give way and he went down on one knee.

“Think he is OK?” wondered Sheri. “I think we should go check on him.” The other three looked at each other but no one seemed to be interested in this idea. Sheri stood up and started walking towards the man.

“Hold up,” said Tom as he was not willing to let her go alone. “I’ll go too.”

“We will stay behind,” quipped Chuck, “so there is someone left to tell the tale of the Ice Lake murder.” Meghan hit her husband in the shoulder but it did not stop him from continuing. “Remember our motto, ‘Don’t feed the locals.’”

“Opening line of my novel will be, ‘As they walked away from the fire I had a feeling that we would never see them again.’” Meghan hit Chuck in the shoulder again but she also gave him a smile. One thing she liked about Chuck was his warped sense of humor.

To be continued…

If you build it…

I have been doing less writing and more carpentry lately as we rushed to enclose the workshop/office before snow flies. Unfortunately, winter arrived earlier than expected so much of the work over the past three weeks was done with temperatures in the teens. Here are some pictures showing the sequences of construction and progress to date.

The 26 by 34 foot structure will house an office on the top floor and a woodworking shop on the lower level. I have done most of it myself (with the help of YouTube) except for pouring the concrete floor, setting the trusses and putting on the roof. Al, my 76 year old handy-man friend, also helped with the      wiring/electricity and some of the heavy work, and my brother-in-law Terry and Becky helped me out when I needed a second set of hands. I also rented a lift that extended 42 feet, which was a big assist when doing the soffit, fascia and other high-wire acts.

The long hours working alone gave me lots of time to think and to understand the satisfaction of a hard day’s labor, which I really had not done in a long time. Although I am an archaeologist and have dug my share of holes, for most of my career I directed projects and told other people where to dig rather than getting too physically involved. As a result, this project has given me a chance to reconnect with unfamiliar parts of my body (sometimes unhappily) but also appreciate the value of physical labor.

In our urban world and often-sedentary careers, we try to replicate or replace the benefits of hard work by going to a spin class or using some other tortuous device at a workout center for 50 minutes or so. Although I did this for years and there was a “high” and various other benefits for this hard work substitute, the activity was sort of like kissing your sister. Real physical labor combines the benefits of a long workout with the feeling of accomplishment—you have created something. Nick Offerman, the great modern day philosopher (not to mention television star and expert woodworker) often encourages people to make things with their hands (2016 Good Clean Fun). He suggests that puzzling out how to make something brings great satisfaction as it requires a coordination of both our brain and hands. I would add that combining physical labor to this equation adds to the fun.

While building stairs to the second floor (a real head scratcher, by the way), I probably did 200 squats, dozens of dead lifts and contortions under load, which would be the equivalent of an extreme full body workout under the direction of a personal trainer. The difference is, after the gym workout I walked out to my cold car. When I finished the steps, I was able to triumphantly ascend to the second floor and do a happy dance, forgetting about my sore knees. In my estimation, when you combine physical labor with creativity one has a ticket to the Promised Land. Matthew Crawford (2009 Shop Class as Soulcraft) refers to something made with manual competence as “soulcraft” because making something has important symbolic value. In the parlance of Behavioral Archaeology, a theoretical school I am associated with, the steps I made are not simply a means to get to the second floor, but rather they have an important symbolic function as well. Instead of trying to convince someone of my worth on this planet with words, I can simply invite him or her to the second floor.

When you build something, you have connected with something innately and wonderfully human. We find great satisfaction in making things, perhaps because it links us with our ancestors. The first evidence that pre-modern forms of humans in Africa over 2 million years ago were doing something human-like is when we find something they made. Not everyone can build a two-story structure, but you can knit a sweater, make a table, or throw a pot. There might be less physical exertion in these activities but the joy in making something with your own hands will bring you bliss.

Back Forty Mine: Not the Right Time

I grew up in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan where at one time there were many dozens of copper and iron mines. My small town, Alpha, was created by a mining company, and the Book Mine, the last of the three mines in the small town, closed down the year after I was born. The Book Mine was also the place, 20 years previous, where my paternal grandfather was buried in an underground cave-in. He survived, but not without a broken pelvis and leg. My maternal great grandfather worked at the Mansfield Mine, the site of one of the worst mining disaster in Michigan history. The Michigamme River broke into the underground shafts, filled the mine and 27 souls were lost. My great grandfather was not working there when it happened but he was one of the miners who worked the mine after it the water was pumped out and work resumed.

These mines have a complex social history. It is true that they provided employment for immigrants who fled worn-torn and economically depressed Europe, but the mines also had little concern for worker safety. Serious injury occurred daily and death was commonplace. With such little value put on human life, it is no surprise that they extracted the ore with even less concern for the environment. Kids like me grew up playing in abandoned mine buildings or on the steep-sided spoil piles where only the heartiest weeds grow, even to this day.

Time and forest growth have scabbed over much of the evidence of mining, and many visitors will not even notice that the region once produced most of the copper and iron in the world. Yet there are still some lasting environmental impacts. As late as the 1970s it was commonplace, and seemingly safe for the environment, to dump the spoil from underground mining into bodies of water, including Lake Superior. The problem is that these piles also contain high levels of arsenic, mercury and PCBs. Some of the worst areas eventually became Superfund sites, which did reduce the immediate danger to residents, but the elevated levels of PCB and Mercury in fish will be with us forever. The Michigan Department of Health recommends that pregnant women not eat any fish from Lake Superior and no one should eat more than one meal of Lake Trout per week. The largest fresh water lake in the world and the coldest and cleanest of the Great Lakes will be forever poisoned by mining activities. These activities, as little as four decades ago, were considered safe yet we know today that they were not.

This is why I cannot support the Back Forty Mine, the proposed open pit sulfide mine in Menominee County near where the Menominee River enters Lake Michigan. I realize that a mine can bring jobs and renew the local economy, but the largest contributor to the economy of the UP and northern Wisconsin is outdoor recreation and nature-based tourism. Mining was once the economic king but today it is outdoor recreation. Consumer spending in Michigan on outdoor recreation in a recent year was $18.7 billion, and almost 200,000 jobs are associated with the industry. In 2012, $4.7 billion was spent on hunting and fishing alone. Although these are statistics for the entire state of Michigan, in the U.P. the effect of nature-based activities on the economy far surpasses what a single mine could do. Moreover, the negative impacts of mining jeopardizes the whole outdoor recreation economy.

Mining is part of my history and the history of this region and we should be proud of this legacy. But our present and future is not mining but outdoor recreation, which is only sustained by protecting our natural resources.


I love you like a tractor

Tractors are like duct tape—they have 1,000 uses and counting. Over a several month period, I covered most of them in conversations with my wife, Becky. “I could use it to blow snow, grade the gravel driveway, pull out bushes, drag logs, etc.” I didn’t realize that my frequent tractor discussion was a problem until I started a conversation in the car and she said, “You are not going to talk about tractors again, are you?” I quickly covered for myself by coming up with another topic of conversation. But even while talking about something else, my mind wandered back to tractors.

Every spare minute in my last couple of months of work, I would quickly check out the used tractors available in my region in Wisconsin. There is no shortage of used tractors for sale.  I studied the brands that make compact models, John Deere, Mahindra, Kubota, and Massey Ferguson. I visited tractor lots whenever I could, and became well versed in the terminology. Hydro-drive, mid-PTO, three-point hitch, turnbuckle, and hitch pin.

Maybe I do have a problem, but if I do, I am not alone. Men up here are obsessed with tractors. Every farm, big and small, has at least one and usually many more. Many family farms often times have the first tractor they bought, dating back to the 1930s or 1940s. No longer used for work, these machines have been rebuilt, repainted and now proudly displayed in the barn and only taken out for the 4th of July parade. Around here, if a guy tells you he “loves you like a tractor,” you know that you have made it into his heart.

I did buy a Mahindra compact tractor with a loader, back blade and snow blower. Judging by the way that local guys stop to take a look and strike up a conversation (Am going to put fluid in the tires–not until I decide whether I need the extra weight– how well does the loader work on a compact tractor—excellent), I can tell I have gained some important north woods cred.

I almost knew David Foster Wallace

Since I have a little spare time now, I decided to pick up a copy of Infinite Jest, the most famous novel by David Foster Wallace (DFW). The thousand-page monster, considered by Time magazine to be one of the top 100 English-language novels published since 1923, is the War and Peace of my generation. That is, everyone has heard about it but few seemed to have taken the time to slog their way through it. There is good reason for this; you have to pay attention when you read this sucker. There is a section early in the book with almost five pages without a paragraph break. I lost my place each time I took a sip of coffee. Such writing would provoke Hemingway to violence. I am consulting the dictionary often as I read his book even though I am usually quite good at faking that I know the meaning of a word. You do not read this book, you commit to it. DFW was a good enough writer that people stay with it despite the fact that he does not make it easy for the reader. He presumes that his readers are brilliant. In my writing, I presume that my readers are smart enough to put it down if I bore them.

It turns out DFW and I had parallel but never quite overlapping lives. He was born in the winter of 1962, and I in January of ’60. He was at the University of Arizona in the 1980s as was I. He was in the graduate program in the English Department and I was across the mall working on my PhD in anthropology. We both accepted tenure-track professor positions at Illinois State University in 1992. He was in Stevenson Hall and I was a stone’s throw away in Edwards. We both lived in 1960s ranch-style houses in Normal, Illinois. In 1997, DFW received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the so-call “genius award,” and I gave the commencement speech at my high school.

You would think that this is where our lives diverged, but there was a final overlap several years after he died in 2008. I became a one-year interim chair of the English Department, where he once roamed the halls. There I occasionally took a call from someone interested in David Foster Wallace. I would just tell them that he was a man I almost knew.

Foxconn Job

The only bad thing about moving to Wisconsin is that we are going to be stuck with, along with the rest of the taxpayers, paying for the largest corporate welfare payout in history. With great fanfare, Donald Trump, Scott Walker and Paul Ryan announced that Foxconn, a Taiwanese cellphone and television manufacturer, would be locating in southeastern Wisconsin. Paul Ryan’s district, of course.  The plant will cost taxpayers between 3 and 4.5 billion dollars, which comes out to between a quarter million and a million dollars for every created job, depending on the number of jobs created and the final price tag. Will any of my neighbors get these jobs? Only if they want to commute 4 hours to work. Worse yet, the plant sits right on the border of Illinois, an easy commute for Bears fans who can take these jobs without having to pay the enormous tax penalty. Packer fans get screwed. Why not build the plant in Illinois and let the people of Racine or Kenosha, Wisconsin commute the less than 20 miles to work, and NOT be stuck with paying the 4.5 billion. Now, that would be a good deal for the people of Wisconsin. As it stands now, the deal is like trading Aaron Rodgers to the Bears for a 7th round draft pick.

Let’s just say that billions of tax payer dollars and the environmental risks (5.8 million gallons of water pumped out of Lake Michigan each day, filling lake beds, rerouting streams and discharging materials into wetlands) are worth the 13,000 or so jobs that may be created. The question is, why is it being built in southeastern Wisconsin without any debate or discussion? If all taxpayers have to pay for this plant, why is there not a statewide discussion of where it could be located? Wisconsin has over 200 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. Why weren’t our north woods congressional representatives, Sean Duffy or Mike Gallagher, trying to get the plant built up here? If we have to pay up to a million dollars for each job created, why don’t we have a fair shot at getting some of these jobs?

If we can’t get any of these jobs but still get the bill, perhaps they will give us some of these fancy TVs for our underfunded schools, or our potholes could be filled with cell phones made in the plant.