Whimsical Wisconsin

By Tobias Wayland

In 1919, 13 year-old Harry Anderson witnessed a fairy procession just outside of Barron, Wisconsin. One summer night, car trouble forced the young man to leave his parents and the family automobile to the mercy of the rural countryside in search of oil. Spotting a farm house out across the fields, Harry decided to cut through a nearby cornfield to hasten his journey. The friendly occupant of the lonely old farm was happy to help fill Harry’s oil can, but afterward upon his return, he unwittingly stumbled upon an entirely unexpected intrusion into his otherwise orderly reality. According to the story told in Fate Magazine, “As he was walking back, he saw twenty little men walking towards him in single file. They had bald heads and white skins, and wore leather ‘knee-pants’ held up by braces over their shoulders. Startled, Harry ducked behind a red maple tree, staying out of sight as the dwarfish platoon marched by. His ears caught fragments of their conversation, mostly mutterings and a quirky little song.

We won’t stop fighting

Till the end of the war

In Nineteen-Hundred

And Ninety-Four.

Sound off—one, two

Sound off—three, four

Detail, one, two, three, four

One—two…three—four!

The column marched on into the forest, leaving Harry, in his own words, ‘heart pumping and terrified.’” Young Harry, it seemed, had joined the esteemed ranks of those who have witnessed the bafflingly impossible—he had seen fairies.

Harry Anderson wasn’t the first Wisconsinite to witness the fair folk, though. A story emerged out of the 19th century that details the encounter of a young girl and the mysterious woodland denizens known to the Icelandic settlers of Washington Island as the huldrefolk. According to the popular legend, there was a child named Anna who was tasked with gathering berries for her family. One day, after returning from just such a chore, the girl returned with her basket conspicuously unfilled. When questioned by her understandably annoyed mother, Anna recounted how, despite the fact that she had very much wanted to gather the tasty fruit—used in the creation of one of her favorite treats, in fact—she had instead encountered an assembly of little people in the forest to whom she had graciously shared her harvest. In the version of the story found in The W-files, Anna claimed to have been asked by “the hidden people” who wore “tiny clothes, and little shoes, and funny hats” to share her berries in exchange for the opportunity to let her dance with them. They even taught her a new song, which she proceeded to hum. Her grandmother, who had previously regaled the spirited youngster with tales of the huldrefolk from their native Iceland, recognized the song from her childhood, when her own grandmother had sung it to her—a remnant of Anna’s great-grandmother’s interaction with the good folk of their homeland. One might be tempted to think that the Icelandic fey had followed them to the new world, although such a leap is unnecessary; for the indigenous people of Wisconsin have their own tales of tiny humanoids to be encountered in the wild.

The people of the Ojibwe nation tell stories of the Memegwesi, a type of small, river-bank dwelling water spirits. These humanoid nature spirits are described as child-sized and hairy, with oversized heads. While most often benign, they can be quite mischievous when trifled with. Known for blowing canoes astray or stealing things when disrespected, they can also be quite generous with humans who offer them gifts such as tobacco, or perhaps even the gathered berries of young Icelandic girls. These mercurial beings aren’t necessarily known for their singing, but their voices have been described as being similar to the whine of a dragonfly; a sound that certainly has its own melodic quality. Similar creatures are described in the legends of the Algonquin and Cree nations.

Fairies are by no means relegated to Wisconsin’s past, however. There is a section of woods just outside of Burlington, Wisconsin that is known by locals and distant seekers alike for its odd activity and fey inhabitants. Mary and Brad Sutherland have been giving tours of Burlington’s haunted woods for years, and many visitors swear by the veracity of the encounters they’ve had therein. Most of the interactions with the people of peace seem to take place surrounding the spooky forest’s very own fairy mound—a raised section of earth believed to serve as a type of portal to the fairy realm. Given the right offering—often M&Ms candies, as the good folk in that area seem to have a sweet tooth—petitioners of the paranormal have reported many miraculous encounters with the mound’s elfin inhabitants. These otherworldly experiences run the gamut from fairly innocuous sensations of strangeness or an uncanny presence, to odd light effects captured on film, and even some cases of feeling as though one has momentarily slipped into the fairy realm itself. The whimsical woodland adventures surrounding this fairy mound only just brush the surface of the reported phenomena endemic to Burlington’s haunted woods, though, and before you pass judgment, know that the Sutherlands still offer tours of the area. I encourage any intrepid reader to discover the nature of these claims for themselves.

As for me, I believe in fairies. I can’t say that I know the fairies of legend are real, but I choose to believe in them because I feel strongly that a world with them is much better than a world without; and there’s just enough evidence to give me hope. I trust the folklore and the anecdotal evidence. I’m certain that, regardless of the objective truth of fairies, people are seeing something unexplained—something wild, and mysterious, and wondrous. Regular people just like you and me continue to encounter the fair folk in their everyday lives in an otherworldly tradition that’s as old as storytelling. The banality of their lives is washed away in an instant as they peer between realities and witness the incarnation of impossibility. No-one save the good folk themselves can tell you who or what fairies are, and even then you couldn’t trust them if they did. Whether they’re flesh and blood creatures, cleverly projected illusions, fevered hallucinations, a combination of all of the aforementioned, or some maddening reality of which we haven’t yet dared conceive, we may never know. But if we ever wish to find out, we can’t leave it up to them to tell us. And I think Wisconsin is as good of a place as any to start looking.