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Midwestern Strange

Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Country

by B. J. Hollars

Paperback, 208 pages, Univ of Nebraska Pr, List Price: $19.95 |

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Title
Midwestern Strange
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Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Country
Author
B. J. Hollars

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Excerpt: Midwestern Strange

Midwestern Strange

Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Country


UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS

Copyright © 2019 B.J. Hollars
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4962-1560-4


Contents

List of Illustrations, ix,
Acknowledgments, xi,
Author's Note, xiii,
Prologue: My Year of Living Strangely, 1,
PART 1. MONSTERS,
Case File #1. The Beast of Bray Road: 1936-Present, 11,
Case File #2. Oscar the Turtle: March 1949, 32,
Case File #3. Mothman: November 15, 1966-Present, 52,
PART 2. MARTIANS,
Case File #4. Joe Simonton's Space Pancakes: April 18, 1961, 73,
Case File #5. The Minot Air Force Base Sighting: October 24, 1968, 92,
Case File #6. The Val Johnson Incident: August 27, 1979, 112,
PART 3. THE WEIRD,
Case File #7. The Hodag: 1893-Present, 133,
Case File #8. Project Elf: 1968-2005, 153,
Case File #9. The Kensington Runestone: 1362(?)-Present, 171,
Epilogue: And So Concludes My Year of Living Strangely, 189,
Sources, 199,
Selected Bibliography,


CHAPTER 1

Part 1 Monsters

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

H. P. LOVECRAFT

CASE FILE #1

The Beast of Bray Road

1936–Present

NAME: THE BEAST OF BRAY ROAD

SCIENTIFIC NAME: DEFIES CLASSIFICATION

LOCATION: SOUTHEASTERN WISCONSIN

DESCRIPTION: APPROXIMATELY FIVE-FOOT-SEVEN, 150-POUND FRAME; HAIRY WITH A HUMANOID STATURE; OFTEN DESCRIBED AS AN "UPRIGHT CANINE," "BIPEDAL CANINE," OR A "DOGMAN." POTENTIALLY OF THE WEREWOLF FAMILY.

FIELD NOTES: SINCE THE 1930S, BEAST OF BRAY ROAD SIGHTINGS HAVE PERSISTED THROUGHOUT SOUTHEASTERN WISCONSIN (ELKHORN, DELAVAN, ETC.). IS IT A GRAY WOLF? A MUTATED CREATURE? A CANINESASQUATCH HYBRID? A MULTIDIMENSIONAL BEING? A WELL-TRAINED DOG WITH AN IMPOSSIBLY LONG LIFESPAN? WITNESSES AND EXPERTS OFFER NO SHORTAGE OF THEORIES.

WITNESS TESTIMONY: "IT WAS STOOPED OVER GORILLA-LIKE, HAIRY, AND WITH A TERRIBLE STENCH TO HIM. I THINK [MY FATHER] SAID IT SMELLED LIKE ROTTING MEAT." JOE SCHACKELMAN, 2017 CONCLUSION: UNSOLVED

Our story begins in the fall of 1989, when twenty-four-year-old bar manager Lori Endrizzi — having just finished her shift at The Jury Room — began the short drive back to her home. Along the way she spotted a strange shape kneeling alongside rural Bray Road in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. She slowed the car to get a better look, her eyes settling upon a pointy-eared creature with its back to her. As she drove forward, her headlights shone over its brownish-gray fur, revealing that the creature appeared to be feeding on roadkill. The creature turned, and for forty-five terrifying seconds, Lori stared at it, its fangs and wolf-like snout leaving an indelible impression on her.

"Its elbows were up, and its claws were facing out," Lori recounted to Elkhorn journalist Linda Godfrey. "I remember the long claws."

And she remembered the creature's estimated five-foot-seven, 150pound frame as well, along with its hairy, humanoid stature. Though the creature was of human size, it hardly exhibited human behavior. What human, after all, feasts on roadkill at 1:30 in the morning?

Over the years Lori speculated on the creature's possible satanic nature ("It was just my feeling"), among other seemingly supernatural possibilities. "I don't really believe in werewolves, per se, but I believe something could be, well, conjured up," she told Godfrey, adding, too, that "if there were such a thing as a werewolf, this would be it."

The closest she came to identifying the creature came as a result of a trip to the local library, where, after a bit of sleuthing, she saw an illustration of a werewolf-like entity featured prominently in The Golden Book of the Mysterious.

"It was night, and it was quite late, but I know what I saw," Lori later confirmed.

And she wasn't alone in seeing it.

On Halloween night 1991, local resident Doris Gipson experienced a similar sighting.

She, too, was driving down Bray Road when her car unexpectedly slammed into something. Fearful she'd hit an animal, she pulled to the side of the road, exiting the vehicle to get a closer look.

"Here comes this thing," she told Godfrey, "and it's just running up at me! It was no dog; it was bigger than me!"

Judging by the pounding of its feet and the heaving of its chest, Doris remained convinced that the dog-like creature was running toward her on two legs. She ran too, leaping for the car door and driving away as the creature lunged toward the back end of her vehicle.

"I've never seen a human run like that," Doris remarked, "and my uncle was a track star."

Later that night, while picking up a friend from a party, she claimed to have seen it again, as did her passenger. Even with a second sighting, it was difficult for Doris to determine what exactly had crossed her path that night.

"I'd say it was a freak of nature," she concluded, "one of God's mistakes."

* * *

Nestled in southeastern Wisconsin's Walworth County, Elkhorn — population 9,975 — seems an unlikely hotspot for strange phenomena. Yet for decades, its seven square miles have been home to an array of sightings, the Beast of Bray Road among them. On occasion, hairy bipeds (think: Bigfoot) have been spotted within the county limits as well, not to mention more than a few uFo sightings.

Leading me to wonder: What in the world is happening in Elkhorn?

Anxious to find out, one warm June day I fill the gas tank and make the three-and-a-half-hour drive from my home in Eau Claire to Elkhorn. But upon my arrival, all I find is a quaint, midwestern town that, at least on the surface, appears utterly lacking in anything strange. No Bigfoot, no uFos, just tire swings and wishing wells and at least one front yard lined with decorative pink flamingoes. Out the driver-side window I spot the torso and legs of a man tinkering beneath his camper, while out the passenger side I glimpse a power walker, complete in wind suit, bustling past. Had I seen someone grilling hotdogs in the foreground of a Little League game, I'd have assumed I'd slipped into a Norman Rockwell painting. And my assumption was closer than I thought.

Though Rockwell never painted the town, New York–based artist Cecile Johnson did. In 1958 the Ford Motor Company dispatched Johnson to paint six Christmas scenes for the company magazine — five of which were later used as Christmas cards. Each of the artist's watercolors depicts wondrously midwestern scenes: one snow-blown landscape after another, each complete with a row of small-town shops, a moonlit barn, or the warm glow of a family decorating a tree. As a result of Johnson's work, sixty years later, Elkhorn remains known as "Christmas Card town." From a visitor's bureau perspective, it's a more enticing pitch than the alternative — Werewolf Town, U.S.A.

Though I've come to Elkhorn for the latter enticement, curious to learn more about the town's most famous creature from the woman who knows the beast best.

Author and Beast of Bray Road investigator Linda Godfrey meets me at Vasili's Corner Cafe in downtown Elkhorn at a few minutes before noon. For over a quarter century, the sixty-six-year-old has investigated all things "Bray Road," and through her efforts, has curated the world's best — and perhaps only — repository for information pertaining to the beast. Though she never intended to become the world expert on such a peculiar creature, fate intervened.

"One day I was a small-town wife, mom, and local newspaper reporter and cartoonist," she wrote in 2003's The Beast of Bray Road, "the next thing I knew I was fielding questions from media around the country about werewolves!"

It was a far cry from her art education training, though when the story struck in 1991, she knew she had to report on it. As Linda pointed out, it was the obvious thing to do given her local paper's motto: "Never Be Boring."

Throughout her decadelong stint at the paper, Linda strived to live up to that motto, though none of her investigative reports, columns, or editorial cartoons ever garnered the same attention as her Beast of Bray Road pieces. After publishing four or five updates — most of which ran in the early 1990s — it became apparent to Linda that the bipedal canine sightings she'd been gathering were hardly limited to Elkhorn. "It was really a worldwide phenomenon," she says, leaning forward from her place across the booth. "People were reporting the same thing all over the place, and no one else was really paying attention or collecting these stories. So, I kind of became the go-to person inadvertently.

I felt it was sort of my duty to keep these things for people, to be the keeper of the lore."

It's a sentiment I've heard often, particularly related to stories involving the strange. Historically, it's often seemed that there was more lore than keepers, though today, thanks to the internet, the world's many keepers have begun to bear the burden collectively by way of electronic information sharing. On the upside, such collaborations lead to a more inclusive and global information gathering effort; on the downside, it's impossible to vet the influx of information seeping into the virtual milieu.

For every serious-minded cryptid enthusiast, there's an attention-seeking hoaxer anxious to take advantage of the internet's porous gatekeeping. Semianonymous message boards serve as a breeding ground for such chaos, a virtual landscape run amok with a liberal use of caps lock and exclamation points.

Linda attempts to steer clear of this fray by offering a more research-driven approach to strange sightings, tempering each report with a healthy dose of skepticism. Over the past twenty-five years, Linda's online presence has continued to grow, her reputation buoyed by several book publications, including 2006's Hunting the American Werewolf featured in a 2008 episode of Animal Planet's MonsterQuest. No one is more surprised by Linda's transition from small-town reporter to leading expert on bipedal canines than Linda herself. Or leading expert on dogmen, if that's your preferred term. Or wolfmen. Or manwolves. I could go on.

Linda, for the record, prefers "unknown upright canine," though she concedes it's not nearly as sexy as "werewolf," which her publisher prefers. Yet for Linda, her work isn't about what's sexiest, it's about what's most accurate. Though "werewolf" is one way to talk about the Beast of Bray Road and its ilk, it's hardly the only way. And in some respects, such a term limits the more scientifically acceptable possibilities for what the Beast of Bray Road might be.

Yet ever since Lori Endrizzi's 1989 sighting, the term "werewolf " has continued to linger throughout Elkhorn. Perhaps beginning with Walworth County animal control officer, Jon Frederickson, who, at the height of the hullabaloo, famously scrawled the word "werewolf" to a manila folder filled with sighting reports which he kept in his office. Such a designation coming from a man in his position was all the confirmation many locals needed. Though Frederickson had used the term in jest, it's easy to forget that part of the story.

* * *

Our willingness to dispense with the facts in favor of the fiction is a phenomenon that extends well beyond Bray Road. Confirmation bias — that is, interpreting information in such a way as to confirm one's views — has been well-documented since the 1960s. If you wish to believe that the Beast of Bray Road is a werewolf, then simply steer toward the facts that make that outcome true. However, if you wish to believe otherwise, then steer in the opposite direction.

Trust me when I tell you I'm steering in the opposite direction. Yet for many, the prospect of a werewolf roaming the Wisconsin countryside is a little too good to overlook. To the believers' credit, in many respects the Beast of Bray Road is a perfect fit for our pop culture understanding of werewolves, particularly in terms of speed, power, and temperament. Most of all, the beast's humanoid qualities, most notably walking on two legs, further enhance the werewolf possibility — strange as it seems. But unlike Hollywood's version of the werewolf, the Beast of Bray Road hardly conforms to the full moon mythology, nor can it be warded off by a silver bullet.

Linda's the first to admit that she doesn't know what the creature is. Yet what's even more surprising is that "werewolf" isn't even the strangest of her theories.

"There's a category that I call the 'phantoms' or the 'bedroom invaders,'" Linda says, "because they're much more like the black phantom hounds from England."

My understanding of British-born phantom hounds is limited mostly to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. Americanized phantom hounds are said to behave similarly: supernaturally infused canines marauding the wilds and striking fear into all who lay eyes upon them.

As for "bedroom invaders," this refers to hounds who unexpectedly inhabit a witness's home. Not your average domesticated dog, but a tall, wolf-like creature with a long muzzle, sleek black fur, and pointy ears. Oftentimes, Linda informs me, the creature is said to resemble Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead.

The possibilities grow even more peculiar from there: everything from variations of Bigfoot and Native American skin walkers, to a range of thought-to-be extinct prehistoric canines, including the Amphicyon ("ambiguous dog") to the Borophagus ("gluttonous eater").

Each possibility is intriguing in its own right, though each remains entirely speculative given the limited evidence at our disposal, most of which is anecdotal.

One possibility I've yet to discuss — perhaps the likeliest of all — is that the wolf-like creature seen wandering Bray Road is, in fact, a wolf. Gray wolves (known also as timber wolves) have occasionally been spotted throughout the region, and though their populations remain quite small (782–824 are believed to live state-wide), it's not impossible to imagine a few — if not a few packs — inhabiting the Elkhorn region. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), in the 1830s Wisconsin was a haven for wolves, somewhere between three thousand and five thousand calling the state home. But in response to wolf attacks on livestock, the 1865 state legislature took action: passing a five-dollar-per-pelt bounty and dramatically shrinking the population.

"By 1900, no timber wolves existed in the southern two-thirds of the state," notes the Wisconsin dnr .

Eighty years later, the wolf population teetered around fifteen. From 1985 to 2010 the population leapt to current levels. Much of this increase began in the early 1990s, when the Bray Road sightings peaked. The problem, though, is that relatively few wolves were sighted that far south.

And there's another problem, too, in claiming that the Beast of Bray Road is a gray wolf. Gray wolves — as well as every other variety — walk on four legs rather than two.

* * *

Maybe our story doesn't begin in the fall of 1989.

Maybe it actually begins on a cold, dark night in 1936, when thirty-three-year-old Mark Schackelman had his own encounter with an unknown upright canine just thirty-seven miles north of Bray Road. Schackelman, the night watchman for the St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children (previously called the St. Coletta Institute for Backward Children), was a God-fearing, former heavyweight boxer — one who never pulled pranks or punches.

Late one evening while walking the grounds behind the main building, Schackelman spotted a hairy animal digging frantically into a Native American burial mound, several of which lined the property. Schackelman froze, observed the hunched creature momentarily, then watched, astonished, as it leapt to two legs and vanished.

The following night, after a thorough examination of the claw marks on the mound, he returned to the site once more, this time wielding a heavy flashlight. As he approached the mound he spotted the creature a second time, all six plus feet of its furry frame standing brashly before him. The face-off continued for several seconds, Schackelman's flashlight beam scanning the creature's hands, claws, and dog-like muzzle and ears. The creature vocalized — three syllables that sounded like "gadara" — as he stood before the watchman.

Trembling, a terrified Schackelman instinctually turned to God, praying to be saved.

And he was. Inexplicably, the creature walked away. On two legs.

At his wife's insistence, Schackelman never breathed a word about his encounter during her lifetime. Small towns talked, and she preferred the conversation not revolve around her husband having spotted some beast digging at a burial mound. It wasn't until several years after her death, when Schackelman himself was facing an uncertain medical situation, that he at last broke his silence to his son, Joe, nineteen at the time.

Mark Schackelman spent a Sunday afternoon in 1953 sharing every last detail with his son. A future editor for the Labor Paper in Kenosha, Joe put his budding reporter's skills to good use, reaching for pad and pencil and sketching what his father described.

"There were a lot of erasers," Joe tells me sixty-four years later.

At eighty-three, Joe Schackelman still remembers the many vivid details his father provided. Admittedly, it's an unbelievable story, though Joe confirms the veracity of his father's account.

"He was a very kind man," Joe reflects. "He didn't make up stories." Instead, he kept his mouth shut for decades, though when he did talk, he offered a description slightly at odds with the Beast of Bray Road sightings soon to come. What Mark Schackelman saw seemed to steer the creature's taxonomy toward a better-known beast.


(Continues...)