Back in the days before streaming services, before the internet, before TV, before radio, before rural electrification, we had to entertain ourselves on long winter nights.
Back then we also made our own clothes. Folks in these parts raised sheep, sheared those sheep, cleaned and carded the wool, and then spent those long winter nights spinning, weaving, knitting, and crocheting.
Most families had only one spinning wheel and spinning was a shared task. Therefore, the family would sit about the living room (or perhaps live about the sitting room), coming in out of the cornstarch to warm their mukluks by the cellophane on a cold winter’s night. One would spin wool into yarn while spinning yarns, while the rest of the family would listen.
“One spun a time” was literal – while one spun, that same one would tell a story. [And you wondered why storytelling is known as “spinning yarns”.] When electric lights and central heating came about, and families no longer had to stay in one room for light and heat, people forgot the origin of that phrase. Time took its toll and people began to start tales with “Once upon a time…”. (This type of mis-hearing is known as a Mondegreen, from the mis-hearing of an old Scottish ballad line “They hae slay the Earl of Murray/And laid him on the green” (but heard as “And Lady Mondegreen”, which now makes it sound like two people were killed.))
It is in that vein that I share with you one of our tales of ancient history.
Wisconsin’s heritage is thought of as mostly German, Norwegian, Finnish, Polish, Ho Chunk, and Ojibwe, depending on what part of the state you’re in.
Less well-known is our Pacific Island heritage. We all know that Pacific Islanders explored vast tracts of the Pacific by outrigger canoe. We know of far-flung inhabited islands and marvel at how people got there. But did you know about the town of Kaukauna, WI? Most of us pronounce it as “Kuh KAW nuh”, but it’s really “Ka OOH ka OOH na” and means “Big portage”. How did that come to pass?
Ancient peoples exploring the Pacific were caught in a strong westerly and blown to what is now California. Landfall was believed to be just north of San Francisco. They left their canoes at the shore and began to explore inland, figuring they would explore this island and return for their canoes when they reached the other side. If the island were big enough, they could build new canoes on the other side. Little did they know what they had stumbled upon.
They made their way across the land, marveling at the size of this island. Long discussions ensued about the wisdom of continuing the trek. After much debate (and much more walking) they eventually arrived at the Mississippi River near its confluence with the Wisconsin River (now the town of Prairie du Chien). They built canoes (outriggers being unnecessary here) and began to explore the old-fashioned way. They made their way down the Mississippi to the Wisconsin River and from there to the Fox. At this point, mutiny was imminent. Had they continued a bit further, they would have discovered Green Bay and perhaps found their way to the Atlantic Ocean. The group decided to settle in the Fox River Valley in what we now know as Kaukauna, WI. Exhibiting their wry sense of humor, they named this place for the “Big portage” of over 2000 miles required to get here.
In case one has any doubts as to the veracity of this history, we refer you to Brief of The Onion as Amicus Curiae in Support of Petitioner.
I was going to save this post for a cold winter night, but everyone is now referring to the case for which the brief cited above was written. By “everyone” I am specifically referring to my favorite Washington Post columnist.