B. J. Hollars is an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He is the author of The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders, Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds (Nebraska, 2017), and From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us about Life, Death, and Being Human (Nebraska, 2015).
Unravelling the Midwest’s Strangest Stories
Sixteen miles northwest of my childhood home in Fort Wayne, Indiana you’ll find a muck-filled lake which was once home to a 400-pound turtle. Or so the story goes. The rash of sightings occurred in the town of Churubusco, Indiana throughout the spring and summer of 1949, spurring thousands of curiosity seekers to descend along Fulk Lake’s shoreline, desperate for a glimpse of the turtle said to be as big as a dining room table.
The story soon gained the attention of major newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, who dispatched battalions of reporters and photographers to document Oscar’s capture. There was only one problem: Oscar refused to be hauled in. Despite the herculean efforts of local farmer and Fulk Lake property owner Gale Harris (including draining the lake), that giant turtle remained as elusive as ever. He was Indiana’s very own Loch Ness monster. Or as one reporter put he, he was “Sasquatch in a shell.”
While Oscar the Turtle happens to be my own close-to-home brush with Midwestern strangeness (and the reason I steered clear of lakes for years), he’s only one of many oddities in the region’s cabinet of curiosities. Let’s not forget Elkhorn, Wisconsin’s Beast of Bray Road (a bipedal wolf-like creature), or Minot, North Dakota’s run in with a UFO (captured on radarscope prints, no less). We’ve got the Hodag in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, the Mothman in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, amid a host of other hard-to-believe creatures said to roam the woods and waters and towns throughout the Midwest.
Given that we live in a world filled with oddities, many have asked, “Why focus on the Midwest?”
For one, because as a Midwesterner myself, I’m no stranger to the Midwest’s strangeness. But more importantly, I’m aware that most people aren’t. “We Middle Americans,” I write in the introduction to my book Midwestern Strange, “have grown accustomed to being overlooked, which is precisely why outsiders ought to look a bit closer.”
Believe me when I tell you that the Midwest, is fertile ground for weirdness to thrive. Long before Stranger Things (set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana) made midwestern strangeness cool, we Midwesterners were already contemplating the curiosities beyond our windows. From crop circles to Bigfoot sightings, the Midwest has it all. But you wouldn’t know it given our rapt attention to any place other than here. For many, the Midwest is nothing but hot dish casseroles, and NASCAR fans, and corn fields run amok. We are the place where nothing memorable happens. We are the “flyover country.” The place between our origins and our destination.
Writing this book meant making the Midwest the destination, instead. And so, week-by-week, I struck out into the heartland in search of the strangest stories I could find.
Strange as it is to admit, I think I found them. Not the stories we’ve heard before, but the lesser-known tales. The ones you can only find by veering off the highways and onto the backroads, instead.
Buckle up. Let me show you what you’ve been missing. But I’ll warn you right now, you better not blink.