Menomonee and Montrealer: Milwaukee’s first power couple

MILWAUKEE
I spent weeks leading up to this trip telling people excitedly that I was headed to Wisconsin and their response was nearly unanimous: “ … ?”

That’s probably the reaction Solomon Juneau got when he told his fellow Montrealers he was headed to Wisconsin and you know what he did while he was here? Founded a whole damn city, that’s what.

Old Solomo wasn’t the first Quebec fur trader to come to Wisconsin, but he made the deepest imprint. He took over a small trading post by the lake from Jacques Vieaux in the 1830s and transformed it from a pit stop along the Michigan-Mississippi route into what we now call Milwaukee.

History calls him founder, entrepreneur, postmaster, first mayor, and relates that he was widely respected. But the best thing history remembers is his intense love for his young bride, the Métis daughter of Vieaux, Josette.

Josette was the granddaughter of Menomonee Indian Chief Ah-ke-ne-po-way (Standing Earth). She bore 17 children, 13 of whom survived, and was clearly her husband’s partner in all endeavours. A 1916 biography of Solomon, written by their granddaughter Isabella Fox, at first appears to downplay her strengths: “Although young in years at the time of her marriage, she was adept in the art of housekeeping.”

Then the truth comes out: She was also a midwife, nurse, and alongside Solomon a great philanthropist. Her work with the poor would be noted even by Pope Leo XII. She was fluent in French, of course, but also spoke many aboriginal languages, and so served alongside her husband as translator and collaborator.

Together they gave away land and help build churches and entertained the most influential of Wisconsin’s elite. They straddled a world of luxury and simplicity and eventually, together, nearly emptied their coffers with their goodwill.

Josette had had enough of city life anyway, and so they retired to Theresa, a town north of Milwaukee that Solomon had founded and named for his mother, Thérese. They lived only a few quiet years before Josette grew gravely ill and died in 1855. Solomon succumbed to his broken heart soon after.

The Theresa Historical Society says “700 Indians including Chiefs Oshkosh, Corrow, Larriet, and Keshena marched with his funeral bier to the burial grounds at the Keshena reservation.”

Their bodies were eventually moved to Milwaukee, but the location of their final resting place matters less than that they are together still.

Charles Milwaukee Sivyer, an otherwise upstanding Wisconsin businessman, said of Josette a decade after her death, “Had she the education of a white woman, she would have shone as brightly as any of her white sisters. Why all these orators don’t give that good woman more praise, I don’t know.

“Why, the last words of Solomon Juneau were, ‘Dear wife, I come to you’.”

(Posted with extra love on the occasion of the marriage of another power couple, Erin Stropes and Jordan Knoll. Live happily ever after)

On the banks of Lake Champlain, the scars of floods and fires

lakeside-apartments-plattsburgh-nyPLATTSBURGH, N.Y.
Lakeside Apartments was already drowning. Hurricane Irene just held it under a minute to finish the job.

The brown, concrete complex on the edge of Plattsburgh was built in 1960 and has the open, geometric elements that are a hallmark of that time. One corner points toward Lake Champlain, looking for all the world like the nose of a ship at the edge of the beach. Only it has run aground.

I don’t know what it was like in the 1960s. No one talks about its heyday, if it had one, in which perhaps families arrived in slick, metal cars full of beach umbrellas and archaic societal attitudes.

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The units were occupied by low-income, mostly short-term tenants when Lake Champlain flooded in May 2011, washing away the beach and flooding the property. Lakeside Apartments was evacuated of about 200 people who were told they’d be able to move back later that summer. But that wasn’t to happen.

First there was a fire, in the weeks following the flood, that damaged several units when a squatter is alleged to have left incense burning in a shrine.lakeside-apartments-plattsburgh-ny8Then, in August, Hurricane Irene. 

The Category 3 storm tore up the Caribbean, and eastern United States, killing at least 53 along the way. She flooded Long Island and devastated the Catskills. In the Adirondacks, she caused landslides on her way to Canada, where power lines and buildings were damaged as far inland as Montreal.

And, of course, the Lakeside Apartments would never recover.

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“Right now it really is a distressed property,” Mayor James Calnon told the Press Republican last year. “We  want to get it out of distress, and we hope that will happen.”

“That” is a development project proposed when the land was sold in 2014 by Montreal businessman Collin Nieme, according to the Press Republican. If all goes well (though “goes well” is a matter of perspective), the land will be gentrified, with long-term leases and fancy hair salons.

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The Lakeside, at last, might be out of distress. For now, it is broken and smells of ash and worse things. Though police are said to drive by when they think of it, no one stopped me from wandering around the property, though I had to avert my eyes when I turned the corner to the lake side and made eye contact with a woman carrying out some delicate business in the back seat of a car.

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Through the blinds: Once-removed from motel theatre

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y.
The drama played out in muffled sounds across the smooth black parking lot of the motel.

Knocking first. Insistent. Hollow. Without echo, although the long low brick was mirrored on our side.

We lifted our second-storey blinds enough to spy on a blond woman pacing on the asphalt, phone in hand, periodically banging on the door, circling a car that was black but for the orange “city taxi” sign on top. The other side of the motel was mostly low-income housing, monthly rentals in front of which were colourful plastic chairs and swept-clean walkways. The curtains were drawn on all but two: through those windows we could see a large TV flickering; another had a fox skin on one wall and at least three taxidermied heads on the opposite wall. 

We didn’t want to get involved in the theatre downstairs, but I was in the midst of an allergy attack and my meds were in the car. Melani took her time and reported back, Benadryl in hand.

“I think the person inside called her, and she’s worried about whatever she heard.” The idea gave the flat thumping a more ominous tone, made this feel like something other than a lovers’ tiff.

There were words exchanged between the woman and the cab-driver, and the woman and a man who was sitting nearby, in front of his own motel unit. We couldn’t make out individual words.

A pattern emerged, more frantic with each repetition: knock, say a few words to the man, or the cabbie, pace, knock again. Melani was dying to help, because she’s like that. I was dying for her to, because I can’t stand not knowing the story. It seemed impossible that this one could have a positive ending. We hunkered down and hoped it wouldn’t escalate dangerously, peeking out the blinds less and less often.

“There’s an ambulance there now,” Melani hissed some time later, and my stomach flipped. The cab was gone, and the paramedics were pulling on gloves, leaving their doors open as they spoke briefly with the woman. The man who had been sitting on his front stoop got up, stood closer to her. There were people on the upper balcony — but not on our side, which was made up more of transient weekend visitors, not long-term residents as across the lot.

A paramedic banged on the door and waited. From across the way and through the dark, we could see the woman’s panic rising. The paramedic looked over his shoulder at his partner, but we couldn’t read his expression. A police car pulled up and parked behind the ambulance with its lights off. The cop got out of the car slowly, and he seemed perfectly relaxed. He hung back, staying out of the paramedics’ way, but within sight of the other players in the drama.

The paramedic put a hand on the window, looked back at his partner again. He did the one thing the woman, in her fear and excitement, hadn’t thought of: He pushed the window open. He leaned his head inside and yelled something — a name we couldn’t make out. He yelled again, then stepped back.

The entire complex was still but for the carnival lights of the ambulance.

The door cracked open and then, a breath later, was pulled all the way open by an elderly woman with a cane. The paramedic said something to her, and she must have answered him, because he poked his head into the room, then turned away and shrugged at his partner. They each stripped off their white gloves and returned the ambulance.

We put the blinds down for a few minutes — spying was fully indecent now that we knew there was no danger. Still, the next time we peeked, there was a pile of things on the walkway in front of the woman’s room. Residents were in motion, too — the blond woman with the phone, the man who had been sitting to watch, someone else from an upper floor. They rushed up and down the central stairs, heads together, into and out of a different room. The taxi was back. The driver didn’t get out this time, though he popped open the trunk. The blond and the man had a brief, intense conversation that ended with a hug.

When the taxi pulled away with the blond inside, every door closed and most lights flipped off.

The motel was silent, as though nothing had happened at all.

The not-quite ghost town of Venosta, Quebec

VENOSTA, Que.
We were inspired to spend a weekend in the municipality of Low when an opinion piece on the importance of saving Quebec’s ghost towns came across my desk. We have gone ghost-town hunting in Pennsylvania and in Texas, but searching in our own back yard had never occurred to us.

Venosta, the ancestral town of the writer, isn’t strictly a ghost town, as many homes are obviously lived in and the lush land is still farmed. Settled primarily by Irish immigrants in the 1800s, this region in the Gatineau Hills about 50 kilometres north of Ottawa is an agricultural and logging area, and so has benefited and suffered from the historic highs and lows of those industries.

We got more than we bargained for with our rented cottage in Low, and a little less than we expected in the ghost town, a collection of picturesque falling-down buildings surrounded by high grass, and fields and trees beyond.

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No rest for the wicked in this cabin in the woods

GATINEAU HILLS, Que.
I’m pretty sure that Airbnb was haunted.

I didn’t realize it right away. We pulled in just before midnight, parking to the side of the white bungalow. A stone’s throw away, across the drizzled grass, was a white church, its windows dark.

The wet fog and mist turned to heavy rain as I cut the engine and we dashed onto the wooden porch, trying not to make too much noise, though we couldn’t see our closest neighbours. A lone streetlight a hundred metres away highlighted the outline of barren road twisting away from us.

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The front door had art-deco stained glass that vibrated as Melani worked at the lock. The sounds were swallowed by the rain and our giggles as we burst into the cottage.

Directly in front of us, a vaguely glowing rectangle, when lit, morphed into a giant painting of an owl holding a ball of fire, or the earth, or sitting on a shining egg-soul or somesuch. Opposite this horned monster was an ancient off-white and rose piano intricately carved and lovingly propped on its one good leg.

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This discordant music and art room was separated from the rest of the house by sweeping black curtains. I pulled them apart to step through, thinking of the owner, “she’s pagan,” as one might realize “she’s Irish” or “she likes owls.” There was a collage of pagan flourishes on the wall over a dozen crystals placed carefully and exactly in a cross pattern on a round altar. The collage said: “Life deeply loves you.”

Yet as we explored the house, lighting corners, we turned up more spiritual imagery: there were votive candles and angels, Native American wards, Cinco de Mayo and vodoun pieces, burnt sage. A Buddhist shrine. Tibetan prayer cloths. There were candles and incense and crystals on every flat surface.

art and protection

“She’s covering all her bases,” I thought, trying to ignore the foreign creaks and gurgles coming from the dim kitchen. “What is she protecting herself from?”

I was following four-year-old Jilly to the second storey when she said, in her way, “I like the stairs in this haunted house, Mum.” I stopped dead.

haunted airbnb piano 2“Why on earth would you say that it’s haunted?” I asked, my voice an octave higher than I’d intended. She was already on the landing, so talked down to me: “The floorboards creak. Floorboards only creak in haunted houses.” She demonstrated on a loose section of hardwood in front of a darkly stained door labeled “Private.”

The rain had slowed to an unnervingly rhythmic staccato on the tin roof and we could hear the splashing of the creek behind the house, and the fertile cries of frogs and bugs. With no moon or stars and the streetlight faded into the mist, the world was black outside the windows. I decided I would not be afraid in this old wooden house that was trying so hard to be welcoming and to fend off things that might scare us.

I opened a downstairs door expecting the promised third bedroom and instead found a large mudroom hung with man-shaped coats and rubber-soled shoes and there, against the inky window, was a strange shape with broken curlicues. I leaned in closer and found myself staring hard into brown eyes that were judging or longing, framed by a sepia-toned face and hair that hinted at romance. The woman in the picture wore puffed sleeves and ribbon and a pearl choker. I looked at her, and she was looking right back at me.

photo in the closet

A room away, Jilly had sat at the piano and was playing something tuneful. Yet no one has ever taught her how to play.

I tripped over my ankles backing out of the closet and shut the door. I don’t remember what I said to Melani, but I know I told her she wasn’t to open the door again. Searching for a wine glass I found the stash of extra votive candles, incense and tarot cards. The owner was on a mission to keep this home safe and grounded. Who were we to doubt her?

Yet I sat for a long time with my back to the wall, and I would not look at the closet door.

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Walking the abandoned rail bridge of North Anson

NORTH ANSON, Maine
Sometimes you have to put off spontaneity.

Like the time I rounded a corner and there was the most amazing rocky river and around the next bend was an overgrown, abandoned rail bridge.

The timing was off and there was no way we could stop, but that damn bridge wouldn’t leave my head. The next morning at our Airbnb, which we’d made a disaster of dishes and laundry, Melani did one of those things that keeps us together after so many years: She gave me a pass and told Trevor and I to go find that damn bridge.

We knew it was about 20 minutes back up the road, but we couldn’t remember exactly where. Our perspective was off, nothing looked right, and we knew for sure we’d gone too far when we came to the community hall in Anson.

We turned the car around and tried to jump-start our brains: “Remember there were those antique cars for sale? Did we pass those?”

“Oh, there’s the ‘Blind Person Ahead’ sign. I remember seeing that last night and thinking, ‘Damn, I hope he hears us coming’.”

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Then there it was. The Carrabassett River was smooth and glassy on one side of the highway bridge, but showed a completely different face when approached from the south. Fast-running water rushed over hundreds of small boulders, sounding like static and looking like oblivion, pooling in basins that were deceptively calm. And there — crossing this menacing, narrow river — were symmetrical rusty lines against the bluest sky.

We pulled off the road directly across from the mouth of the bridge. There used to be rail where I parked the truck, but it was paved over sometime in the late ’70s, when the bridge was abandoned.

Beyond the static of the river below, the town was Sunday-morning silent. We stepped onto rail, and bounced lightly on a couple of the crossties. They were dark and veined and gave slightly under our weight. There were places farther ahead where plywood was nailed over ties to cover spots where it was rotted through.

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Before this iron span was built, there was a covered rail bridge here, erected in 1888. There are marvelous pictures of it, and more modern ones, in a book by the Anson Bicentennial Committee. That bridge, not as impressive as this beast, was tough enough to withstand a tornado, if a letter to the editor in an 1890 edition of Engineering News is to be believed. Mr. Thompson referred to peculiarities in the bridge’s architecture and noted that iron plates on the structure had slipped.

“After the storm,” Mr. Thompson wrote, “the ends of each span were in place but their centers had been sprung about 18ins out of line so that the track formed a series of reverse curves while the top of the bridge roof and all was tipped so that the trusses were at least 4 ft out of plumb.” However, damage was quickly repaired and trains were running the next day.

On our clear day, we started a slow unsteady walk across. Trevor kept to the centre, close to the rail, while I walked on the outside edge because I could see thick reinforcement beams under the ties. The wood was spongy and invited caution.

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This bridge was built 109 years ago. The Somerset, Maine Central, and Pan Am railroads carried lumber, agricultural goods and people over the Carrabassett to the end of the line here at North Anson.

Locomotives that had roared across the track upon which we walked so gingerly were named things like Black Dinah, Moxie, and Bombazeen.

Just past the halfway point was a strange metal beast we have since learned is a buffer stop, meant to prevent locomotives from rolling farther down the end of the track. It wouldn’t stop more than ghost trains now, but it stood at attention, cool metal under a hot sun, unshaded at the centre of the bridge where even the most hardy of weeds haven’t ventured yet. Past that was the high bank of the Carrabassett and more rail, so overgrown we lost our footing more than once as we peered through the brush back over the bridge and ran our fingers over the rusted dates on a switch to the side of the track.

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We were steadier on our trip back, and bold enough to venture under the bridge, where we found the water wasn’t as scary as it sounded or looked from above, and where Trevor discovered a rope attached to the ties above.

“Mom. Mom mom mom. Mom.” Back when he was little, this used to drive me nuts. “Mom has one syllable. Don’t waste all that breath.” I don’t mind so much any more. “Mom mom mom. Let’s swing on it.”

I gave him that look and he, eventually, let it go, and hardly laughed at me at all when I halfway fell into the river anyway.

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