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Author's ghost hunt unearths historical tales

Tattered curtains hang from the windows while debris sits forgotten in the Kings School along Highway 13 in Cloverland. Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com

The stories in "Wisconsin's Lost Towns" tantalize readers with a window to the past.

Claim jumpers, fisticuffs and brawls punctuated the early years of Fair Play, a prospecting town in Grant County. The town of Aztalan in Jefferson County dates back to AD 900, when its people cultivated fields of corn, squash, pumpkins and sunflowers.

Chittamo boasted a town hall that held a dance every Saturday night. The town along Frog Creek Road near Minong died off when World War II siphoned off its young men. Finding jobs in cities, they failed to return to Washburn County.

The tale that sticks with author Rhonda Fochs is the "ghost" of King's Bridge. The grey, wolf-like creature began stalking small children in the Manitowoc County sawmill town. Lonely wails and howls were heard at night, and one morning a flock of geese was found butchered.

The town hired a hunter. He shot the beast, which proved to be an unkempt collie covered in burrs and dirt. Rumor has it the abandoned dog was buried near the school, so he could always be near children.

"Lost towns are stories of people, their dreams and their lives," said Fochs, a retired teacher and historian. "It's a real fun topic. I think everyone has a lost town."

Her new book features 200 of Wisconsin's lost towns. They include the Douglas County ghosts of Clevedon, Cloverland and Martinson as well as the town of Delta in Bayfield County.

"It's a people-driven project," Fochs said. "It's not a big money maker. I feel kind of like I'm saving these towns."

For her Douglas County entries, the author consulted Nan Wisherd's account of early Brule area history and a news article on the King School in Cloverland. First a school, then a community club, the building has fallen into disrepair. Its distinctive circular swing, however, still earns double-takes by passing motorists on Highway 13.

Fochs has already penned four "Minnesota's Lost Towns" volumes covering 600 towns throughout the state.

"The best part about these books is the stories," said Dave O'Brien, a high school social studies teacher in the central Minnesota town of Parkers Prairie. "From Mustache Lizz to the runaway circus elephant in Verdi, the books provide very interesting stories. Crucial to these interesting stories is the context in which they occur. Fochs does a great job providing that as well."

O'Brien has shared these stories with his students.

"I started using Rhonda Foch's books in my class to help students understand that history is a lot more local than the ever-growing U.S. history books," O'Brien said. "Names and dates are important, but they are only a part of history."

Wisconsin inspiration

Fochs first developed a love of lost towns in northern Wisconsin.

Her aunt once owned property in Iron County upon which an old logging town once sat.

"It was fascinating," Fochs said of her explorations there. "Here was this deep woods. How could a town have been here?"

Her grandmother was the last postmistress in Powell, Wis. That gave Fochs a starting point to search for lost towns — abandoned post offices.

"If you can send them a letter, they're not lost," she said.

In the 1901, the United States had 80,000 post offices, according to Fochs. Today, there are only 38,000.

"That's a lot of lost towns," Fochs said.

The author, who lives near Brainerd, Minn., searches for interesting stories, then seeks all the information she can about those towns. That can include researching articles and books as well as calls to historical societies.

"If I was lucky, I found people who remembered," she said.

Many of the pictures in the book came from eBay postcards, which Fochs has collected for years.

Like the towns themselves, each entry is different. The history of Shanagolden in Ashland County covers nearly two pages. Lincoln County is represented by a lone photo of the Dudley post office and store, with no text.

"I wish I had found more on each of them," Fochs said. "Every town I find, I want to know more."

Her work is not meant to be an exhaustive history.

"I wanted it to be just a fun book to read," Fochs said. "Something you can pick up, learn a little bit and go from there."

Fochs is the first to admit that the list of ghost towns is incomplete.

"It's probably just the tip of the iceberg," she said.

Fochs capped off the book with a list of lost towns she's heard of, but could find no records on. She's hoping folks contact her with information on these towns, as well as ones she missed, for possible future volumes.

The official release date for "Wisconsin's Lost Towns," published by North Star Press, is May 9. Fochs already has some in stock, however, and is taking orders through her website, rhondafochs.weebly.com. The site includes a lost towns blog and contact information for the author. Or visit the Rhonda Fochs @MinnesotasLostTowns Facebook page.

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