Erika Janik is the author of “Odd Wisconsin” (2007) and “A Short History of Wisconsin,” published this summer. Her “Apples: A Global History” is scheduled to be published by London-based Reaktion Books in 2011, and she is researching her next book.
Why did you decide to write a short history?
I decided to write a short history for a couple of reasons. One of them was that I just didn’t feel that there was an existing history that told the information that I wanted to know as someone who moved here eight years ago and just wanted an overview of the state. There’s a really wonderful six-volume history, but each book is 500 pages long. … But if you’ve just moved here or even if you’re someone who’s lived here a really long time, you might just want something that has the important moments, the important people. I just wanted to write something that was fun and accessible. I love history, and I wanted to write something that would help other people love history too.
What surprises people about the state’s history?
It depends on the place or person, but I think people are often surprised by the innovations that happened in Wisconsin. They didn’t realize that Wisconsin had a really thriving automobile industry in the early 20th century.
Is there a story about Wisconsin that hasn’t been well told?
I think something that’s not broadly known or understood is that in World War I, Bob La Follette really opposed entry into the war, and he was really pilloried nationally for this, but he was not alone, I mean nine of Wisconsin’s 11 congressmen voted against entry into the war. I think Wisconsin has a long history of going its own way. ... In the 1850s, the state Supreme Court said they weren’t going to uphold the federal fugitive slave law. Wisconsin was the only state to do this. Wisconsin has done this type of thing time and time again, it’s our tradition of independent thinkers.
What were your sources?
I read the six-volume history, I looked at government records, James Duane Doty’s journals. I read all of those. ... It really was heavy with primary sources, looking at the letters of people who actually lived in this place and created this place.
If you could have lunch with someone from Wisconsin’s history, who would it be?
Increase Lapham, no doubt. He is Wisconsin’s first scientist and he’s just amazing. ... It took another century for people to start appreciating what he did. He started warning that we were losing our forests, he was constantly sounding the alarm that we needed to do something to protect our trees. He was conducting all of these surveys of the Indian mounds. He really thought that our natural and cultural history was really important. I just think he was a really curious person, like he seemed to be fascinated with everything, and I think I can relate to that because I find everything really interesting too.