Researching Old World Murder


St. Peters Church at Old World Wisconsin in 1982.

 

Mr. Ernst here. Extensive research is an important element in crafting the ‘people, places, and the past’ that appear in every Chloe Ellefson mystery, starting with the first, Old World Murder (OWM).

As the author, Kathleen does the vast majority of research. But as her spouse (and “partner in crime”) I enjoy the great good fortune of being allowed to help. It’s something we both really enjoy doing.

 

OWM takes place during May 1982. Key scenes are set in southeastern Wisconsin at real places, including Old World Wisconsin (an outdoor history museum) and the nearby towns of Eagle, La Grange, and Palmyra.

View of the Crossroads Village at Old World Wisconsin in 1982.

Kathleen tasked me with three types of research and documentation.

General Background

This one’s a bit of a ‘guess as you go.’ All I usually begin with is the story’s time period, locations, and featured ethnic group. (Kathleen doesn’t talk about her works-in-progress, which I fully respect; I rarely get to read a manuscript until just before she sends it to her publisher.)

For OWM I read local newspapers published during the first half of 1982. This involved days spent squinting at microfilm scrolling by on a viewing screen at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison.

While hard on the eyes, some interesting and/or potentially relevant details were uncovered about the story’s time period and locations. Kathleen used a few of them in the book. Others weren’t included, but ended up influencing the story. Most served  neither purpose.

Old World Wisconsin Museum Seasonal Employment ad in Waukesha Freeman Newspaper, March 6, 1982 issue.

Waukesha Freeman Newspaper, March 6, 1982.

As Old World’s newly hired Curator of Collections, Chloe would have had benefits and a salary of about a dollar more than the $3.43/hour and no benefits that Guide/Interpreters received in 1982.

Kathleen started as a Lead Guide/Interpreter at Old World in 1982, earning $3.80/hour (equal to $9.70 in 2018) without benefits.

Eagle Police pay raise OK'd article, Waukesha Freeman Newspaper, February 5, 1982 issue.

Waukesha Freeman Newspaper, February 5, 1982.

In 1982 Roelke McKenna held a temporary Patrolman 1 job with the Eagle Police Department (EPD) earning $6.00/hour (equal to $15.35 in 2018) without benefits. He worked extra shifts whenever they were available, and dreamed of securing a permanent EPD position, if/when one opened up. His boss, Chief Naborski, was paid $8.50/hour.

(If you are surprised by the 8% raise the village board gave out, consider that in the previous year the US inflation rate hit 11%.)

Specific Objects

Kathleen also asked me to research and recommend suitable objects for characters, together with details and images. Here are three that met her approval and ended up being written into the story.

Photo of a 1975 Buick Electra Limited. Source: SunAutoWorld.com.

1975 Buick Electra Limited. (SunAutoWorld.com)

Mrs. Berget Lundquist drove this to Old World to ask Chloe to return a valuable antique Norwegian ale bowl she had donated. Berget could barely see over the steering wheel of her 2 ton, 19 foot long behemoth.

Smith & Wesson Model 10 Revolver. (Photo by Scott Meeker.)

While on duty as a Village of Eagle police officer, Roelke carries a 6-shot, .38 caliber, Smith & Wesson Model 10 service revolver like this. First introduced in 1899, it was still being carried by police in the 1980s.

A Piper J-3 Cub. (Barnstormers.com.)

A Piper J-3 Cub. (BarnStormers.com.)

Having previously earned his single engine private pilot’s license, Roelke dreams of buying a “sweet little” Piper J-3 Cub he sees at the Palmyra, WI, airport.  Note from Kathleen: Mr. Meeker loves to fly, and has a pilot’s license, so I gave that attribute to Roelke.

Visual Documentation

Kathleen does a fair amount of research ‘in the field’ and I am usually along to take photos and video of potential story locations and objects. These can often be valuable references when she writes scenes, sometimes months later.

We also used them in the illustrated programs she gives, as well as on her website, Facebook Author page, Pinterest boards, and this blog.

And we used them to create a short video about researching ale bowls at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Kathleen wrote the script and appears on-screen; I taped and edited. It was our first such effort.

Still image of the Migration of a Tradition video. Kathleen Ernst, LLC. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

Migration of a Tradition. Copyright 2010 Kathleen Ernst, LLC.

Based on what she learned studying Vesterheim’s extensive collection, Kathleen imagined the bowl at the center of the mystery. Here it is.

Photo of the antique Norwegian ale bowl in Old World Murder. Author's collection.

Reproduced antique Norwegian ale bowl. Author’s collection.

This is what Mrs. Lundquist donated to Old World. This copy was created by two Vesterheim Gold Medalists, wood carver Becky Lusk and rosemaler (rose painter) Janet Kjenstad.

Note from Kathleen: After the book was published, Mr. Ernst secretly had the one I described reproduced, and gave it to me for my birthday. We display it when giving my Chloe Ellefson program

Odds & Ends

And as always, I discovered items that grabbed my attention, but ended up having no connection to the story. Here are three.

Ad for Kringles from Larsen's Bakery in Racine, WI being sold by Girl Scout Troop 369. Waukesha Freeman, April 17, 1982.

Waukesha Freeman Newspaper, April 17. 1982.

If you are not familiar with this delightful Danish delicacy, then you have my sincere condolences. Those of us in Badgerland who do, know that Larsen’s Bakery in Racine, WI, is the source for some of the very best Kringle available outside of Denmark. Ah, if only Girl Scouts still sold them door-to-door!

Eagle Bank Robber Gets 16-Year Term article, Page 2., Waukesha Freeman, March 16, 1982.

Waukesha Freeman Newspaper, March 16, 1982.

I’m with the judge, this fellow’s life was “most incongruous.” BTW, his total take of $28,881 is equal to $66,208 in 2018.

Three Candidates Say There Are No Issues article headline from the Waukesha Freeman, March 23, 1982 issue.

Waukesha Freeman Newspaper, March 23, 1982.

This headline is from an article about two incumbents and a challenger competing to fill two seats on the Town of Eagle Board. Most of the article consists of candidate bios, but two sentences stood out. The reporter wrote that “All three said there were no issues in the race.” And the challenger said he only ran to create competition, adding “It’s such a small town and life seems to go on.”

But Wait, There’s More

Hopefully this research has piqued your interest in discovering more about the ‘people, places and the past’ in Old World Wisconsin.

There’s a whole page full of information about it on Kathleen’s website, including a discussion guide for the book, a custom Google map showing story locations, a recipe mentioned in the book, a slide show of objects featured in the story, a public radio interview with Kathleen, additional blog posts, her video introduction to Old World Wisconsin, and links to booksellers that carry OWM. To explore them, click HERE.

Next month I’ll post an article about researching The Heirloom Murders, the second book in the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series.

Tags: ,

4 Responses to “Researching Old World Murder”

  1. Doris Says:

    I do love this kind of research. Thank you for sharing your journey through the stacks and microfilms of the past. Doris

  2. Tess Mulrooney Says:

    When I helped Historic Madison research biographies for its cemetery books, I practically lived at the WI Historical Society Microforms Room. You never knew what might catch your eye on the page of a newspaper, but you do have to be careful of giving yourself motion sickness!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Mr. Ernst here. Researching bios for Historic Madison sounds like a huge and worthy project. Finding the unexpected as it scrolls by is one of my favorite parts of research. Your mention of motion sickness has me wondering if perhaps I also experienced it. Mostly I remember how tired my eyes got. Thanks for sharing a bit of your experience on the microfilm readers at WHS.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: