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Location: Peeksville, Wisconsin
Source: The book Northern Frights
by Dennis Boyer (published 1998) pages 38-41.
Peeksville's Naked Ghosts
Dennis Boyer's Introduction
Wisconsin Finns occupy a strange niche in our ethnic folklore. They
are not always thought of as the Northern Europeans they are. Instead,
they seem to be thought of as more exotic and somehow set apart.
The old New Englander stock who owned the businesses and ran the courts
in the early days found the Finns to be subversive, profane, and
violent. Their two-fisted exuberance on behalf of labor unions and
other social activist causes was viewed with alarm.
Finnish-American themes and characters pop up in many northwoods
stories. They are especially evident in lumberjack and iron miner ghost
tales. These robust Finnish-American ghost stories are abundant in
Minnesota's Iron Range, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and in Iron,
Ashland, and Douglas counties in Wisconsin. The stories are usually
told by purebred Finns possessed of fierce pride in their heritage.
Further south the bloodlines and stories peter out. Those of partial
Finn blood are often ambivalent about Finnish-American folklore and
sometimes are totally ignorant about it.
The following story made its way into this collection because it was
the southernmost Finnish ghost story that retained its full ethnic
flavor. It also merited inclusion because its theme was so different
from the typical Finnish hero ghost.
Finally, it was unique in that its source maintained a multi-ethnic
perspective. Alexander confessed surprise at outside interest in the
The Story From Alexander
No one has asked about the Peeksville Ghosts in a long time. You don't
hear the old Finnish stories around here anymore. Not like you still
can in Hurley and Ashland.
The really old Finns are gone now. My grandsons and granddaughters
never met any of the genuine oldtimers. And the Finn part of our family
is thinning out. I'm only a quarter Finn so the grandchildren are only
one sixteenth. Not much for them to hook up with when hardly any of
their friends have any Finn blood either.
But in a way these Finnish ghosts in Peeksville had as much to do with
the other groups around here. At least with how the other groups saw
the Finns. In addition to my quarter Finn blood, I'm a quarter French.
That's about as Wisconsin as you can get. All I'd need is a dash of
Chippewa, and who knows, maybe that's in the French part.
All sides of the family were connected to the railroad. They hailed
from places like Park Falls, Mellen, and Butternut. The ghost story was
connected to railroading in a way. At least it was in the old days.
In the old days the ladies didn't like to talk about it because, you
see, the ghosts were naked. Yah, naked as newborn babes. People started
seeing those naked ghosts right around World War One. They saw them
from on the train. There was a combination train of boxcars, log
flatcars, and a passenger coach that ran from Ashland to Park Falls. I
think it was a morning and evening run.
Well, it just so happened that the train was in the vicinity of
Peeksville at dawn and dusk. There were other passenger trains in those
days-the line ran from Ashland to Wisconsin Rapids-but they were pretty
much midday runs. On that old combination train they would see the
naked Finns running through the weeds in the twilight. They was always
headed east toward Schraum Creek. To dive in and cool off I guess. That
was a key part of the story. These naked Finns were coming out of a
hidden sauna somewhere.
Now my French grandmother said the sauna was in hell itself. She always
claimed a Finn could barely work up a sweat down there. And she was
married to one. My German grandfather thought the sauna custom was
barbaric. But his Norwegian wife thought it was a fine thing to do as
long as you maintained your modesty with a towel or at least stuck to
same sex groups.
It was the mixed naked men and women that bothered a lot of people. I
never understood that. I mean they're ghosts, they're dead. As long as
you're seeing a moldy old ghost, what's the difference whether they're
dressed or not? Isn't the whole point of a ghost to goose our souls and
I think that it offended many people that these naked ghosts were old
and decrepit like me. There was a lot of belly flab, big rear ends,
wrinkles, and sagging stuff to see. More people would have looked
forward to it if the ghosts had been in the prime of life. Then a naked
body is a work of art.
Now some said that what you saw depended on who you were. I mean, as
far as family background. Norwegians supposedly saw normal looking
people. French saw wild lust-driven creatures. Germans saw hideous
beings. And Finns saw beautiful maidens and handsome young bucks. The
rest of us crossbreeds just saw old bags and old farts. At least that's
what I saw.
These ethnic group ways of seeing things made a great deal of
difference back then. Before the groups intermarried it really
influenced your life. It really worked out that way on railroad jobs.
The Germans were engineers and brakemen up here. The Norwegians worked
on the track and bridge crews. The French were the freight clerks and
conductors. The Finns had the dirty jobs of engine oilmen and freight
Now supposedly this was another thing that connected to the naked
Finns. There was a lot of misunderstanding about Finnish hygiene
because they often had dirty jobs. Add that to their preference for the
sauna over the bath and you create a bad impression.
There was all sorts of ritual around Finnish use of the sauna. It was a
religious experience. There was a quiet time and a social time. And
special sauna rituals on certain days. Every Finn had to take a Shrove
Tuesday sauna for good luck. They got clean in there too. They scrubbed
themselves with rough pads and sponged off. But people still thought
the Finns were dirty.
So that was part of the prejudice against the ghosts too. What could be
nastier than a bunch of old ugly and dirty ghosts? They're not seen as
much as they once were. Of course, there's not much travel on those
tracks anymore except for the new short-line freights. So every once in
a while a train crewman will see the naked ghosts. Or sometimes some
kids will get scared by them.
It's been years since I last saw them. But then since I moved away from
the family homestead and up here to Glidden, I just don't get to walk
down around Schraum Creek anymore.
But, you never know, a couple of us senior citizens might inspire the
ghosts again. An old friend just built a sauna out of an old steam
locomotive boiler up on Meyers Lake Road. And he knows two Finnish
sisters our age from up in High Bridge who are raring to get their
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