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W-File: gh_peeksvillenaked.html

Type: Ghost
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 tale.

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 our brains?

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 carmen.

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 clothes off.

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