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Chronicling Wisconsin's unique rural history

From the Journal Sentinel

Q. You've written about cheese and beer. When can we expect a book on bratwurst?

5807Jerry Apps
Takes Five
 
Jerry Apps Madison rural historian Jerry Apps often reminds people that "when we forget our histories we forget who we are." Apps, 67, has chronicled Wisconsin's history and culture in books such "Barns of Wisconsin," "Breweries of Wisconsin" and "Cheese: The Making of a Wisconsin Tradition." Apps, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, continues to teach writing at UW-Madison, the School of the Arts in Rhinelander and The Clearing in Door County. His latest project is a history of the Ringling brothers, who started their famous circus in Baraboo. The Wisconsin Historical Society will publish the book, tentatively titled "Ringlingville, USA." Apps will present an adult writing workshop, "Write Your Own Life Story," Nov. 13 at the Elm Grove Village Hall. He recently spoke with Journal Sentinel reporter Beth Kormanik.

A. That's a good idea. I haven't done that. What I've been trying to do is cover the major interest areas, especially in Wisconsin, but I've broadened out in rural history as it applies to the upper Midwest. I'm especially interested in the uniqueness of the upper Midwest. How are we different from Southerners? What motivates us to stay here? What keeps us living here in the winter and makes some of us actually like it?

 

Q. Most of us aren't important enough to have someone else write our life story, which may be one reason why you encourage people to write their own. How do ordinary people write a life story that's of interest to more than their immediate family and friends?

A. Sometimes that's good enough. I tell people that not only is it interesting and fun to write their own life story, but they have an obligation to pass on something of their generation's history to their children and grandchildren. If that's all they wish to do, to me that's plenty. I tell them not to worry so much about publication.

 

Q. What's the secret to telling a good story?

A. People. Making people come alive. Helping us see them in real situations. Each of us has our own story. I help them work on who they are, where they've been, how they relate to other people. I teach the basics of what good short stories are.

 

Q. In your writings, you've included slices of your own life while focusing on another subject. Would you ever write a straight autobiography?

A. I don't have plans to do that right now. I may sometime, do a Frank McCourt (author of "Angela's Ashes"). Mostly I've written the stories I have from prodding from my students. They asked, "When are you going to tell stories of your own?"

 

Q. You've spent a lot of time researching Wisconsin's past. Any predictions on where we're headed?

A. I have a terrible time figuring out where we've been. I'm working very hard at that. The best I can hope to do as a historian is to help us know where we've been and where we're going. I wish I knew.


 

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Nov. 2, 2001.

 

 

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