After combing through some old stuff, I found a few old emails with stories about Wisconsin from pre WWII and just after. Thought I’d share for your amusement.
East and south of Elkhart Lake was the city of Plymouth. While Elkhart Lake had a population of 375, Plymouth was close to 2000. Not only did they have more people, they also had Dynamite Bill. Actually, I’m not sure one “had” Dynamite Bill, he sort of was. Most of what I know about him was hearsay since his main reputation was established in the twenties and thirties. The key points about the man in order of reputation were: he understood explosives intimately and he did most of his blasting fairly well “blasted” himself. In later years, and Bill was old in the forties, he would wander into one of Plymouths watering holes for a social snort or eight. He would be dressed in his uniform of choice, bib overalls, with or without shirt depending on the season and with one or more quarter pound “sticks” in his pockets, fuses sticking out. This gentleman was armed and no one challenged him or spent any time giving him any trouble. He was as unpredictable as some of his old explosives and enjoyed a lofty position in the saloons of Plymouth.
Bill earned his reputation in Eastern Wisconsin in the twenties clearing farmland. There were a lot of standing forests in the country and farmers wanting to extend their crop lands would cut down the old growth hardwood trees, sell the timber to the furniture makers in Sheboygan, and be faced with the prospect of removing acres of stumps. While tractors existed, most of the work was done with horses. While a team could do the work in God’s good time, Bill could do it a lot quicker. According to a farmer that hired him, Bill was something to watch in action, (from a distance.) He arrived by horse-drawn wagon carrying a full load of dynamite. His arrival was expected and not a soul was on the road between where he lived and where he worked. He favored baggy bib overalls, he wore no shirt and stuffed his pockets full of quarter pound sticks of dynamite. These look like a monster firecracker with waxy exterior and a somewhat longish fuse sticking out of one end. Bill calculated the fuse length to allow him to set a number of additional charges before that one went off. He lit one of many cigars he brought with him and started at the fence side of the former woods, jamming the dynamite close to the “not-Bill side” of the stump. He lit the fuse with his cigar and walked to the next stump in line. Set that explosive, lit it and marched to the next stump. After some time as the fuses burned down, the stumps started becoming airborne as the explosives went off. Bill missed not a beat and when he came to the end of the line, he turned the corner and continued at 90 degrees from this previous path setting charges and lighting them. This continued until he got close to the inside of the spiral he was working in and the work slowed down while he waited for the charges to go off. This entire operation was done while Bill was about three sheets to the wind! The farmer told me he had never seen anything like it. Here’s this guy jamming dynamite under stumps and lighting the charges while the woods was throwing stumps into the air right behind him. Bill was a project guy, he didn’t work by the hour and he worked for cash. When he was done, there were stumps all over the place and horses could easily drag them and their roots to a “burn pile.”
Bill wasn’t only good at stumps. He was a master at rocks too. Plymouth is located at the end of a major terminal moraine from the last ice age. Glaciers pushed gravel, sand, ice and world class rocks in front of them. When the glacier stopped advancing, everything that was being pushed also stopped its motion. The blocks of ice created the lakes around the area including Elkhart Lake, sand and gravel hills to be mined later - and rocks. Lots of rocks. Farmer’s children would spend their chore time picking rocks. When a potential field was cleared of trees, it had to be cleared of rocks. One did this by going to the field and picking the rocks off the ground and throwing them on the fence line. Actually, they became the fence in time. You picked what you could carry and then you picked what you and your brother or sister could carry together. What was left was the boulders. Some were moved by horse and ropes but others stayed in the field. Some of these boulders were immense and could not be moved by normal horse and manpower. However, Dynamite Bill had an answer. He would continue to pound the rock with dynamite until it was small enough to cart away with horse and “schlep”, (that’s a wooden skid used to move stuff.) I never heard that he was used by the highway department to do any creative blasting but he sure could make small ones out of big ones.
As the fields became cleared and the rocks picked, the demand for Bill’s services declined. It was just as well, he was on in years and not as spry as he once was but there was a final episode in his career. Dynamite Bill didn’t keep his supplies in town. Although the demand had declined, he kept a good supply of dynamite, blasting caps, primer cord and other nasty, violent stuff stored in a shed on some land he owned about three miles from town. One summer day the shed and it’s contents went away. The shock wave took out plate glass windows in Plymouth, caused cows to stop giving milk and the chickens to stop laying. Bill wasn’t there. At first the speculation was that Bill had made an operational error and perished with his supplies. But that wasn’t the case. Bill had been out of town and when he returned the people said it must have been some kids. Locals said they had seen some kids with .22 rifles in the vicinity. They never found out what really caused it. The were no reports of fatalities. Although I would speculate that if some kid put a .22 slug into that building and set off the charges stored inside, you would have to do it from a fairly close distance or shoot with a great deal of elevation on the rifle. If it was kids, that blast wave must have caused some serious soiling of didies. I don’t know if Bill was insured but he did retire.