Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photos of Sterling North and Rascal book cover © Sterling North Society

Thomas Sterling North had a distinguished career as a journalist and author.
© Sterling North Society

December 2010

Sterling North, Wisconsin storyteller

The author of the beloved Rascal was raised in Edgerton. Visit his restored home and the setting of his classic tale of a year with a raccoon.

Johanna B. Fabke

"I think I know what your mother would have wished," his Aunt Lillie said to Sterling North when he was 11. "I think she would have wanted you to be a writer and then you could put it all down the way it is now. You could keep it just like this forever."

That narrative drawn from Rascal, North's engaging memoir of the year he shared with a pet raccoon, was prescient. The book captivated readers and captured a time in 1918 when the family home and barn in Edgerton were occupied by Sterling, his father, David Willard North, assorted cats and Wowser, a huge but gentle St. Bernard. Sterling's mother had died when he was only seven. His older sisters had left to pursue their adult lives, one married and one a graduate student in Chicago, and his brother was in the Army on the World War I battlefields of France.

The book introduced a worldwide audience to the landscape, plants, animals and culture of Wisconsin that gave a young boy and his readers the freedom to explore his world in safe surroundings. D.W. North, who had a remarkably relaxed attitude toward child-rearing, took scant notice when his son added a month-old raccoon to the menagerie already in residence. More than 40 years would pass before Sterling North, by then a successful newspaperman, wrote down the story of this friendship. He describes how his furry companion, lacking a mother to teach him, nevertheless acquired the hunting and fishing skills he would need when he returned to life in the wild. He notes with humor Rascal's astuteness in distinguishing friends from enemies, both human and animal. And, perhaps anticipating questions from readers, he reports that Rascal was housebroken from the beginning without any training.

The raccoon isn't this story's only star. Readers learn early on about Sterling's mother, a gentle and intelligent woman who began college at age 14 and graduated at the head of her class. The writer remembers how she taught him that "seeds carry in their 'memory' the whole complex pattern of stem and leaf and flower and fruit" and showed him "how the stamens and pistils begin the seed-making process all over again."

This knowledge transformed their experience planting and tending a vegetable garden, one of many victory gardens created to provide moral support to American soldiers who were fighting overseas. While the sale of produce helped Sterling finance such projects as constructing a canoe in the family living room, the lesson stayed with him that, like the plants, his little raccoon "also carried patterns in his brain, as do the migrating birds and the honey-storing bees."

Sterling introduces his father as a man who, "although he never touched a card...was a born gambler." D.W. invested in a Montana wheat ranch and several farms near Edgerton (called Brailsford Junction in the book) and took delight in visiting his properties to see how the crops were doing. In the safety of his small town he felt perfectly comfortable leaving Sterling and his animal companions by themselves when business trips took him away from home.

D.W. North had grown up on the family homestead close to Busseyville and Lake Koshkonong. He was regarded as an authority on the location of trails used by the Native Americans who lived in the area before the arrival of European immigrants. As he studied the trails, North assembled a comprehensive collection of arrowheads. Educated at Albion Academy and the University of Wisconsin, he was also a pharmacist and inventor who created exercise and bread-wrapping machines well ahead of their times.

Sterling's father sharpened his appreciation for and knowledge of the natural world by spending time with Thure Kumlien (1819-1888), a pioneer naturalist and neighbor who settled in the 1840s on property adjoining the North farm. Kumlien had trained at the University of Uppsala in Sweden with the promise of an appointment as ornithologist at the royal court. When forced to choose between accepting the appointment or marrying a young woman deemed to be below his royal station, Kumlien chose marriage and emigrated to America with his bride and her sister.

Though held in high regard by the scientific community – gull, anemone and aster species are named for him – some locals regarded Kumlien as an ineffective farmer. They saw little value as he allowed a team of oxen to stand idle in a partly plowed field while he went off to study a bird that had flown by. Kumlien could stimulate nightly serenades by whip-poor-wills by playing his flute outdoors after dark.

Later in the summer of 1918 Mr. North proposed a two-week trip "up north" for Sterling, Rascal and himself. At that time, Sterling was fascinated with the sources of rivers and was pleased that their route followed the Rock River to its headwaters in the Horicon Marsh. They continued north past the west shoreline of Lake Winnebago, noting the change in scent as farm fields and hardwoods native to southern Wisconsin gave way to evergreens of the Northwoods. On the first night out they camped on the top of a granite cliff near a small, clear lake, dined on freshly caught black bass and prepared for sleep as the laughter of loons echoed across the water.

After passing through Ashland and stopping to gather agates at a local beach along Lake Superior, they reached their final destination near the Brule River, then, as now, one of Wisconsin's finest trout streams. Not until they were setting up camp did Mr. North reveal that he had been asked to testify as an expert witness in a court case being heard in Superior. For the next several days he would head off to the court room each morning, serenely confident that Sterling and Rascal could take care of themselves while he was away.

Each day brought new delights. First, the discovery of a blueberry patch and bushes heavy with ripe berries. On another day, Sterling and Rascal came home from their explorations to find a porcupine tearing apart a box of salt in their camping supplies. A hike up a tributary of the Brule brought them to a small lake where a white-tailed doe and fawn were standing in the water. Until then, Sterling had seen these creatures only in pictures in nature books.

They made friends with a man from Chicago who was spending the summer in his rustic cabin near the Brule. He took care to explain to Sterling that building this cabin was his reward for many years of hard work managing a sporting goods store in the city. He introduced the boy and raccoon to the art of fly-tying and joined Sterling's father in conversations about Native Americans. On the last day of their vacation, he loaned them his canoe. As they headed downstream toward Lake Superior, fishing along the way, they came upon a black bear sow with two cubs feeding on honey from a hollow tree. Rascal seemed to realize without being told that it was wise to keep a safe distance. They returned home to Edgerton greatly refreshed by their Northwoods adventures.

The book includes many more entertaining stories such as the raccoon's friendship with a race horse, his visit to Sterling's classroom at school, and his enjoyment of Christmas gifts and decorations. Like many classic children's books, this one is built on a firm foundation of life lessons. Sterling's parents fostered his appreciation for the natural world by sharing their own enthusiasm for plants, animals and landscape. They gave him credit for understanding some of nature's complexities at a very early age and started him down a path that would eventually make it possible for him to share their insights with a worldwide audience through his writings.

In The Wolfling, published six years after Rascal, Sterling North speaks more explicitly about the history and science of the natural world. This story, based on his father's boyhood farm experiences, finds the hero, Robbie Trent, raising a wolf pup he has captured from a den near the family farm. The author recounts both the rewards and frustrations of sharing farm life with a wild companion. Detailed notes about animals and plants mentioned in the story and the history, economics and commerce of the time are recorded in a separate section. The Wolfling was a Dutton Animal Book award winner in 1969.

Other works of fiction by Sterling North included a best-selling novel, So Dear to My Heart, which was made into a successful Disney movie. North's first novel, Plowing on Sunday, revealed aspects of life in the Edgerton area that were considered so racy in their day that the book was banned by the local public library! He also crafted several biographies of famous Americans for young readers including Thoreau of Walden Pond.

His attachment to the woods and waters of Wisconsin that he knew as a boy found expression in his books Hurry, Spring! and Raccoons Are the Brightest People, also in North's decision to buy recreational property in Michigan when he worked in Chicago. Later, when work took him to New York City, the North family bought an old farmstead on 25 acres in New Jersey. There, as a grown man, he once again enjoyed the companionship of baby raccoons that lived in the wild but seemed to know they would always be welcome visitors on his porch.

Tony Hillerman, the writer of best-selling mystery stories and chronicler of the homeland culture of the Navajo people, once said, "When I'm writing it's essential for me to have in my mind a memory of the landscape." Sterling North must have approached his craft in much the same way.

Happily for today's readers, many of the places described so affectionately in his books are still accessible for 21st century adventures. The website of the Sterling North Society is a good place to start planning a visit to some of the landmarks described in Rascal. View Sterling North Society or reach them by phone at (608) 884-7589. Here are some possible trips:

North home and barn in Edgerton

Photo of North home © Johanna B. Fabke The North home in Edgerton has been restored and refurbished with period furniture.
© Johanna B. Fabke

Walter Diedrick and his late wife, Elizabeth, were leaders in a community effort to form a nonprofit corporation, purchase and restore the North family home at 409 Rollin Street, Edgerton, when it was in danger of falling into decay. After several years of fundraising and restoration work, mainly by volunteers, the home opened to the public in 1997. The house is refurbished with period furnishings circa 1917 and many North family photos and artifacts are on display. Visitors are welcome on Sunday afternoons from April through December or by appointment for large groups.

School field trips

The Society offers school groups two itineraries for field trips, each of which begins with an introductory slide show at the public library. One trip features Rascal landmarks in and around Edgerton, including the North home and barn and the dam at Indian Ford. The other trip includes a hike into the woods to visit the site of Thure Kumlien's cabin near Busseyville. The hiking trail runs parallel to a number of Indian mounds.

Sterling North History Geocache

Launched by the Sterling North Society in 2008, the Sterling North History Geocache Series (GC156FH) will take you to five sites related to Rascal and the author.

Special events

The Sterling North Society celebrated the centennial of Sterling North's birth in 2006 with an autumn book festival featuring nationally known writers. In 2008 an Antiques Appraisal Fair was held to benefit the society. Watch Sterling North Society for announcements of future events.

Hoard Museum, Fort Atkinson

The Bird Room of the Fort Atkinson Historical Society's Hoard Museum is home to a collection of over 500 mounted birds. Several of Thure Kumlien's specimens and mounts are preserved here. The museum, at 401 Whitewater Avenue, is open free of charge throughout most of the year Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Visitor information is available at hoard museum.org or at (920) 563-7769.

Road trip to northern Wisconsin

By following State Highway 26 north from Fort Atkinson, you can start out along a route similar to the one taken by Sterling North and his father in 1918. A right turn onto State Highway 49 near Waupun will take you along Horicon Marsh, described by North in his narrative. Although their route through the central part of the state is less clearly defined, there is little doubt that they caught their first glimpse of Lake Superior from what is now U.S. Highway 2 west of Hurley, a view as spectacular now as it must have been in 1918. The state forest along the Brule River in Douglas County can be enjoyed by canoe – there's a landing along State Highway 13 – or on foot. Walk-in access is available from parking areas located along Brule River Road north and west of Highway 13.

Other road trip guides

Wonderful guide books are available for 21st century adventurers. For instance, Roadside Geology of Wisconsin is a profusely illustrated reference book that can help kindle your sense of wonder at state landforms. A copy can be ordered from the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, (608) 263-7389, or picked up at bookstores and libraries.

The Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trails offer a series of five regional viewing guides that inform travelers about places and routes to see birds and other nature at peak season. The color-coded maps are available at Great Wisconsin Birding & Nature Trail, at TRAVELWISCONSIN.COM, from tourism offices and from the DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources. Select from the Lake Superior Northwoods Region, Central Sands Prairie Region, Lake Michigan Region, Mississippi/Chippewa Rivers Region or Southern Savanna Region booklets.

Detailed listings of state parks, forests, trails and natural areas are also available from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. There's also a program designed by the State Park System to encourage families to spend more time outdoors. It's called Get Outdoors! Wisconsin.

Johanna B. Fabke writes from McFarland.