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208 – State Fair of the Strange: Sideshows, Weird Foods, and The Minnesota Iceman

We’ve been regular performers at the Wisconsin State Fair for the last eight years and have grown to love the goofy mix of agricultural excellence, carny spectacle, and sheer gluttony that comes with the celebration of all things Wisconsin. They even have a complete list of all the foods “on a stick” that you can enjoy.

Here’s a video of our first show at the State Fair (which is also the first place I ever performed Karaoke – “Born To Be Wild” if you must know…)

And the thing is, many of the things to do at the State Fair are innocent and fun, I mean just look at the intro to Rogers & Hammerstein’s State Fair musical (that Wendy still can remember all the words to!)

But the State Fair has always had a lot of weirdness to it. First of all, it’s a place where people make giant things just for the Hell of it. In Wisconsin, we just made the world’s largest cream puff that’s three and a half feet long and weighs over 125 pounds. Why? Why the Hell not?!

But it’s also the longtime home of the sideshow, there used to be over a hundred traveling sideshows touring American State Fairs in the 1950s and 60s and there even was a town where the sideshow performers lived during the Winter (Gibtown, Florida, where The X-Files got the inspiration for their Season 2 classic, “Humbug”.)

Jim Rose and the Geek

The sideshows were still around when I went to the fair as a kid, but you’re not going to find shows that feature genetic abnormalities anymore. Some states have passed laws against exploring people with deformities and even though sideshows may not have been as exploitative as we think, there’s still an icky aftertaste in gawking at other human beings that we feel today. (At least in person, here’s a great article from Variety that compares modern reality TV to the old-time sideshow and well… see if you can tell the difference.)

But one of the traveling exhibits that I wished I would have seen as a kid is  the “Minnesota Iceman”. Was it the corpse of the famous “Missing Link” that traveled the country? Was it the last living Neanderthal?

Found in Wisconsin… of course!

Well, there’s lots of conflicting stories when it comes to the Iceman and we go over them in the episode. The FBI and the Smithsonian even get involved.  Wendy and I finally saw him in March when we were down at SXSW and made a visit to The Museum of the Weird in Austin. You can hear our verdict in the podcast.

In this episode you’ll:

  • Learn what Abe Lincoln was up to at the 1959 Wisconsin State Fair
  • Be regaled by the strange history of The Minnesota Iceman
  • learn about the ghostly specters that haunt the Minnesota State Fairgrounds
  • understand our own famous Wisconsin cryptid hoax, The Hodag
  • Hear about the weirdest foods at State Fairs across America
  • Finally get to understand what a “Buckeye” is
For this week’s song, I thought it would be sweet if I tried to sing as many of the foods that I could rhyme that are served at the Wisconsin State Fair “on a stick”. We make fun of the unhealthy foods you can devour at festivals and sometimes I hear people bemoaning the culture of deep frying and mobile cuisine. Not me, though. There is something uniquely and wonderfully American about all of it. There are wonders to see and things to explore. We’re the descendants of the people who weren’t satisfied with what they had and they needed to move to create a better life. That’s ingrained in our culture and sometimes we have to walk when we eat, dammit. “Life On A Stick” isn’t as bad at all.
It’s All-American like Apple pie,
waving to the fire trucks on the Fourth of July.
Time keeps moving on,
you don’t let it pass you by,
you take a big bite out of it.
You keep on walking, that’s the trick,
and know that life can be beautiful
on a stick.
They’ve got
ants and bacon
tator tots
BBQ pork chop
beer battered cheddar sausage
corn dogs and cake pops
candy apples caramel apples
cheese balls and shish ka bob
coconut shrimp and boneless chicken wings
bacon wrapped pork that’s pig inside a pig
They’ve got
colby cheese and
cookie dough
a spiral cut potato
dill pickles, crab cakes
fish and chips, donut holes
Super Dog, Twisted Dog,
Tijuana Bacon Dog
Pizza in a waffle,
meatballs and Milky Ways,
a snickers and a twinkie,
you’ll be in the john for days.
It’s All-American like Apple pie,
waving to the fire trucks on the Fourth of July.
The time keeps moving on,
you don’t let it pass you by,
you take a big bite out of it
You keep on walking, that’s the trick,
and know that life can be beautiful
on a stick.
They’ve got
shrimp tempura
battered shark
cotton candy
ice cream bars
olives, stuffing,
root beer pops
steak and egg,
Pretzel brats
S’mores, sliders, deep friend fruit,
scotch eggs, french onion soup
Wisconsin Grilled Cheese or a Swiss & Rye,
Turducken on a stick to make you think you’re gonna die
They’ve got
Fried Elvis, Fat Elvis,
Salad and Sheboygan brats
cream cheese and spaghetti
bacon-wrapped chestnuts,
Door County Cherry Pie,
Mac & Cheese and lug nuts
Chocolate covered ‘nanas, peanut butter jelly,
flaming hot corn cobs rumblin in your belly
It’s All-American like Apple pie,
waving to the fire trucks on the Fourth of July.
Well time keeps moving on,
you don’t let it pass you by,
you take a big bite out of it
You keep on walking, that’s the trick,
and know that life can be beautiful
on a stick.

Telling Ghost Stories From An Atlanta Hotel Bar

So, I spent a few days this week in Atlanta and in the late evenings, I did some unwinding in the hotel bar. Hotel bars are great for random conversations, so while I’m eavesdropping on people talking at the bar, I hear a woman conversing about the Green Bay Packers. In Wisconsin, this is par for the course, but when you’re hundreds of miles away from home and someone with a Southern accent proudly declares their allegiance to the Green and Gold, you just gotta say something.

Fast forward a bit and I discover that she manages a funeral home and that she used to own the Jacksonville, Florida bar where Ronnie Van Zant got into the trouble that eventually inspired the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “Gimme Three Steps”.

So of course, the first thing I say, “A funeral home? Is it haunted? You ever see anything weird?” And then we’re off, talking about ghosts and then a guy from Chicago who is also sitting at the bar, joins the conversation and talks about how his childhood home was haunted and how he shares a special psychic connection with his Mother and Aunt.

Wow, and I just thought I was going downstairs to have a beer before bed.

Anyway, the Funeral Home manager shares a couple of stories about weird things she’s seen at graveyards. Her best story was probably about a bench in front of a grave and leaving her mobile phone microphone on it for a little while at night while they went off investigating the cemetery. When she was playing the sounds back later, she heard some scratching and tapping on the audio and couldn’t figure out what it was.

This was back when she owned the bar and she passed the phone over to one of her regulars who was an old sailor and asks him if he hears anything. He listens to the EVP for a few seconds and puts the phone down, then thinks for a second, picks it back up and listens again. He tells her, “I’m not sure what it is, but if it was Morse code, it would spell out ‘I Can See You’.”

So, good story. The next thing she pulls out are two photos that her friend sent to her that her friend claims she took. I’ve never seen these online before and she did have them right on her phone, but I was chilled by them.

I know that everyone knows a little bit of Photoshop these days, but do these pics look like they were made in an app or obvious effects? If not, these are some of the most impressive homemade photos that I’ve seen in a long time.

ghost photo
ghost photo