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Celestial events make memories, and I, for one, have tended to tie them together in memory with other events in the world.

For years, I remembered that there was an eclipse “the day Lynyrd Skynyrd died.” But is that true? Well, sorta, a little bit, not really.

A total eclipse made its way across the western hemisphere on Oct. 12, 1977, and here in western Wisconsin, you could see a partial eclipse. About a week later, on Oct. 20, en route from Greenville, S.C. to Baton Rouge, La., Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crashed in southwest Mississippi. Three members of the band, the plane’s pilots, and one of the road managers died. Everyone who lived suffered severe injuries.

Also, for years, I remembered that the day the State of Illinois put serial killer John Wayne Gacy to death, the sun went out for half an hour just at noon. Now, that one is actually true.

Just after midnight May 10, 1994, Gacy died by lethal injection at the Stateville Correctional Center. And a few minutes after noon that day, an annular eclipse reached its maximum point here in the Midwest.

Still, my memories were correct in a broad sense: both of those celestial events were coincident with some drama in the news that I paid attention to.

And then there was Halley’s Comet

On the other hand, I remember the 1986 appearance of Halley’s Comet only vaguely and as a bit of a bust. However, Halley’s Comet figures into one of the oldest stories about what’s now Dunn County that survives in written form.

As background, you might want to know that Halley’s Comet ejects a stream of meteoroids as it travels along. Every time the Earth passes through this stream, we get an “Orionids meteor shower,” or, if you like, a show of shooting stars. If you happened to be alive in 1788, you’d have seen those showers peak the second week of October.

Now, let’s back up. A young man from Quebec named Jean Baptiste Perrault entered the fur trade in 1783. He was assigned to open up a trading post at the confluence of the Red Cedar and Chippewa Rivers.

On Oct. 11, 1788, he and his small crew began building a combination post and residence here. The map he left suggests it was between what’s now Downsville and Irvington.

Perrault and a Menominee elder named le Vieu Eturgeon (the Old Sturgeon) sat outside in the evening that day, “remarking on the weather and the beautiful season and looking at the heavens.” That is, until an amazing sight stopped them cold.

“At that moment there appeared on The horizon in the east,” Perrault wrote, “a Terrifying phenomenon in the form of a serpent, which moved, filling The air with a Blinding Light as it advanced toward The west, where it Disappeared into The horizon. We were filled With terror at the sight, for we had time to Consider it; it was at least five minutes in crossing the heavens. It was at least 30 rods Long.

“I Asked the old fol-avoine [French for Menominee Indian] what he thought it was. He said that it was a bad omen, that some misfortune would befall us, that the Master of Life was vexed.”

In fact, it did seem to be an omen. A group of Dakotas had been trading at the post, but one morning in November, a group of six Ojibwes arrived before the Dakota group departed. What saved the moment was that, by wide custom in the fur-trading world, all warriors had to leave their weapons outside before entering the post.

The Ojibwes and Dakotas spent that evening drumming, dancing, and trash-talking, but the next morning it ended badly when the Dakotas left early and waited in ambush, killing one Ojibwe and wounding another as the Ojibwes left the trading post. Shortly after, the mood more sour in the region, Perrault added fortifications to the post.

What will make our memories this time? Who knows? The future is unwritten. Have fun, but stay safe.

Frank Smoot is the director of the Dunn County Historical Society in Menomonie’s scenic Wakanda Park. You can reach him at 715-232-8685.


Dunn County News editor

Barbara Lyon is the editor of The Dunn County News in Menomonie, WI.

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