Tag Archives: Dennis McCann

“The Little Trickle That Becomes the Mighty River”

–submitted by Ben Hebebrand; photo by Dennis Cooley

Dennis McCann 11 29 2017The river that stretches 2,350 miles dissecting the United States has earned many monikers throughout its storied history– it has been referred to as America’s lifeblood, Ol’ Man River, or the Big Muddy.  Dennis McCann, who addressed the members of the Rotary Club of Madison on November 29, refers to the Mississippi as “This Storied River,” which is the title of his recently published book that celebrates particularly the Upper Mississippi’s history and role in shaping the Midwest.

McCann, a UW graduate and celebrated journalist for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, traveled the river’s path across the Midwest, including the headwaters at Lake Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota, where, according to McCann, you can see “the little trickle that becomes the mighty river.”

McCann frequently referred to the river as the feature that “divides and unites our country,” implying that its geography divides the United States into east and west and also brings us together.

A highlight of McCann’s research centered on his first-hand experience on his participation on the 150-year anniversary Mississippi cruise of the Grand Excursion, which originally sailed in 1854 in an effort to attract attention to the river as an economic engine to the towns along the river. It is during this commemorative cruise that McCann encountered the towns and cities that border the river in addition to discovering the river’s beauty, power and rich history.

Starting with the river’s earliest days as the river of native Americans, McCann particularly stressed the 40- to 50-year steamboat era, when “elegant steamboats came into town” and introduced settlers to travelers who often came from faraway places.

Throughout the years, however, the settlers of the Upper Mississippi have maintained a culture of their own, referring to themselves as River Rats, who construct shacks along the river and rebuild them following significant floods.

Stories Abound From the Grave

–submitted by Moses Altsech; photo by Jeff Burkhart


Dennis McCann pictured here with Club President Michelle McGrath

Whatever you thought you’d do after retirement, chances are it didn’t involve looking up graves. And yet that’s exactly what Dennis McCann did after leaving the Milwaukee State Journal. The stories he told us were not of ghosts, but rather of fascinating historical events—like the Peshtigo Fire or the Bayfield Flood—that he got to know more intimately by visiting cemeteries.

More importantly, through his cemetery visits, McCann got to know the people buried there—sometimes ordinary and sometimes extraordinary: Their story is sometimes captured by unique gravestone inscriptions (“In 1958 a contest was held to find the meanest woman in the world. Alas, I married both the winner and the runner-up… But if either are buried in this lot beside me there is going to be a resurrection”) and sometimes left unsaid—as in the case of John Heisman, whose tombstone doesn’t mention his Heisman Trophy fame.

Here in Madison we have the graves of 140 confederate prisoners of war held at Camp Randall, alongside the grave of the woman who once took care of their gravestones.

“Cemeteries are full of stories,” said McCann, obviously relishing the quest for discovering and telling those truly captivating stories.  In one instance, McCann interviewed a grave digger who took great pride in taking care of his cemetery much like he kept his yard at home.  “You got to be a cemetery man,” the man told him. “You got to be dedicated.” In Dennis McCann’s case, it takes one to know one.

If you missed our meeting this week, you can watch the video here.