LEWANAHO COUNTY, WI—Gary Pavlik, an assistant librarian at the public library in Vida, the seat of Lewanaho County, is way too into local county history, sources reported Monday.
"Up until about 1890, Lewanaho County was famed across north-central Wisconsin for its sugar-beet production," said Pavlik, 37, the county's unofficial historian. "But two factors put an end to its predominance: a blight which wiped out much of the beet crop in 1891 and 1893, and a growing interest in cranberry farming, which was ideal for Lewanaho County's vast tracts of marshy land. Incidentally, I should mention that the blight was bacterial in origin, and not a fungus, as some of the old-timers in our community would have you believe."
Vida resident Eleanor Sloane, 66, who has known Pavlik since he was a boy, said he has always had a passion for Lewanaho County history.
"At first, I thought Gary's hobby was a positive thing, since girls didn't seem much interested in him and he needed something to occupy his time," Sloane said. "And it still is positive, in many respects. But numbering and cataloguing each plank of wood in the Swilley's Creek covered bridge off Highway PD, and then determining which sawmill each plank came from? That's just sad."
Said Pavlik: "An interesting thing to note about the covered bridge at Swilley's Creek is that it was built by a construction company that was once owned by the third cousin once-removed of the great-grandfather of—you guessed it—Eleanor Sloane. I should also mention that at the time the bridge was built, 1892, the cousin, Ekvind Solberg, had sold his company to Alfred F. Griebel, who would later become county supervisor. Upon its sale, Ekvind joined his brother Anders to manage his grain elevator in nearby Plovis, which did a modestly successful business before eventually shutting down in the early 1960s."
Pavlik's latest project is studying the life and work of Leopold Berlot, Lewanaho County's first Belgian and the inventor of an early prototype of the modern bicycle, a five-wheeled, hand-pedaled contraption called the "pentacopede."
"Sadly, Berlot's invention failed to catch on among the general public, and he soon returned to farming," said Pavlik, who has tracked down and interviewed more than two dozen descendants of Berlot. "Holder of some 30-odd patents, good old Leopold was one of the more colorful characters in Lewanaho County history, that's for certain."
Pavlik is also an avid preservationist, having saved over 75 volumes of court dockets, some dating back as far as the 1870s, from the Lewanaho County Courthouse upon discovering that they were earmarked for incineration. He subsequently donated the dockets to the Lewanaho County Historical Society.
"We were touched by Gary's generosity, but, unfortunately, we really didn't have a place for them," said Catherine Ernst, director of the Lewanaho County Historical Society. "We've been hard-pressed for space lately, and Gary's donation of 77 thick, oversized leather-bound ledgers only complicated matters."
Pavlik said citizens of Lewanaho County "can rest well" knowing that he is hard at work preserving their rich heritage.
"It's astonishing how many notable things have taken place right here in our own county over the years," Pavlik said. "The best part is, there's always something new to learn."
"Gary knows everything about us," Vida resident Dick Switzer said. "Where and when we were born, what we did for a living, who we married, how many children we had. It's really pretty creepy."
Pavlik's latest book, the 968-page A Short History Of Lewanaho County, Wisconsin, published by Pavlik Press, is available at the Lewanaho County Historical Society and nowhere else.