By Craig Marx, Editor
This is my favorite time of the year for a number of reasons. I enjoy the autumn colors, football every weekend, the perfect sweatshirt weather, and most importantly Halloween. My love for this fall ritual goes well beyond pagan festivities and the month-long replays of horror movies on seemingly every channel, but is a kind of appreciation for the mysterious and frightful that intrigues me, at least as a writer.
Everyone claims either their childhood home or neighbor’s house may be haunted. Living in New Orleans, a city that has built a tourism industry as much around the macabre and the absurd as it has its nightlife and food, the haunted tours that lead droves of people about the French Quarter claim nearly everything to be haunted. Because of the detailed and complex history of Louisiana itself, the long-perpetuated mythos that surround the lure of voodoo, pirates, and a seedy underbelly come across as rather genuine.
In Langlade County, however, the history is often times not as readily recorded nor made increasingly more sensational as the relatively few generations of settlers, at least in contrast to the abovementioned Southern port, have come to grow into the modern communities of Antigo and beyond. Despite my own cynicism, there is one “haunted” legend that is intriguing in a historical sense in the very least and is part of my childhood as a story often told.
My mother and father bought their first home on Badger Avenue in 1979. My sister and I were raised there and while we are on our own now my parents have decided to sell the old family home and move to the family’s cabin further north. The original plot was first settled by Anton Tollefson, a hardware dealer from Manitowoc that moved to Antigo in 1886 and purchased the land that is still dated and signed on my parents’ deed. With his wife, Mary, the couple had three boys – Earl, Reuben, and Leland – along with another brother, Irvy, who died very young.
After losing Earl and Reuben in an unspecified “epidemic” according to the deed, the young Leland, born May 30, 1894, was the sole survivor of the Tollefson children who would eventually be of prime age to witness a new horror first hand – the First World War.
Leland enlisted and was a member of Company G of the 4th Wisconsin National Guard along with 64 other recruits from Antigo. After training in Waco, Texas, the men were formed into the 107th Trench Mortar Battery of the 57th Field Artillery Brigade, set to see action in the bloody trenches of war-torn France. The men arrived in Brest on March 4, 1918.
The 107th Trench Mortar Battery was attached to French units in the thick of the fighting against the Kaiser’s armies, where the now 24-year old Leland found himself involved in the engagements in the Vesle River region.
According to Robert Dessureau’s History of Langlade County, published in 1922, Mr. Tollefson met his end later in the summer of that last year of the Great War:
“In the Vesle River engagement, where the American army won undying glory by pushing the German army back for miles, Corporal Leland Tollefson was killed on August 17, 1918. He was delivering an important message to brigade headquarters in the Chateau Thierry Sector and sacrificed his life while on that duty…”
Leland is currently buried near the battlefield in France where he came to pass, but a veteran’s marker has since been placed at Queen of Peace Cemetery in Antigo.
Anton Tollefson had long since passed away by the time of his son’s death, on Halloween Day, 1894 to be exact. Leland’s mother, Mary, remained at the Badger Avenue house until roughly the mid-1920s. It is unknown what happened to the widowed and childless mother, and no further Tollefson relation currently lives in Antigo.
That is where my family has come across the legend. My family liked to believe that there was a kindly ghost, the spirit of Leland, perhaps, that would close your bedroom window if it turned chilly during the night or would protect the house that his father had built nearly a century beforehand. It was the benevolent spirit of a soldier who had finally made his way back across the Atlantic.
Even though the house is now for sale, my parents still keep a picture of Leland Tollefson up in their den as the reminder of a man that is as much a part of the house as those fortunate enough to have grown up in it. After the cemetery marker was added to the veterans’ plot in Antigo, my mother and father have gone out every Memorial Day since to arrange new flowers and make sure they are kept up throughout the weather-permitting year.
The VFW Post 2653 in Antigo is also dedicated to the man who passed on the battlefields of France, officially named the Leland Tollefson Post on Nov. 6, 1933.
Benevolent ghost or not, the history of the Tollefson Family and my own intersecting has been an amazing historical experience to share. Happy Halloween and be safe.
A special thanks to my parents Cheryl and Jeff for helping keep the Tollefson legend intact. Also, thank you to the Antigo Public Library, especially Mr. Dessureau’s exhaustive History of Langlade County compendium.