A WXPR listener noted that several dogs had been mentioned in past episodes of a Northwoods Moment in History, but no cats. This cat lover was curious if there were any stories from the past about cats in the Northwoods. Historian Gary Entz has the story.
Dogs frequently make it into history books by name for many reasons. Canines are often trained to work as service dogs for individual people, police, fire, and rescue services, and even the military. When a dog distinguishes itself during a crisis, its name and what it did is often recorded for posterity. Although the same is rarely true for cats, in 1947 the Rhinelander Public Library recommended that Northwoods readers look into the “Golden Book of Cat Stories” detailing true stories of cats from around the world. So, why not add a few true stories of cats from the Northwoods?
In the spring of 1925, the family of Wausau attorney P.T. Stone rented a cabin in the Hazlehurst area for a spring vacation. Of course, they brought the family pet cat along with them. After having enjoyed the fishing and hiking in the area, the family packed up and returned home to Wausau around April 13. Once home, however, they discovered that their beloved pet cat was not with them. Heartbroken and unable to locate their kitty, they gave it up for dead. However, a little over a week later, on April 22, the family’s pet Angora cat showed up on their doorstep. It was scraggly and a bit beat up, but otherwise healthy after walking roughly 75 miles through the woods from Hazlehurst to Wausau. Certainly, an incredible Northwoods journey for a lone housecat.
In 1933 George Holmes was an elderly man living alone in an isolated cabin in the western portion of Oneida County. Holmes was a recluse and did not associate much with those around him. He had only a pet cat for companionship, and it was the cat that saved him. On a chilly spring evening Holmes was sound asleep when he was unexpectedly roused by his cat clawing at his face. What he saw horrified him. His entire cabin was engulfed in flames. Both escaped, but Holmes likely would have died that night had it not been for his feline friend.
Finally, in 1956 the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce had a rather good idea. Because Friday the 13th fell in the second week of April that year, they decided to promote downtown businesses by holding what was called “Black Cat Specials” in downtown stores. Nearly all merchants participated. Children were dressed up in black cat costumes and sent to roam the streets and hand out gift certificates for different stores.
The highlight of the event, however, was a Black Cat contest sponsored by the Retail Division of the Chamber of Commerce. Thirty-eight felines were entered into the contest. The competition was fierce, but the winner that day was Leo, a black Angora cat belonging to Jean Gibson. Gibson received a $25 dollar bond, while Leo received the title of grand champion.
In the post-victory interview, Gibson said that Leo was groomed daily and fed a raw egg every day to maintain his lustrous appearance. It no doubt was a grand day for cats and humans alike, and a particularly good day for Rhinelander merchants.