If you are a fan of Wisconsin Public Television, or active in the Wisconsin farming communities; you may well have heard the name, Jerry Apps. He is one of the most prominent and engaging historians of Wisconsin and her farming culture. Recently, we sat down to speak to Mr. Apps about how he started his journey to becoming a respected, award winning author, speaker and keeper of Wisconsin’s rich and varied history.
WLG: As a child, you suffered from polio. This kept you from the typical activities of children your age. You mentioned that a teacher of yours really invested in you and started you on your way to becoming a published author. Could you tell us how that came about?
Jerry: I was a miserable little kid. I couldn’t play basketball, baseball, and could barely walk. When I started at little Wild Rose High School, in the fall of 1947, the total student population was one-hundred. There were fourteen students in my graduating class. There was a history and geometry teacher named Paul Wright. He was also the baseball-speech-basketball-theater coach. He recognized something in me, that I did not see. He said, “Maybe you want to take typewriting.”
Back then, typing was a class that was typically filled with girls on their way to secretarial careers. The only boy, I was scared to death sitting in front of that typewriter with my short stubby fingers. With those manual typewriters, you had to apply pressure to the keys. Soon, I realized that I was typing faster than the girls. They couldn’t get their pinkies to work. I had been milking cows by hand though, and really strong fingers. Suddenly, I was enjoying being in a class of girls. I advanced in my skills; becoming a reporter, assistant and finally, Editor of our high school paper, “The Wild Rose”. Paul Wright deserves tremendous credit for lifting me out of unhappiness. Imagine a farm kid that cannot walk. One of my books, Limping Through Life, was written about this experience.
WLG: Having worked in print, radio, television, even documentary films – who would you consider one of the most colorful personalities you have worked with?
Jerry: The ones most colorful people I met were not necessarily those that had the most influence on me. Someone who had a profound influence on me and my career was Wisconsin folklorist, Robert Gard. Himself a Kansas farm boy, he recognized my talent in writing, and took me under his wing. He started me at Wisconsin Press, where I published my first book in 1970. The Historical Society Press is bringing that book out again in a 50th anniversary edition. I also got to know Gilbert Nelson, who wrote the introduction for the book. Along the way, I found all kinds of people who were colorful and had an influence on me.
WLG: With over thirty published titles, an impressive list of television shows and radio interviews, in addition to documentary films you are quite a busy man. What do you find most challenging about sourcing new material to write about?
Jerry: Just now I have begun researching a new book. It will not be published for a couple years though. It is a book on the logging industry in Wisconsin that goes back to 1820. Having begun the research on this new book, I posted to my over 3,000 friends on Facebook. I asked for anyone who has any memorabilia on Wisconsin logging, to please send it to me. I have received hundreds of submissions; news clippings, adverts, and memorabilia people have held on to. I dig into the internet and find all kinds of resources. I immerse myself in the work. I love it. In another week, I will be eighty-three years old. There is nothing that keeps my mind working better than the fact that each day I discover something new and wrestle with it.
WLG: Your latest book, Old Farm Country Cookbook, was just released in July 2017, ripe full of WWII era recipes. Your own mother cooked many of these recipes during the Depression and following years. Which of the recipes is your favorite?
Jerry: During a radio interview I just did in La Crosse, I was asked the same question, and the answer is easy. It can be found on page fifteen of the book – Eleanor’s Molasses Cookies. My daughter and I did this book together. We relied on my mother’s old wooden recipe box that I still have. My mother’s cookies are still my favorite.