Club cheese and paper, an odd combination but they put Kaukauna, Wisconsin on the map. The place is not particularly charming or considered an essential tourist’s destination. The people are no nonsense types, hardworking and family oriented.
They like football, Sunday services, cookouts and big wedding receptions. These down to earth folks aren’t much interested in local gossip or circulating rumors. That’s why the events that took place in the summer of 1967 still baffle us and stay stuck in our memories even though they happened 30 years before.
Once a week a few of my old high school chums and I meet at Ho Ho’s Coffee Shop. We gather for girl talk and some reminiscing. One cold winter’s day I happen to mention a creepy bit of our local history that’s not well known outside the city limits. A few of the women around the table became much more animated and it wasn’t because of all the caffeine they’d been guzzling. Each one offered up different pieces of information. After several hours we managed to put most of the puzzle together. I wondered why this weird little blip of a story still held our interest. Perhaps because it was our first experience with the seamier side of life? Whatever the reason, it was a strange addendum in a place where the most exciting thing that occurred every year was the VFW Picnic. By the end of the afternoon we still didn’t have a reasonable explanation for what actually happened that summer.
When I was growing up our town was considered a safe community to raise a family. The paper mill was the main source of employment. We had a downtown of sorts, which offered a grocer, Five and Ten, a corner Rexall, and a hardware store. Most people didn’t worry about locking their doors or allowing their children to have the run of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, it didn’t offer much in the way of organized activities for kids. We spent a lot of time jumping rope, climbing trees or riding our bikes to the local Piggly Wiggly. For cheap entertainment we’d sit on the curb, lick blue Popsicles, and stick our tongues out at the passersby.
One thing we did have was a pool. It didn’t offer super slides or even a diving board. In fact, it was little more than a rectangular dugout. But to us it was an oasis in the dry desert of small town living. Every summer hundreds of hot, sticky kids waited in long lines to enter the cement watering hole.
The Kaukauna Community Swimming Pool was located at the top of Beaulieu Hill. It was a tough climb in the summer heat. Most of the locals knew of a short cut. They’d follow a narrow trail through the woods called Cutler’s Path. Deep shade and flatter terrain made it cooler and easier to walk. Taking it during the daylight wasn’t a problem. But at night the woods were pitch black. With no street lights or houses nearby more than one child had lost their way. It was easy to get hurt tripping over unseen branches and bulging rocks. In addition, there were some local legends connected to the place. The grounds were thought to be haunted. Most kids knew better than to walk the path alone.
In the summer of 1967 the town hosted a number of evening Splash Parties. Twenty five cents would buy you pool privileges, a free Popsicle, and piped in music. They were very popular with teenagers. The event started at 7 and usually ended around 11 pm. Afterwards everyone walked home tired and ready for sleep.
A few weeks passed and the parties were in full swing. It’s around this time that the rumors began to circulate.
Some of the teens reported seeing a figure of a man hiding behind the trees as they ran through the path, usually around dusk. He was described as tall and thin and wearing dark clothes and boots.
At first nobody took it seriously. The police were suspicious of the reports. It wouldn’t have been the first time a few
adolescent smart alecks had put one over on them. They checked out the woods and found nothing but pop cans, a few candy wrappers, and cigarette butts.
One night a group of high spirited youths who called themselves “The Beaulieu Bandits” decided to take the path home.
They hoped to spot the mysterious man and brazenly dared one another to approach him when they did. According to the group, suddenly and without warning the man leapt out of a hiding place, stood before them and tore open his coat. They were shocked when they realized he wasn’t wearing any clothing underneath. He laughed wildly and quickly vanished into the darkness. The boys were left wondering what in the world they had just witnessed. None of them felt the pressing need to follow him into the woods. In fact, they sheepishly admitted to running home as fast as their legs could carry them.
Over the next few months other kids claimed they were seeing the lewd, laughing man. They dubbed him the Ha Ha Man.
The authorities continued to investigate throughout the summer. They set up a secret stake out to catch the laughing lunatic.
It came to nothing and left them with no proof to substantiate the twisted tale.
By the middle of summer every kid within 10 miles of the pool was frightened to stay out past dusk. As far as the police could tell the flasher had only been sighted on the path or in the surrounding woods. Yet to many children he was becoming something akin to the Bogey Man. He could jump out at any second or from any grove of bushes or cluster of trees. He could be waiting for you if you were foolish enough to ride your bike home at night. No one was safe from the the Ha Ha Man’s creepy clutches. The story took on a life all its own.
The Splash Parties were quickly losing their appeal. Not many teens wanted to attend a party with the possibility of such a nasty surprise attached to it. City council members were frustrated and so were the parents in the community. What had started out as a great idea was quickly turning into a nightmare. The parties were canceled with very little opposition from kids or adults.
Despite all the drama the Ha Ha man seemed to disappear quite undramatically along with the summer. The pool closed for the season. The school year began and no one saw or heard from him again. As far as the authorities were concerned there was no reason to believe he had ever actually existed.
Several months later a couple of kids were fishing in the Konkapot Creek not far from the pool. They reportedly found a black rain coat and boots stuffed in the underside of a small footbridge spanning the water. The police and city council were not keen on dredging up the story again. The discovery was ignored and people were happy to go back to their ordinary lives.
To this day there are still some who insist that the Ha Ha Man was real and may have been a person who lived in the area.
But whether real or an urban legend he remains a disturbing memory for many of the people who attended the 60’s Splash Parties.
Little is left of the path today. It’s badly overgrown with weeds and no longer extends to the pool. The trees are sparser and light filters in at night from several homes built over the last decade. A few kids wander through it now and then. Some have even claimed to hear strange laughter coming from the deeper, darker parts of the woods. Perhaps Cutler’s Path is still the Ha Ha Man’s favorite haunt.