A Janesville legend died a few weeks ago. Ward Wendt was 84 years old. He was born in Janesville and died at a nursing home in nearby Waterville. Ward was a farmer, a florist and a railroad worker. He was an enthusiastic collector. His wife died in 1997, and his obituary revealed he was survived by nieces, great nieces and nephews and great-great nieces and nephews.
But Ward left a legend behind, or at least one of the urban variety. I grew up across the street and two houses up from Ward’s house, which sits along the old Highway 14, the road that for decades went right through the town in southern Minnesota.
Ward’s house was — still is — home to the famous Janesville doll in the window, and if you think I’m exaggerating by calling it famous spend a few moments on Google and get ready to read about ghosts, and little girls who killed themselves and small boys neglected by their parents and demon possessions and eyes that hypnotize drivers as they roll through a town they’d forget six seconds after they leave it, if not for the doll that watches over everything. Today — even though four-lane Highway 14 now bypasses the town so there’s not as much traffic — you’ll still see drivers slow down as they approach the house, craning their necks to stare at the mysterious object.
Janesville’s not famous for much. We have Hay Daze, the annual summer celebration filled with parades and a carnival, but that’s like festivities you find in every town in the country that has a population under 2,000. Silos painted as a rainbow once greeted drivers as they entered town on Highway 14, a cool sight but one that was replaced by white paint with blue lettering. Fury’s Barber Shop offers good haircuts and better dirty jokes. We had Wiste’s Grocery Store, whose superb meat products attracted people from all over. In the mid-90s the high school had a dominant high school boys basketball team. There’s a lake. Nine-hole reversible golf course. And the name itself, which makes people think of Janesville, Wisconsin until you correct them and say it’s the small town in Minnesota, the one that’s about an hour south of Minneapolis. “Oh,” they say.
But people know about the doll. They know about its existence at least. Only Ward probably knew all the secrets.
I always took a bit of pride when people from out of town asked about the doll, whether it was a cousin or someone at basketball camp. They were always a bit fascinated, perhaps even a bit frightened, as if their parents one time told them on a five-hour drive to grandma’s that they’d better behave or they’d be dropped off at the house with the doll in the window. I acted nonchalant, as if it was no big deal we lived next to a house that was possibly haunted or home to a possessed doll.
Ward was born in the house he lived in all his life and the doll sat up in the attic for several decades. Stories about what it all means populate the Internet. The website Strange USA offers up several theories and testimonials, including from Janesville citizens. One guy comments about how only in Minnesota would be people be so reserved that they didn’t ask the man about it, apparently not realizing that many people did just that. He also writes, “Neighbors have the right to ask him to take it down.” Because of property values? Night terrors? And if it did happen, what would Janesville be known for? The Dairy Queen?
A few years ago, an enterprising college kid put together the coolest piece about the doll, an original documentary aired on Youtube called “The Janesville Baby,” a film designed “not to unlock the mystery, but to spread it; to perpetuate the myth; to celebrate American folklore.” It’s a fun film (Fury household appears in background at 4:52 and watch through the credits; at the 9-minute mark Janesville barber, and cousin, Jim Fury pops up). The moviemaker, Dan Kettler, who attended Saginaw Valley State, won an award for the movie. When Ward died, Kettler also left a nice note on his obituary, writing about how Ward “spoke very openly about his life, love, and local history.”
In 2010, I received an email from a high school student writing a paper about the doll, who saw something I had written about it before and wanted to interview me. I’m sure I disappointed her with my boring insight, which was really no insight at all, except to say Ward was a nice man, the doll wasn’t scary and I didn’t know the true story about its placement — if there even was any story at all. The doll has fascinated several generations of townsfolk and passersby. It was always there, and the story will always be secret. In 1976, in celebration of the bicentennial, the town put a time capsule in the city park, which is across the street from Ward’s house. In it, Ward — so the story goes — reveals the meaning behind the doll. I never found out if it’s a handwritten note or a typed letter. The capsule won’t be opened until 2176, and you can only guess at the reaction of those who do take a key or crowbar to the vault. “What’s this doll they speak of?” As a kid, it always upset me that I wouldn’t be there for the big reveal.
This story now frustrates my wife. On one trip she hatched a scheme involving us tearing up the vault and getting to the answer, though she left out tiny details like how we were supposed to get away with the crime. Or perhaps we have ourselves cryogenically frozen so we can return for the unveiling.
Growing up next to the doll in the window wasn’t a big part of daily life. It was handy as a directional for visitors — “turn left right before it, we’re the house next to the church” — but hardly filled our hearts with dread. Ward was a great neighbor, a friendly face. He drove around in a station wagon that always seemed to be filled with… stuff. Ward drove slow and that speed only decreased as his age increased. Call it parade speed. I often played on our street, throwing a ball against the old stone wall that surrounded the road, fielding cement grounders hour after hour. When I saw Ward rolling down the street I knew I had time for a few more throws before the car arrived. We’d both wave and we’d both continue with our chores.
Janesville won’t be quite the same without Ward, one of those small town characters who helps define a town. Every town has them — the bartender who’s been serving drinks and listening to BS since the ’50s, the barber with all the gossip, the newspaper editor with all the stories, the school bus driver who’s seen all the faces. The florist and railroad worker who knows the answer to the biggest secret.
He was always there, and always in that house, the attic filled with grand pianos — and a famous doll. He was part of Janesville’s history, but also knew all about its history. I never feared the doll, but like a driver from South Dakota passing through for the first and last time, I still look up at it when I’m back in Janesville. It’s comforting. It’s home.
Shortly after Ward died, my dad was talking on the phone with my niece. Out the window, he could see flashlights shining down by Ward’s house. Turned out it was the police, just poking around. Dad told Brandi the doll had escaped and was running down the street. He spooked her.
Ward is gone. The legend lives.
UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE (January 15)
So if you go through the comments below — and thanks for all the comments — you’d see that shortly after Ward died, the doll disappeared from its window. Don’t worry, it didn’t run off or float away. An unimpeachable source, my dad, has the inside scoop, as he spoke with the gentleman working on Ward’s house. The doll is safe and sound. Its future is unknown but it will be preserved. It will perhaps go to the city of Janesville to be displayed somewhere (where it can haunt more generations), and if it doesn’t go there, it will likely end up with the county historical society. So a vital piece of Janesville history — the thing that Janesville is best-known for — will live on. People will still be able to see it and marvel at it. I think Ward would like that.
UPDATE 2: As of January 2014, the Doll resides in the Janesville library.