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Looking For The Lake Erie Monster And Other Folk Tales From The Midwest

Edward McClelland, author of "Folktales and Legends of the Middle West" [Edward McClelland]
Edward McClelland, author of "Folktales and Legends of the Middle West"

When it comes to larger-than-life characters, writer Edward McClelland, author of “ Folktales and Legends of the Middle West,” said our region of the country takes a backseat to no one.

For example, long before there was a “man of steel,” there was a man “made of steel” who lived in Pittsburgh and worked in the mills 24 hours a day, every day.

“Joe Magarac was made of steel. He worked in a steel mill and ended up melting himself down to build a new steel mill,” McClelland said.

Magarac’s story is one of many McClelland collects in his book. He said he felt that the Midwest is home of America’s first “superheroes,” because this part of the country was as he described it, “the first frontier,” as people began making their way west.

McClelland is the author of a number of books about the Midwest, including “The Third Coast,” “How to Speak Midwestern,” and “Nothin’ But Blue Skies.” “Folk Tales and Legends of the Middle West” was published by Cleveland-based Belt Publishing.

McClelland wanted to tell the history of the Midwest through its folklore, so he included some Native American creation tales, including Nanabozho, the Ojibwa trickster who was the inspiration for the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “Hiawatha.” 

In his book, McClelland writes of the French Canadian “voyageurs,” who were fur trappers that explored the Great Lakes. He also tells the story of Ohio River boatman Mike Fink, who was said to have battled river pirates, as well giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan and Nain Rouge, the red demon who put a curse on Detroit.

Of particular interest to Northeast Ohio readers is the tale of the Lake Erie monster- Bessie. Though claims of her first sighting take place in 1793, McClelland updated her story, making her a product of the pollution that flowed from the Cuyahoga River into Lake Erie.

McClelland said he felt these folk tales and legends serve a larger purpose.

“They make history more colorful, interesting and accessible. We can learn lessons about the history of the region by reading these tales. I think that people who first settled the Midwest made up these stories about how difficult it was to live here, how difficult it was to tame the region. We had these superhero characters like Paul Bunyan,  who made it look easy. I think we can make some connection with the first settlers in the Midwest by reading these stories,” McClelland said.

McClelland will share stories from “Folktales and Legends of the Middle West,” in a Zoom chat presented by the Willoughby-Eastlake Public Library Thursday from 6:30-8 p.m.