Who is the North Dakota kid mentioned in a lyric from 'The Music Man'?
Harold Hill actors from Robert Preston to Matthew Broderick to Hugh Jackman have sung about how this man raised in Grand Forks was the root of all the 'trouble' with a capital 'T.'
You know the story of “The Music Man.” Con man Harold Hill makes his way into River City, Iowa, and tries to convince the townspeople they’re in trouble (with a capital "T" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for pool!).
Hill makes a pitch, in song, that if the town would start a band, their sons would stop hanging out at the pool hall where they were being corrupted.
Mothers of River City, heed that warning before it's too late
Watch for the the tell-tale signs of corruption…
Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy's Whiz Bang?
Great song. But one thing. What exactly is Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang?
It turns out Captain Billy, and subsequently his "whiz bang," have roots in North Dakota and Minnesota.
Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang was a bawdy humor magazine started by a North Dakota boy from a good family. Wilford Hamilton Fawcett became one of this region’s most colorful characters — a veteran of two wars, an Olympic athlete, a world traveler, a big-game hunter, and the guy who built Breezy Point Resort on Pelican Lake.
Wilford Hamilton Fawcett was born on April 27, 1885, in Canada, to John and Hannah Maria (Bird) Fawcett. He was the third of eight children.
According to a 2009 story by Curt Eriksmoen (with information provided by Bruce Gjovig, entrepreneur coach and founding director of the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota), "at the time of Wilford's birth, John was superintendent of the Winnipeg school system. While serving as superintendent, John was also working on his medical degree at the University of Manitoba.”
John Fawcett earned his degree, and when Wilford was just 3 years old, the family moved to Cando, North Dakota, and later Grand Forks. Dr. Fawcett specialized in “women’s diseases” and gained a reputation for his work with abdominal surgeries.
Their life was comfortable, but young Wilford craved adventure. He dropped out of Central High in Grand Forks when he was just 16. He somehow fooled the U.S. Army into believing he was 18 and was sent to the Philippines in 1902 to help subdue an insurrection there. But he got shot in the leg and eventually went back to Central where, no doubt, he told the best stories in homeroom.
'Captain Billy' is born
When he was 20, the Fawcett family moved to Minneapolis, where Wilford married Viva Meyers, a woman from rural Iowa. He soon found work as a reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune and later the Winnipeg Free Press.
When World War I broke out, he enlisted and was stationed in Virginia, where he wrote for Stars and Stripes, the U.S. Army magazine. He earned the rank of captain, and his forever nickname was born: Captain Billy.
When the war was over, he returned to Robbinsdale, Minnesota, having learned a valuable lesson about his time in the Army: Soldiers like risque humor. And now that they were off base, away from their buddies, they might be missing it.
So Fawcett figured the time was right to launch a new magazine that appealed to the bawdy interests of returning doughboys.
He called it Captain Billy's Whiz Bang. ("Whiz bang" was the name Allied forces gave to German artillery shells in World War I.) According to the Minnesota Historical Society, the first issue came out in October 1919. By 1923, the magazine was selling 425,000 copies a month.
Hot off the presses to Breezy Point
In 1920, Fawcett’s two brothers, Roscoe and Harvey, moved to Minneapolis to help run Fawcett Publications. Two years later, they introduced another successful magazine, True Confessions, and later Modern Mechanics, Inventions and Triple-X Western.
The magazines made Fawcett a rich man. He purchased land at Breezy Point on Pelican Lake near Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, which he built into a popular resort.
Fawcett was now divorced from his first wife, Viva, and married to his second wife, Antoinette. The couple became the ultimate hosts at Breezy Point — hobknobbing with all the beautiful people — from politicians like Harry Truman to movie stars including Clark Gable and Carol Lombard. While at Breezy Point, guests of the Fawcetts would hunt, fish, swim and drink illegal liquor.
Minnesota — even Breezy Point — wasn’t immune from the criminal underworld during the Prohibition era. Antoinette was believed to have introduced muckraking journalist Walter Liggett to Isadore “Kid Cann” Blumenfield, who was eventually tried for Liggett’s murder.
By 1924, Fawcett craved more action, and Captain Billy took on new roles that had him traveling the world.
According to the Minnesota Historical Society, “he competed in trap shooting (shotgun shooting at clay targets) in the 1924 Paris Olympics, hunted in Africa, took a round-the-world vacation, and purchased the St. Paul and the Minneapolis Boxing Clubs.”
Perhaps the world travels created trouble on the home front. He got divorced again and married again in 1935, this time to his secretary, Marie Frances Robinson. A year later, he stopped publishing the magazine that had made him his fortune, Captain Billy's Whiz Bang.
Ballantine Books, a division of Random House publishing, eventually acquired Fawcett Publications.
Fawcett died of a heart attack Feb. 7, 1940, in Hollywood after what was obviously a whiz-bang of a life.
STEP BACK IN TIME WITH TRACY BRIGGS
Hi, I'm Tracy Briggs. Thanks for reading my column! I love going "Back Then" every week with stories about interesting people, places and things from our past. Check out a few below. If you have an idea for a story, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.