Jim Dumke is a retired Attorney, Civil War Reenactor, and a Rock County Historical Society Tour Guide.
Interview by Teresa Nguyen
“As a people, we may have lost our way a time or two, but we’ve never really lost our character, that which defines who we are.” ~ Jim Dumke
How long have you been in Rock County?
We’ve lived here for over 30 years, but I am originally from Illinois. My wife, Gayle, is from Wisconsin, and that’s how we ended up back here. I came here to practice law.
Where did you go to school?
For three years I went to Augsburg College in Minneapolis, but it looked like I was going to get drafted, so we got married in 1969.
At that time, they instituted the lottery system and I got number 348. So, I finished up school in Illinois at Lewis University.
Tell me about your career here.
I practiced law for 27 years, mostly criminal, did prosecuting for four years and then defense for a while. I did a little bit of everything.
Originally, my office was in Beloit, when they had the two-court system going. Then, when they closed down the Beloit courthouse, I moved up here and opened my office at 221 Court Street. That always reminded me of Sherlock Holmes … 221 Baker Street.
After you retired from law, what did you do then?
I continued to teach law at Upper Iowa University. Eventually, I retired from teaching, and now I do what I really want to do.
Now I enjoy reenacting the Civil War, volunteering at the Rock County Historical Society and watching over my grandchildren.
What first sparked your interest in history?
When I was a kid, my parents encouraged me to read. I especially loved biographies, which is how I sort of became interested. Then, my folks bought me the four-volume set of Sandburg’s Lincoln. After reading those, I was not only hooked on history, but hooked on Lincoln!
You can’t grow up in Illinois and not hear about Lincoln from about the time you are born until you leave this world. It’s really the focus of the state.
How did you become interested in Civil War reenactment?
A friend of mine and his wife and my wife and I had gone down to Ottawa, Illinois. C-SPAN was recreating the Lincoln-Douglas debates. We went to see that, and it was a whole weekend of events.
There was a Civil War unit there and we started talking with them and hung around the camp for about half a day. Everybody was talking about going to Gettysburg the following year. Every five years they do a large national reenactment. That next year would have been the 140th.
We thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to experience that, to experience in some degree what it would have been like to be there?” So, we joined Company K in Wisconsin in 2001. They represent southern Wisconsin, from Milwaukee over. We have members from all over southern Wisconsin, most are from Madison.
I’ve been reenacting now for 17 years!
How is it determined who plays which roles?
You just select for yourself. You can even be a generic soldier. But, they encourage us to choose a real soldier, to study his background and his history, experiences and what happened to him during the war. It helps to sharpen our focus and when people come through the camps, we can talk about specific people from that historic period, rather than a general conversation.
What is your role in the Civil War reenactments?
I play a surgeon, Dr. Henry Palmer.
Why Dr. Palmer?
First of all, he’s from Janesville. I love this community and take a lot of pride in it. His story is also unique in the sense that he not only worked in the field hospital, where he started with the Iron Brigade, but he moved into a general hospital in York. So he practiced both sides of the Civil War medical work.
There’s also the great story of the attack on York. Dr. Palmer took civilians and soldiers who were convalescent and created a defense to drive the enemy back and away from York.
I really like the guy. One of the things I admire about him is that after the war he comes back here to have a stellar career. He also brought in a black man named William Williams to study under him. Williams eventually went back to Chicago where he was only one of three black doctors in the city!
How often do you do Civil War reenactments?
We do reenactments every other weekend, actually.
Gayle and I and her sister used to organize a dinner and dance, a kind of ball, in February around Valentine’s Day. The evening dance would be on the same day as the company meeting, which was in the morning. It was a lot of fun for the members, and most everyone would dress in period dresses and suits.
We had Patricia Lynch as the caller. In Victorian dancing you had a caller, and she also taught us all the dancing. We also had a fiddle player, Frank Medina, who had an Irish Civil War band who played for the dances.
What is your favorite part of reenacting?
I enjoy the interaction with the people who come through the camps. If they’re there, generally we share a common interest in the Civil War. It gives me a chance to talk about that period, to share about the people, Dr. Palmer in particular.
I love working with the children. The school days are probably the highlight of my year. The kids are so eager. They just eat it up!
With reenacting, we’re sort of like a family. We know what each member is doing in life, what their grandkids are doing, what they’re doing in their careers. We sit around at night, and we don’t just talk about the Civil War. We talk about ourselves. We all really do feel connected with each other.
Most of us like each other. There’s always one or two that cause a bit of friction, of course. But, we have that common goal, so you can take those quirks and ignore them, take the good with the bad and move on.
When I go off to do reenactments, I fly the 33-star American flag and the Irish Brigade flag on those weekends. And I fly the Irish Brigade flag all the month of March.
Tell me about your trips to Gettysburg.
I’ve been to Gettysburg six times. The 2nd Wisconsin goes out there. There are many guys from the various companies.
We would go out for Remembrance Day, which is always around the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. We would put Wisconsin and American flags on the graves of the Wisconsin soldiers and then hold a ceremony there. We’d hold another ceremony and a laying of the wreath at the Iron Brigade monument. And then, in the afternoon, there was a parade.
Tell me about your Irish ancestor who fought in the Civil War.
Tom Kelly was my great, great uncle who went off to fight. His father owned a farm, and Tom was one of 11 kids. His father didn’t want him to go fight in the war, he wanted him to stay and help out on the farm.
When he came back, he got his own farm, which was five miles from his father’s farm, but they never spoke again, because his father was still upset that he went off to fight in the Civil War.
I did what genealogical research I could. He’s on the Civil War monument for LaSalle County in Ottawa, IL. His farm was actually in Deerfield township.
How long have you been involved with the Rock County Historical Society?
I’ve been there about 10 years or so. I came just looking for a chance to be involved. I was still teaching, but wanted to do something new, so Gayle encouraged me to go to RCHS to see what I could do. Right away I learned the tour and have mostly done that over the years.
I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it, and I really enjoy the people at RCHS. I give tours of the Lincoln-Tallman House and for children who come to the Frances Willard Schoolhouse, wherever my skill set qualifies me.
I think I would have liked Mr. Tallman. He and I have a lot in common. We were both tobacco users, he was a lawyer, as was I, and he was anti-slavery, as am I.
When I was in college, I did a lot of civil rights work. After I got out of college, I was always a strong supporter of civil rights. At the reenactments, I’ve had people say to me “Well, you wouldn’t have been anti-slavery back in the 19th century.” But I disagree because of my religion, and because of my father’s influence. He was a conservative Republican who believed strongly in civil rights. When he was in the service, he served with African-American soldiers.
What are some of your other hobbies?
I enjoy reading, though I don’t consider that a hobby. And I write the association newsletter, “The Fugleman,” for the 2nd Wisconsin, an umbrella group that has the field hospital and five companies. There are about 90 pages to it. I took over publishing that around eight years ago. Before me, another man published it for 20 years. Members can receive it electronically.
I used to write the Company K newsletter, The Gazette, and was secretary of the Company K unit for about 12 years. But, it was taking up too much time to do both newsletters.
Have you ever considered running for office?
No! I worked in politics, and I’ve worked for candidates. I’d prefer to be behind the scenes and I did it mainly because I liked the candidates who were running.
In fact, the year my son was born, my dad and I had gone down to a campaign dinner in LaSalle, Illinois. I came home at night and couldn’t find my wife. The house was dark. So, I went to my mother-in-law’s house, and she was gone, too! But then, I ran into her and she told me that Gayle had gone into labor!
When we moved up here, I told Gayle I wouldn’t become involved in politics. It eats up a whole lot of your time and takes away from family.
What are some significant changes you have seen over the years in Rock County?
A lot of the changes are cosmetic. Beloit has had an amazing transformation! In fact, I go down there now and hardly recognize the city. I can get lost in Beloit now! When my office was in Beloit, the prosecutors would get together on Friday nights for a drink at the Ironworks. That’s all changed now, too.
And here in Janesville, we’re going through a lot of changes. We changed with the loss of GM, and changed our focus of where our economic growth comes from. And there are a lot of new folks coming in to town. I see them at church, or at the Rock County Historical Society.
It seems that there are more educated, white-collar newcomers. I think this is a positive thing, not to sound bigoted or against blue-collar workers, but from my experience I can relate to them more. They tend to be open-minded, have a lot of different interests, curiosity and new ideas.
Tell me a little about your family.
Gayle and I have been married for 49 years! We were high school sweethearts.
Gayle and her twin sister, Dayle, had a double wedding. We each had our own pastor. We brought our Pastor Erickson from Minnesota. Pastor West from Seneca, Illinois married Dayle and her husband. But, here’s a funny story; he mixed up the twins and said, “Jim and Dayle!” That was hilarious! We straightened him out right away.
We had three sons, Jeremy, James and Justin. Jeremy was named after Jeremy Bentham, political philosopher, James after James Madison, and Justin is Justin Marshall after Justice John Marshall.
I always admired Bentham’s philosophy. He believed that, as a country, you don’t want the majority rights to overshadow the rights of the minority. He stated, “It is vain to talk of the interest of the community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual.”
We have five grandchildren. Our oldest grandchild is 20 and the youngest, a granddaughter, is just seven weeks old, little Frankie.
Why is history important to you?
It informs us of who we are. To know who you are, you have to know from where you came.
In particular, the Civil War made this country what it is today. It changed it. James McPherson always referred to the Civil War as “The Second American Revolution,” the first one giving us our independence, and the second changed the nature of government and civil rights in this country in a profound way. The Federal government became stronger because of the Civil War.
There still lingers the question of how much power the executive branch should have. And, there are people out there who still call for succession. But, our history that tells us that succession isn’t the way.
We learn from our history. We understand where we came from. It’s important to understand why our government works the way it does.
There are certain things we believe about the American character; we’re truthful, we’re loyal, we care about one another, we’re a compassionate country. Those are the same values that brought people here in the 1700’s, the 1800’s, the 1900’s and now in the 2000’s.
As a people, we may have lost our way a time or two, but we’ve never really lost our character, that which defines who we are.