If you are from Wisconsin, you’ll know what I mean when I say it
looks like it was hijacked from the Wisconsin Dells.
It is artsy enough for a museum, while still being gaudy
enough for the Dells, and with enough history and folklore to be
fascinating at the same time. It is easy to get to, if you
happen to be in the middle of Wisconsin’s Northwoods; it is
located only a half-mile south of Phillips, the county seat of
Price County. It
definitely will not be a problem noticing it on the left side of
the road if you head south on state road 13
|Team of horses
Bucking horse, Hi Ho Silver, there are
lots of horses
(and many deer and cows).
detail a beer bottle mane on
one of the horses.
OK, what is so interesting about a concrete museum?
It is an outdoor museum of folk art created by a local
artist named Fred Smith.
It is on the list of the seven Wisconsin’s man-made
wonders (see link below).
Smith was born in Wisconsin’s Northwoods in 1886 and made
his living lumberjacking in winter and farming 120 acres in
addition, he operated the Rock Garden Tavern next door to his
house. He was an
excellent fiddler and provided the entertainment at the tavern.
The rock garden is the tavern itself, constructed with stones
and rocks he collected nearby. It supplied many of the
Rhinelander Beer bottles that ended up in the sculptures.
Notice the vest, apparently some glass telephone line
insulators became available.
Marines raising Old Glory at Iwo Jima.
respected for not needing
Smith was forced to retire from lumberjacking in 1948 and began
sculpting the concrete statues at age 62.
In 1950 he began to organize the sculptures on his
homestead next to the tavern and called it “The Wisconsin
Most of the sculptures were heavy and ponderous, so they were
built in place, where they remain. Smith knew the locations were
permanent, so the park has an organization to it in term of
themes and patterns. His technique involved a wooden framework,
swathed in mink wire, and then coating the frame in cement. Each
piece was then decorated appropriately with found objects,
mostly glass that reflects and adds color and character. Smith
was self-taught and there is no doubt this is original folk art.
Before health issues slowed him down in 1964, he created over
230 pieces centered on Native Americans, immigrants and regional
settlers, loyal myths and legends, wildlife and animals, events
of national-level significance, and events of deeply personal
passed away in 1976 and the Wisconsin Concrete Park is now a
Paul Bunyan, with two oxen to pull the logs.
Logging is one of the themes.
Cowboy on horse.
||Two lumberjacks sawing down a
tree. Smith spent much of his early life doing just
uneducated and could not read or write.
He would attempt to duplicate written text by simply
copying it; often he narrated to friends who would write the
text he’d use. If
you look closely at the text in most of the figures, there are
spacing and other small errors. While he did not read, Smith
must have kept up with history and current affairs, as they are
reflected in the artwork. Ben-Hur was created after he saw the
movie. Sacagawea is in a bas-relief; he respected her for
opening up a whole country, without even needing a compass.
Another impressive bas-relief is the Marines Raise Old
Glory on Iwo Jima (even though his Mount Suribachi included
trees). Many are just people he knew.
One figure is a legendary cowboy, Cheyenne, drinking a
Rhinelander Beer: “Here shows Chiann, a big beer drinker. He had
been a cowboy in seventeen different states. He had been a
drinker all the while he was a cowboy. He found the famous
Rhinelander Export Beer, which is the finest beer that he ever
drank in his life.”
Smith tall tale. A muskellunge or
musky so big that
a team of horses was
needed to pull it from the
The two horses pulling the musky.
||Deer at edge of
Smith lived the life of a lumberjack and knew most of the
They ended up in many of the sculptures, that includes two
lumberjacks sawing down a tree and, of course, Paul Bunyan. If
you spend the time, you will find lots of Northwoods lore is
hidden in the displays and the original house, which is now a
gift shop. Smith narrated stories that are written in places:
The last log drive in Price County was made by O. A. Peterson in
the spring of the year of 1910. He had logged around Spirit Lake
located in the south eastern part of the county during the
1909-1910 winter season and landed about one million feet of
hemlock and pine logs on the ice of the Upper Spirit Lake to
wait the arrival of the spring breakup. During these winter
months, Mr. Peterson, or Ole as he was usually called, built a 5
hp inboard motor boat for the purpose of using it to raft the
logs from the landing through Upper Spirit Lake and Lower Spirit
Lake to the outlet and into the Spirit River. When the ice
broke, this boat was used to raft or tow the logs to the next
lake. Through the narrow channel between the two lakes the logs
were sluiced. The boat was again used to get logs to the Spirit
River and from there the drive down the river began to Tomahawk.
It took about three weeks for this but there was considerable
delay because of colder weather again and snow storms.
It required a crew of 25 men to operate this drive of 35 miles
to Tomahawk. Fred Smith was a member of the crew. The wage paid
at that time was $2.00 for about a 14 hour day, from early
morning until late at night. The logs were sold and delivered to
the Tomahawk Lumber Co. at a price of $8.00 M’ for the hemlock
and $12.00 for the pine.
Ben-Hur, the movie.
The Budweiser Beer Wagon pulled by eight magnificent
Clydesdale horses. It includes a Dalmatian.
moose with antlers. The deer and moose have actual
antlers that must be replaced annually as the porcupine
like to eat them for the minerals.
One of the challenging aspects of folk art is that sometimes one
has to discover the context of the piece. Some of the monuments
are very challenging, but they all make sense if enough thought
is used. Without going to the web link, can you figure out the
Lincoln – Todd Monument? It turns out the first Lincoln –Todd
Monument is in Racine, Wisconsin and was dedicated in 1943.
Somehow Fred learned of the monument and created his own.
The base of the Racine monument reads: “This is the first statue
erected to a President of the United States and his wife and the
first to Mary Todd Lincoln.” All of a sudden the sign makes
sense! Abe would surely have been pleased; I am not so sure
about Mary. Some of the
subjects are commonly known, like the Statue of Liberty, but
right next to that is the Statue of Freedom (that sits atop the
U.S. Capitol dome).
Todd Monument, second monument of its kind in the
||Statue of Freedom
||Statue of Liberty
The fun part is discovering the subtle hidden aspects of the
many pieces, the fine details, and conceptual ideas behind and
within each figure.
When asked why he did it, he replied, “Nobody knows why I made
them, not even me.” But he later explained, “Its gotta be in ya
to do it.”
Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in
South Carolina. His wife, Pat, is a consulting forester. Both
have a keen interest in roadside history.
For more information:
Seven of Wisconsin’s Man-Made Wonders:
Wisconsin Department of Tourism:
Friends of Fred Smith:
Price County Forestry and Parks Department:
Kohler Foundation Inc.:
TThe First Statue of Abraham Lincoln and His Wife, Mary:
Ads fund American Roads so please consider them for your needed
If you enjoy the articles we offer, donations
are always welcome.