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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


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Team of horses pulling carriage. Bucking horse, Hi Ho Silver, there are
lots of horses (and many deer and cows).
Some 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 summer.  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. Sacagawea, respected for not needing
a compass.

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 Concrete Park.”  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 significance.  Smith passed away in 1976 and the Wisconsin Concrete Park is now a county park.

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 that.

Smith was 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.”

A Fred Smith tall tale.  A muskellunge or
musky so big that a  team of horses was
needed to pull it from the lake.
The two horses pulling the musky. Deer at edge of woods.

Smith lived the life of a lumberjack and knew most of the Northwoods legends.  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.  7/13/57    

From Ben-Hur, the movie. The Budweiser Beer Wagon pulled by eight magnificent Clydesdale horses.  It includes a Dalmatian. A bull 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).

  
Lincoln - Todd Monument, second monument of its kind in the U.S.A. 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.”

 

Authors: 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:

http://www.travelwisconsin.com/article/entertainment-and-attractions/seven-of-wisconsins-man-made-wonders

Wisconsin Department of Tourism:

http://www.travelwisconsin.com/arts-and-culture/wisconsin-concrete-park-203838

Friends of Fred Smith:

http://www.friendsoffredsmith.org/index.html

Price County Forestry and Parks Department:

 http://www.co.price.wi.us/government/forestrydepartment/wisconsin%20concrete%20park.htm

Kohler Foundation Inc.:

http://www.kohlerfoundation.org/preservation/preserved-sites/wisconsin-concrete-park

TThe First Statue of Abraham Lincoln and His Wife, Mary:

http://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln39.html/span> 


 

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