Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Aug. 25, 2006
"It's gotta be in ya to do it"
When we go to northern Wisconsin each summer, husband Art and I try to plan at least one new adventure. Although the five of us - Art, our two girls, mother-in-law Donna and I - are content to stay close to our cottage, it's nice to pry ourselves away to see something different.
Some of our past excursions included viewing the waterfalls in Iron County, wading in cold Lake Superior, riding the steam train from old lumber town Laona and observing Civil War re-enactments in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. We've also checked out most of the area's antique and North Woods decor shops, the nearby wild animal park and a host of other tourist attractions.
When it comes to the unusual, however, this year's journey to Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park on the outskirts of Phillips probably tops the list.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Art and his Mom had seen the park several times, but for the girls and me, our first exposure came on the Kansas City Public Television show, "Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations."
But nothing can compare with seeing something like that "up close and personal."
The pieces are primarily made of concrete decorated with broken shards of glass, bottoms of glass bottles, glass insulator pieces, rocks, wire and even clam shells. Some of the figures are decorated with "shortie" bottles - stubby containers that once held beer bottled in the nearby town of Rhinelander.
The more than 200 life-size and larger sculptures are grouped to tell stories about life in northern Wisconsin and to represent historical and legendary events. They include Native Americans, farmers, lumberjacks, cows, oxen, cowboys, deer, horses, eagles, angels, wagons, a monument to Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, and reproductions of the Statue of Liberty and the Iwo Jima monument. Smith's Iwo Jima piece has been honored by every branch of the U.S. armed forces.
Smith, the son of German immigrants, was born in 1886. He began work as a lumberjack in northern Wisconsin in his early teens. After retiring at 64, he began construction of the park, devoting the remainder of his life to this art until a stroke stopped him in 1964. Even after he was confined to a nursing home, Smith planned for additions to his park until his death in 1976.
A self-taught artist, Smith couldn't read or write. But he knew that he wanted to share his vision with others. Explanations of his work - described by Smith and recorded by others - are now displayed with his pieces.
At the base of his massive sculpture of Native American Sacajawea, the description reads:
"I got this Indian woman in the park, y'know Sacajawea. She been on the Mississippi River. She been in there 3 years with Lewis and Clark. Then she took 'em up and went to the Rocky Mountains. She was with Lewis and Clark all winter long. The woman didn't need no compass. She was the one that opened up the whole country. That's why I got so many Indians because they're damn smart people."
As I walked among the sculptures, I was amazed by Smith's ingenuity. His works definitely show his vision and imagination Although the sculptures probably wouldn't be considered fine art, his work was considered worthy enough by international plumbing manufacturer Kohler Corporation that the company provided funds for the park's restoration.
After going through the park, Donna commented, "Isn't it amazing what people think of to do? And such work! It's one of a kind, kids!"
Smith certainly left a legacy - a legacy prompted by something almost all artists would understand. When asked why he made his sculptures, he answered, "It's gotta be in ya to do it."