The Year In Review i.e. 1909

December 22, 2009

As the year draws to a close, bloviators throughout the media universe strive to list the most significant events of the previous twelve months.  We are not immune to this pastime, but with a slight alteration. The past year we’d like to examine is a century old.

1909 was a year like any other year except when it was not.

In politics, the state legislature elected  Isaac Stephenson to the United States Senate despite critics who claimed the lumber baron from Marinette used his wealth to buy the seat.

Progressive state senators passed a resolution recognizing the right of women  to vote in all state elections, but conservative assemblymen did not. So, as they had for years, Wisconsin women  voted in local school board elections, based on the premise that education was for children and women tended children and therefore…..

Also in 1909,  the first airplane to fly in our state took off and landed intact at Beloit.

Significant surely, but I think the most important event of 1909 occurred at the  Dells of the Wisconsin River.  After five years of construction the largest hydroelectric power station yet built in our state was completed–dam, diverson and dynamos.

Kilbourn Dam and Powerhouse. Photo: H.H. Bennett Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society.

The Dells station was the latest turn in a decade long transformation of the power in Wisconsin rivers from the sawing, grinding and milling of lumber and grain to electrical generation.  It was cutting edge technology, with an impact as profound as any of the high-tech innovations we’ve experienced in the last thirty years–and basic to them. You can’t have electronics until you have electricity.

Although one of many new hydropower stations in Wisconsin, the Dells was different.  No local market existed for the ten megawatts of power it could generate. Like the field of dreams, if  it was built, they would come. They being factories in need of power.

The Dells station was also different in that it was the first major alteration of a Wisconsin river to face opposition on environmental grounds. The not-yet-renowned photographer, Henry Hamilton Bennett, attempted to stop construction of the power station dam because it would raise and hold water levels upstream by as much as nineteen feet. Many of the geological wonders he had captured on film would be drowned forever and the towering rock formations he knew and loved would not be as tall because the water below would lap higher up their flanks.

Hamilton rallied some support from conservationists around the state, but hardly enough to halt construction of the dam. His neighbors in the village of Kilbourn considered him to be a cranky old man trying to stall the wheels of progress.  It was the 20th Century, after all, the age of electricity had dawned and the Dells dam would bring power and prosperity.

It didn’t. No industrialist relocated to Kilbourn no matter how bright its new electric lights did shine.  The power generated there had to be sold at a loss and transmitted miles into the  grid of the greater Milwaukee electric railroad company.

The village of Kilbourn did not begin to develop into the vacation mecca we know as Wisconsin Dells until the first wave of automobile tourism began in the 1920s. After World War II, Wisconsin Dells became the number one tourist destination in our state.

By then, the power station was part of the riverscape, its electricity running the amusement park rides and charging the neon in the signs.  Visitors riding the boats past the tall rocks did not know that they once stood taller and what natural wonders lay beneath the deep water below.

Wisconsin Dells

Photo: H.H. Bennett Studio. Acquired by the author from the Dells Country Historical Society.


–Michael Goc


Small town girl makes good and holiday contemplation

December 17, 2009

We heard she had done well “out east”.  Folks said she was a friend of Pearl S. Buck and had lots of other hoidy toidy friends as well.  For someone from a small, rural place like Hollandale, Wisconsin, that would be something to crow about.  But all this was back in the 1940s and 50s so no one here really had any facts.  But it was a fun story and as clueless as I was I had fun telling it, too.

In these parts she was simply Alyce Engelbert Stocklin, the daughter of Nick Engelbert, the guy by Hollandale who built the statues and decorated his yard with them.  She went to school here – little town of about 300 – and like many kids, left for a big city to further her education.

Nick and his wife Katherine had four children.  They all did well, we’re told, which makes sense because the parents really stressed the importance of education.  All four indeed were college-educated.  I think 60, 70 years ago that may not have always been the case for young women but it was for the Engelbert girls as it was for their brothers.

The Engelbert kids have passed away now, but I was fortunate to meet them in 1997 when they came home one last time.  The Kohler Foundation had purchased and restored their childhood home – now known as Grandview – and the occasion was the gifting of the place back to the community.

The four Engelbert children, home for the last time. Alyce Engelbert Stocklin is between her brothers Ed and Ernie.

With the site came a lot of history and some great archives: lots of old pictures, family memorabilia, documentation of Nick’s art, Katherine’s many outstanding gardens, old news stories and information on the site’s restoration.  Recently the Kohler Foundation gave us a new box – more treasures to be discovered.

Like many rural folk I am seldom inside when the weather is decent.  The chill of fall brought wood chores, which is a huge job.  It takes scores of pick-up truck loads to keep us warm, so weeknights and weekends are consumed.  But when winter finally set upon us in earnest with the first major snow, it gave permission to relax and be thoughtful.  I sat down with the newest archive box like a kid at Christmas.

After an hour or so of sorting through old pictures, I got to a three-ring binder that seemed kind of musty and forgotten.  As I paged through quickly, the 1950 clipping of women planning a fashion show and tea did not grab me at first.  It is an ugly old photocopy.  But I had just done some reading on Pearl S. Buck so I stopped to check it out after I saw “Welcome House” in the headline.

And there was Alyce Engelbert Stocklin from little Hollandale, leaning over to look at something being held by Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein, who hosted the get together.  To her left was Mrs. James A. Michener.   I thought, “Oh my – the stories were true – big time true”.

So with apologies for name dropping, all this is fun and, if you’re from a little place often confused with the Dutch, it is certainly something to be proud of.  Who cares if it was in the last century?

Of course, the real story is what she did, not whom she did it with.  Another clipping in the musty folder showed a picture of Alyce holding an orphan.  The headline is: “Break Down Racial Barriers” and the caption reads, “Mrs. Walter Stocklin and an unadoptable”.

Some of the things in the article were a little disturbing but worth sharing. Those were different times.

It read: “Welcome House was founded in 1949 by Pearl S. Buck, author of “The Good Earth” and other books, who has lived in the Orient for many years.  Miss Buck and several of her Bucks County, Pa., neighbors, including Stocklins, began the project to give “unwanted” children of part American, part Oriental blood a chance for opportunity equal to that of other American children.

“While adoption has become an accepted part of American social life, these “half caste” children have remained a problem because they are unwanted in many American homes because of prejudice against color differences and “slanted” eyes.  As a result, according to Mrs. Stocklin, many children of exceptional intelligence must be sent to institutions……..”

I thought of my brother-in-law Allen, who was “detained” in a “relocation camp” during WWII.  Allen was as American as I am, but of Japanese heritage.

And I wondered what values were instilled in young Alyce by family and her little country school that made her such a supporter of these children.   Courage is certainly right up there.

My daughter and one of my sons graduated recently.  They too, are Hollandale kids, although the school is now Pecatonica and their father is not the artist Nick Engelbert was.  As a jaded, older parent it seems that sometimes values can lie somewhere between Facebook and the Food Court – but maybe not.   I think those same principles that Alyce championed continue to be instilled by our teachers and families.  The kids still get it and maybe more so.  We aren’t the same America; we’re a better America.

It’s hard to stop thinking about this, but that’s OK, it’s the holiday season and some contemplation is good for me.

I stopped by a snowed-in Grandview this morning, waded through the drifts and sat on the porch for a while.  It is vacant and cold but still Alyce’s home.

And I thought about my daughter.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Wisconsin Rural Partners, Hollandale, Wisconsin

Happy holidays everyone………


What is American food?

December 15, 2009

In my opinion, cereal is the most American of foods. Though maybe not worthy of the term cuisine, I do think cereal is part of our cultural heritage.

This past week, I traveled to Indian Springs, Georgia in order to see the Smithsonian’s Key Ingredients exhibition. The local historical society, along with the community of Indian Springs, is hosting Key Ingredients in partnership with the Georgia Humanities Council.

In 2010 and 2011, Key Ingredients will be here, in Wisconsin, hosted by six Wisconsin communities. I am working with the project leaders from those six sites, on behalf of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Jessica Becker in a cheesehead hat

The author visiting Key Ingredients in Georgia. Photo by Carol Harsh.

When you first enter the exhibition, the text reads: What is American food? It’s a simple question, then further explored with sections on the patterns of cultural settlement, regional flavors and traditions, the revolution in food preservation, distribution, and marketing, as well as changes that have taken place in the home and on the road that affect how and what we all eat. Wisconsin food stories are interspersed throughout,  including a place to try on a cheese hat!

The exhibition, curated by Charles Camp, leads the visitor through a fascinating overview, touching on many important stories in American history, but I didn’t find mention of cereal anywhere.

I have argued, and do believe, it’s one of the most American things, up there with Apple Pie (which is no doubt a close relative to the apple pies of Germany and Austria). Just picture the cereal aisle at your favorite grocery store. Where else in the world is that much commercial shelf space dedicated to colorful boxes of breakfast food? Check your cupboards…I’ll bet there is at least one box representing a regular habit or fall-back plan. Ask your friends about their favorite cereal at your next dinner party and I guarantee you an interesting conversation.

Michael Pollan, in his best-selling book “In Defense of Food,” examines the American attitude toward food. He points out that Americans rely on the nutritional information, determined by a scientific break-down and parceling up of nutrient parts, provided by experts more than other cultures do when choosing what to eat for dinner. The brothers John Harvey and Will Keith Kellogg were at the forefront in starting this trend in the late 1800s. Will Keith was an industrialist in food manufacturing; John Harvey a medical doctor. Together they ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a health center focused on nutrition and exercise, and they invented Corn Flakes Breakfast Cereal. A patient of the sanitarium, Charles William Post, started his own dry cereal company, a rival brand of corn flakes, and the rest is history.

These inventive, and persuasive, characters revolutionized what American’s typically eat for breakfast…and, admit it, sometimes for dinner or a late night snack!

Local Flavors panel of Key Ingredients

A section of the Key Ingredients exhibition. Photo by Jessica Becker

Here in Wisconsin, we have rich food traditions and specialties, from wild rice to cheese curds to lefse. The six communities who will host the Key Ingredients exhibition will have their own unique stories to tell, recipes to share, and heritage to celebrate in connection to American food.

The exhibition opens in October 2010 in Reedsburg. I just wonder: When visitors enter the Woolen Mill Gallery on October 20th for the Key Ingredients grand opening and read the question, “What is American Cuisine?” how many will remember what they ate for breakfast?

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council.


Wisconsin’s Emerging Arts Leaders

December 5, 2009

Thursday saw the convening of the third annual Wisconsin Emerging Arts Leaders conference. Our topic yesterday was social media. If you hadn’t noticed from my previous posts I’m a fan of social media and this seemed to be an apt topic for us to discuss with many organizations and individuals struggling to determine how best to use these tools and tailor their messages to their patrons, constituents and audiences. Based on the feedback from folks I talked to at the conference and the twitter feedback the topics were well chosen.

One of the most important lessons I gathered from yesterday’s conference was the importance of building relationships. Social media is after all just a new form of networking and the heart of networking is building relationships. Many people pooh pooh these new networking and connection methods, but outside of the newness, the tried and true principles of building networks and realtionships all apply.

What’s important to note about these new communication and networking tools is that interaction can happen ANYTIME. Sure, the same holds true for traditional networking, but not necessarily when you are driving, sitting in a hotel room (as I am while writing this), or in the oft trotted out example of at home in your pajamas. But with computers, laptops and smartphones you can communicate and network anywhere, anytime.

The first presentation of conference turned into a bit of performance art as two presenters that had just met, Matt Richardson of the Creative Coalition’s Technology Task Force and Katie Moreno of Smart Interactive Media, decided to combine their individual breakout sessions into one single presentation. The two played well off of each other, Matt focusing mostly on using tools like Twitter and Facebook for the message and how to build the communication and relationships, which was really good information no matter where you use it. Katie played off of that and talked more specifically about the power of social networking sites and did some in-depth explaining of Ning.com which is a tool that allows you to create a customizable social network of your own, built around your organization or common interest.

During the conference we had a live twitter feed going under the hashtag #artwileader09 and my favorite part of the morning was the twitter conversation I had with @mod_art (Katie Waters who blogs over at modernartsmanager.com) about communication tools, networks and the nature of communication. (If you’re interested you can find that conversation in the hashtag feed from the conf, again #artwileader09)

The one thing I will say is the man from Smart Interactive Media that was there with Katie Moreno (I don’t know if we ever got his name) kept interrupting and talking over her. It was quite annoying and really broke the stride and rhythm of Katie’s presentation. That being said I hope he takes the advice that was given by him and others yesterday and responds to this bit of criticism appropriately!

Lunch followed that and then we had a panel discussion about managing your message, and while the bent was supposed to lean towards social media, it really focused on the need to elevate and integrate strategic communication in an organization. The panel was comprised of Evan Zeppos of Zeppos and Associates, Susan Loris of the Milwaukee Symphony, Bonnie North of WUWM’s Lake Effect and someone else I confess I can’t remember and didn’t write down. The panel was moderated by Christine Harris, President of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee.

The important part of this discussion was the need to have a plan for your communications and message. It doesn’t have to be mammoth plan either, just a plan that everyone follows and a plan that reflects the mission/values/goals of the communicating organization. Then once you have that plan, make sure the PR people are at the table for everything.

The best part of the day was the milk and cookies break. Not because of the milk and cookies, (although they were delicious!) but because we had a good half hour or more of time to talk with other folks at the conference. I got to catch up with friends, meet new folks and chat a bit with Katie after tweet conversing from across the room earlier.

We wrapped up the day with a discussion of MARN, the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network, The Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee and RiverWest Artist Association. They talked about the wealth of resources available to artists in Milwaukee and Southern Wisconsin.

All in all it was a great day yesterday, and I’m always glad I have the opportunity to participate in these conferences.

These yearly conferences are presented by Arts Wisconsin in partnership with statewide cultural organizations. This year the presenting partners were The Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee and Milwaukee Artist Resource Network with support from the Florentine Opera Company, Wisconsin Arts Board, National Endowment for the Arts, Americans for the Arts and RiverWest Artists Association.

Full disclosure now, If you haven’t read my bio I serve on the Board for Arts Wisconsin, which for those unfamiliar is the statewide arts advocacy organization, the only organization in the state speaking out for the arts across the entire state of Wisconsin. This includes work like these conferences, Organizing the annual Arts Day conference in Madison every year, as well as day to day work helping arts organizations throughout the state, and advocating for the importance of creativity and the arts to the people, state and economy of Wisconsin. We also provide resources and toolkits for artists and organizations in Wisconsin and we strive to fulfill our mission of advocating for the arts in Wisconsin so that everyone in Wisconsin can experience the arts.

Arts Wisconsin is a non-profit membership organization, and so I’m going to make the ask now. If you don’t want to hear the ask, stop reading.

Please support Arts Wisconsin through a membership donation. Donations can be made directly on our website it’s quick, easy and helps us do our work to keep the arts in the forefront of important conversations around the state.

-Spyros Henaidis


How To Do Local History

December 4, 2009

They know how to do local history in Winneconne. (long e’s, unless you’re a tourist). The village of 2,400 souls on the Wolf River northwest of Oshkosh has a preserved railroad depot/museum like many another community. It also has a 19th century house furnished in period style, also like many another place.

What Winneconne has that other places don’t is the Kay Wilde Doll Cottage, a picturesque stone cottage filled with antique dolls; and the Steamboat Museum, which is the real thing, at least in part. It consists of the main deck and pilot house of a genuine steamer that once plied the waters of the Fox and Wolf Rivers, refurbished and looking like it’s ready to make the run from Butte des Mortes to Orihula.

All these items fill a corner of the village park on the edge of town. To find more and arguably the best part of Winneconne’s historical cache, you have go downtown to the library.

There in a room specially- endowed is found the book collection of James P. Coughlin. A political leader who served as village president longer than most citizens can remember,  Coughlin was also a Winnebago county supervisor, board chair and county executive.  Politics was in his blood, but history was his passion. After retiring from county office in the early 1990s, Coughlin exercised his passion by collecting books.

His goal was to assemble the largest library of books about Wisconsin and/or by Wisconsin authors in the state, if not the USA. He wasn’t interested in big selling authors with a Wisconsin connection. Sorry David Maranniss, Jane Hamilton and Lorrie Moore.

No, he wanted the work compiled by, for example, the history committee of Mellen in Ashland County. These hard-working folks published two volumes in 1986, well over 1,000  pages, detailing the story of Mellen, population 300. They have roughly four pages of book for every person in town

After you’ve finished Mellen you can read the history of Alma on the Mississippi, Port Wing on Lake Superior, Oconto on Green Bay, or South Milwaukee on Lake Michigan. Just go to Winneconne.  Care about St. Bronislava parish in Plover, Trinity Lutheran in Arkdale, the Frei Gemeinde in Sauk City.? Their books are in Winneconne, too.

How about biographies? Of Senator Philetus Sawyer, General Joseph Bailey, or the thousands of lesser lights profiled in the hundred volumes of county histories on the Coughlin shelves.  Military history? How about the book on the Fourth Wisconsin Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, the story of the battleship USS Wisconsin, or of World War II air ace Richard Bong?

Pick a subject. Obscurity is not an obstacle: public statuary in Green Bay, the county highways of Winnebago, trout fishing on Green Lake,  the Sauk County hops boom, the Italian community of Iron County. It’s in a book in Winneconne.

The Coughlin collection is testimony to the man, but also to the thousands of  researchers, compilers, genealogists, news article clippers, obit snippers, the grabbers and holders of our local heritage. For the majority, this is their book, the only one they will ever publish.  Jim Coughlin understood and respected their work.

He died about a week ago.  His passion survives, along with that of the authors he honored by placing their work on the shelves of his library in Winneconne.

–Michael Goc


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