Fill ‘er Up

April 16, 2009
I’m guessing most people, myself included, haven’t given much thought to the evolving architecture of gas stations. We’re more likely obsessed with the rising and falling numbers on the pump than we are with the buildings where we refuel our cars–we hurry through, we pay outside, we find ways to stretch the time between visits.
But last December, after seeing Christopher Robleski’s photo of a vintage filling station in’s Flickr pool (below), I wanted to learn more about these wayside relics. The quaint Wadham’s Oil and Grease Station he captured on film looked more like an Asian temple than the convenience marts we’re familiar with today.
The Wadham's Oil and Grease Company pagoda in West Allis has been preserved. Photo: Christopher Robleski.

Wadham's Oil and Grease Station in West Allis was preserved and converted to an automotive museum. Photo: Christopher Robleski.

On his Flickr page, photographer Robleski adds an accompanying description: “Famous Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler’s Wadhams Gas Station design is considered to be iconic. His ingenious design married typical steel frame, glass walled, box-like gas station to a swooping roofline, creating a building that was functional and efficient, as well as, eye grabbing.” While this gas station closed in 1978, the building was preserved by the West Allis Historical Commission and now appears on the National Register of Historic Places.

I later learned that Eschweiler’s pagoda design dotted the streets of Milwaukee for a time: more than 100 of them were built in the 1920s and 30s, but very few remain. (In fact, here lie the remnants of another Wadham’s, a link Mr. Robleski sent me in an email.) Other gas stations, designed to meet changes in the ways Americans worked and played and spent, disappeared almost as quickly as they appeared.

Fill'er Up chronicles the glory days of Wisconsin gas stations.

Fill'er Up chronicles the glory days of Wisconsin gas stations. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Now, two Wisconsin historians have made a mission of locating and documenting the buildings that have survived. Jim Draeger’s and Mark Speltz’s book Fill ’er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations , a companion to the Wisconsin Public Television special of the same name, chronicles gas station history from the advent of the automotive era. The book’s second section provides insightful depictions of 59 historic stations throughout the state.

WPT and the Wisconsin Historical Society partnered in 2007 to produce the tv program Fill ’er Up. Though the show hasn’t aired since last year, you can watch it all online at WPT’s Web site–or you can purchase the DVD at the station’s online store. There’s a nice corresponding Web site as well.

And Wisconsin Public Radio’s Larry Meiller spoke with co-authors Draeger and Speltz on a broadcast of his show airing September 29, 2008. You can still listen to this program at WPR’s audio archives. (I used the search term “Draeger.”) The interactive element of the call-in show complements the other resources nicely, with listeners adding their own stories about the filling stations in their regions.

Right now, the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison has a Fill ‘er Up exhibit of photographs and memorabilia on display through June 20. Anyone attending the Cars on State Classic Car Show on May 9 should definitely plan a side trip to the museum. (You’ll stroll right past it, as the museum is located on the Capitol end of State Street.)

If you still haven’t had your fill, Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz have a blog, Fuelish Thoughts: Wisconsin Gas Stations, and they continue to appear around the state to discuss their book.’s events calendar has all the dates.

We’d love to hear from you, too. Do you have one of these architectural icons in your area? What do you think 21st century gas stations will later tell us about our culture and values? You can post your thoughts and your gas station memories right here at Portal Wisconsin’s blog. Start the conversation!

–Tammy Kempfert

Dard Hunter’s Passion for Paper

April 10, 2009

textbox“If you’re into hand papermaking or paper conservation or you’re into the paper industry, Dard Hunter’s the main name,” Doug Stone told me by phone a couple of snowy Saturdays ago.

Mr. Stone, formerly of Appleton, is a paper conservator who worked as a consultant to the Dard Hunter Museum when it was located within the Institute of Paper Chemistry there. He also helped unpack and catalog the Hunter collection after it moved to the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1989, and he is a founder and past president of the Friends of Dard Hunter Museum.

An artist, a historian, a world traveler who collected artifacts and original scholarship relating to paper, Dard Hunter was a remarkable being. He’s said to have created the first “one-man book:” for The Etching of Figures (1915), he made the paper himself, cut and set the type and printed the book on a hand-operated press. (See a brief video of Mr. Hunter printing at his Mountain House Press here.)

“It was Hunter who created an upsurge in hand papermaking in the 50s and 60s, because of the books he wrote on the topic and because of his ability to get people interested,” says Mr. Stone.

Mr. Hunter spent time in New York with the Roycrofters, the colony who, propounding the superiority of quality handmade art over mass-produced pieces, helped launch the American Arts and Crafts movement. There, he designed leather, glass and books; and the fonts he used at Roycroft Press, so associated with the Arts and Crafts style, can now be purchased on cd from Dard Hunter Studios (operated by grandson Dard Hunter III in Chillecothe, Ohio).

Dard Hunter, Sr. was inducted into Appleton's International Paper Industry Hall of Fame last year. Photo: Paper Discovery Center.

Dard Hunter, Sr. was inducted into the International Paper Industry Hall of Fame last year. Photo: Paper Discovery Center.

As Mr. Stone says, “You could call Dard Hunter the father of modern paper history. He was the preeminent collector of things to do with papermaking and paper history of his era. And he traveled everywhere–to the South Seas, China, Japan–and brought back anything he could get his hands on.” Mr. Hunter died in 1966 at age 82, and while he acted as curator of the Appleton museum for the 15 years before his death, Mr. Stone says failing health prevented him from being closely involved.

“For its day, the museum [in Appleton] was fine, but there wasn’t a lot of funding for cataloging and display back then, so basically Dard Hunter crammed everything he had into the small building. Harry Lewis, one of the great old professors at the Institute of Paper Chemistry, took it upon himself to catalog and explain [the artifacts] to people … we started cataloging the objects but did not finish, due to the enormity of the job and the lack of funds,” Mr. Stone says.

He adds that the Hunter collection is irreplaceable, containing everything from the first papers ever milled in the U.S. by 17th century entrepreneur William Rittenhouse to 1930s era tapa (also known as bark cloth) made by craftworkers in the South Pacific, along with the beaters they used to flatten wood into sheets of paper, to some of the first ever forge-proof bank notes created in the 19th century by William Congreve for the Bank of England.

Mr. Stone explains, “Forgery was really a problem at that time in England, so Congreve actually came up with this amazing set of tri-color watermark notes for the Bank of England. Dard Hunter obtained some of those notes along with [the details of] Congreve’s process–and I went to the Bank of England a few years ago, and they did not have this process. They did not have it, but somehow, Dard Hunter got it.” Of course, it’s all in Atlanta now, at Georgia Tech’s Robert C. Williams Paper Museum.

On Monday, Dard Hunter III will discuss his father’s and grandfather’s legacy at Appleton’s Paper Discovery Center . His presentation is connected to the 2009 Fox Cities Book Festival taking place throughout the Fox Valley, April 14-19. In anticipation of his appearance, I also spoke with Doug Dugal, the former director of the Institute of Paper Chemistry. Mr. Dugal acted as curator of the Dard Hunter Museum as well, before the whole operation (the IPC and the museum) was shipped to Atlanta. He has met all three Dard Hunters–father, son and grandson–but says he knew Dard Hunter II the best.

“Dard Hunter II, I can say for sure, was a very soft-spoken, courteous man. In a nutshell, if you would have seen him you would have hugged him … he was an expert printer who was dedicated to his father’s legacy,” says Mr. Dugal. The late Dard Hunter, Jr. printed his father’s magnum opus, Papermaking by Hand in America, using a new font that he developed and cut himself.

Appleton's Paper Discovery Center will host Dard Hunter III next week.  Photo: Paper Discovery Center.

Appleton's Paper Discovery Center will host Dard Hunter III next week. Photo: Paper Discovery Center.

“Art is pleasing to the eye and the ear, but it has to come from some sort of drive. People in the arts professions are not really looking for money all the time. They are driven.” adds Mr. Dugal.

“Dard Hunter printed something like 15 or 16 books, but he printed eight or nine of them by his own hand. He set the type; he cast the alphabet himself. How would a guy do that, if not from some internal drive? Who knows what drives these people [the Hunters]? But thank God, they are driven.”

–Tammy Kempfert

Using the “Web 2.0”

April 10, 2009

I’ve spent an interesting week trying to integrate Web 2.0 into my workflow. I love technology, and I love the participatory culture. I’m a bit of a technogeek, I have a Blackberry (no iPhone here despite it’s iconic status), a Windows PC (my main imaging workstation for my photography), a laptop running three different operating systems (2 different Linux distros and Windows for my wife), a netbook, and a Mac. The house is set up with a wireless network, and the phone has internet access as well.

With all of this hardware and connectivity around, you would think it would be easy for me to be part of the 20% instead of the 80% in terms of the particpatory Web 2.0 culture, but it’s something I still find challenging.

So I spent the last week trying to streamline my ability to participate in the Web 2.0. See, a week ago my wife and I were in Wausau for the weekend Blues Cafe event. Lots of great Blues. Studabaker John and Sue Debaco were the highlights of our weekend. Two very different Blues artists, both powerful performers in their own rights.

I was out there at the shows, and I had my Blackberry, and could have posted some fun stuff, here to the blog, or to some of my other social media sites. The problem was, I couldn’t. Not “couldn’t” as in not possible, but “couldn’t” as in didn’t have the tools and right setup to do it.

At that point I had the ability to post to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Blogger from my Blackberry, but not to WordPress. The other limitation, was that every different service would require me to retype the text and re-upload the media to each different service. Not pleasant on a thumbsize keyboard.

What I wanted was the ability to post all types of content to all my services at once. Easily.

This quest led me to three services., and

Each does the same thing, but in slightly different ways, and so I’ve started using them all depending on the type of content I’m posting. The most versatile of the services is Posterous. It’s a blog service of it’s own, but it also posts to just about any service you can think of, including wordpress. What I love about it is the way it just handles your media for you. You post via email, which is perfect for For instance, you can attach a video file from your phone and email it to your Posterous account, and it automatically converts it and embeds it into your post. The quality of the video is reflected in the quality of the capture device, but the ability to post video that easily is astoundingly useful! It’s really fantastic, because now I can update any and all of my services from my phone. I’m still testing how the posting looks from each of the various services, and I’m also testing the capabilities of my phone’s media capture devices. All in all I’m having lots of fun with it and hope to share some real time content with our readers here.

Find out more at

Gatherings and education at the potpourri palace

April 6, 2009

The blacksmith is a woman who articulates her workshops with flair: “Excitement in Welding! Look forward to using a Plasma cutter to cut sheet steel and design your own garden sculpture. It’s like a garden hose that shoots fire instead of water!”

How could anyone pass on a workshop like that?

Another one of her announcements beckons, “Bigger hammers, bigger steel, bigger fun”. Goodness.

The Blacksmith's fixture stands sentry

Esteban's fixture stands sentry

Nana the blacksmith is one of many folks who conduct workshops through the River Valley Trading Company in Blanchardville, which straddles Lafayette and Iowa Counties in southwest Wisconsin. One might suggest that Blanchardville is an out-of-the-way place, but who wants to be in the way, anyway? Places like RV Trading just wouldn’t fit at an Interstate exit. You’ve gotta go find the good stuff!

To suggest River Valley Trading is an eclectic place is an understatement. To many folks it is a store. It is one of my favorite places to buy things for wife and daughter: jewelry, or one of Roberta’s way nifty handmade handbags. Choices abound.

RV Trading is stocked with mostly local goods but you can also get Fair Trade items and some great natural and organic foods. How about antiques, visual art, chocolates, pottery, stained glass, fabric art and wool, and all kinds of other stuff? There was a gorgeous crocheted baby thing there last week. (I am a 58 year old male – “Baby Thing” is as accurate as I get.) The place is a mirror of the folks who hang-out there – all over the map, as they say.

You can even buy new Photovoltaic panels. View the models near the wall where Esteban’s iron light fixture hangs, a sentry of sorts, from the old-fashioned embossed tin ceiling.

And, of course, in addition to a potpourri of items for sale, River Valley Trading Company has lots of workshops. This month they have Quilters Potluck, a cooking class with a European-trained chef, Healthy Snacks for Kids by Kids, and Yarns Ewenited in addition to a number of blacksmithing courses. Every month is different.rv1

Entertainment? How about Monthly Acoustic Music Coffee House Night? My fave is Wine Share Night, sponsored by the local Alternative Fuel Society, which also hosts Brew Share Night.

Yup. Eclectic.

RV Trading was started about three years ago as a business incubator, but has grown to be more like a Cooperative. It is still part of Blanchardville Community Pride, Inc. (BCPI), the Village’s Chamber of Commerce. A small board helps run the place, which is staffed by volunteers and those who display their wares there.

Blanchardville is a neat place, but Irv3 am biased because it is part of the Pecatonica School District where my kids go to school. It has an expansive park bordered by the meandering Pecatonica River, a great place to put your canoe in, fish, camp or just let the kids run. Grab a top-flight meal at the Viking Café. If you like cheese, you’ve got to stop at the B-Ville Mini-Mall, where each of the wide variety of cheeses was picked by owner Roy, who drives the back roads of Wisconsin and northern Illinois to purchase from cheese factories he has known for years. Like any good shop, there’s a story behind the products.

And if you go to Husie’s tavern this Friday you can hear my rock and roll band, TKO. If a lot of folks show-up he might have us back.

RV Trading has evolved into something bigger than all the stuff it is and does. It has become a gathering place. It is a place of stories and handshakes and laughter. The whole Village is like that, actually. River Valley Trading’s recent event flyer says, “Come out and play”. I hope you do. If you’re in the area it is not far from Mount Horeb, New Glarus or Mineral Point. You can cover a lot of places with a day-trip.

Blanchardville is located on State Road 78, between Blue Mounds and Argyle. Contacts: or call 608-523-1888.

Ricky Rolfsmeyer

Wisconsin Rural Partners

Hollandale, Wisconsin (Pop. 283)

Film for Thought

April 3, 2009

According to an informal survey, everyone came for the tamales. Once they were there, I don’t think anyone was disappointed.

Alex Rivera, a young Latino filmmaker originally from New York City, was brought to Madison as part of the Nelson Institute’s Tales from Planet Earth II film festival outreach. The Wisconsin Humanities Council is supporting these efforts to build community events around provocative and thoughtful films. The idea is that many filmmakers recognize the power of their medium but want to learn from the people for whom their stories, and messages, resonate most in order to make even more powerful films. And that at the same time, without deliberately reaching out to those people, films too often simply entertain audiences and are then forgotten, loosing the potential they hold to incite thoughtful conversation, deep reflection, and potentially real social change.

Photo of filmmaker Alex Rivera from

Photo of filmmaker Alex Rivera from

When I drove up to Centro Hispano last week, a full-service community center located on the south side of Madison, the parking lot was full. People were flowing steadily through the front door. Inside, a band played background to the buzz about the tamales, which were steaming hot, made just for the event and provided by Taqueria Guanajuato. The large reception area was made even more festive by a colorful new mural of a sun-drenched scene.

After a bit of mingling, everyone squeezed themselves into a smaller room where Rivera’s film, The Sixth Section, was screened. It’s a short documentary about a group of men living and working in New York who come from the same hometown in Mexico. Their “Grupo Union” is one of at least a thousand “hometown associations” that contribute significantly to the infrastructure of their Mexican communities with their American-earned money. The film uses this particular case study, showing the town’s mayor visiting the men in New York after they’ve funded a new baseball stadium, to boldly illustrate the economic and political connections that are rarely discussed. After the film ended, hands shot up around the room and Rivera participated openly in a conversation that explored some of the heavy questions raised by his film.

It was a great discussion that could have gone on all night, perhaps, and taken various interesting turns. Rivera was generous and honest and delightful, making me very excited to see his full-length feature, The Sleep Dealer, at the Tales from Planet Earth II festival (November 6-9).

I was also reminded of how much I enjoy a good film; one that makes me want to talk about it, one that keeps me thinking, and one that opens more questions than it answers. This weekend, as the Wisconsin Film Festival rages in Madison, I look forward to some heartfelt discussions inspired by the almost-too-rich selection of films out there. I’m not above choosing based on which post-film conversation is likely to be most interesting! Or, for that matter, where the best snacks are to be found.

by Jessica Becker

Football Under Cover (and Uncovered)

April 2, 2009

In a given nation, is gender equity in women’s sports a good measure of women’s status in general?

On Monday, Here on Earth‘s Jean Feraca interviewed brother and sister David and Marlene Assmann, who together created the film Football Under Cover (Marlene produced, and David co-directed with his filmmaking partner Ayat Najafi). The film documents their efforts to arrange a soccer game between Marlene’s German team and the Iranian National Women’s Team, as well as all the stumbling blocks they encountered along the way.

Jean Feraca hosts Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders on WPR

Jean Feraca hosts Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders on WPR

The historic meet-up finally took place in April 2006–about a year after planning began–on Iranian turf and under Iranian terms. In part, that meant both teams were clothed from head to toe, and no males were allowed to observe the game. (David Assmann and Ayat Najafi had to wait outside.) Also, the filmmakers had to agree not to screen the film in Iran.

Through the process, David Assmann observed: “I have the feeling that [Iranian] men kind of tend to settle for their little private freedom that they are granted–but the women are actually very strong and pushing their boundaries non-stop. So that’s where the change in Iran is coming from.”

Brother and sister alike voiced their admiration for the strength of the Iranian athletes–and Marlene Assmann added that soccer has been an empowering force in her life, too: “It can give you respect from other players and also, for example, from men because you can prove easily you can do something and also … try to be more brave on the football field and then put it in your social life …”

American women enjoy enormous freedoms that have been denied to Iranian women, but as some Here on Earth listeners who called in Monday pointed out, we still have a ways to go. While listening to the program, I couldn’t help musing that in the U.S., such an expose might be called American Football Uncovered–in reference to the women allowed closest to our football fields, cheerleaders.

This Inside Islam broadcast, along with others, is a collaboration between UW-Madison and Wisconsin Public Radio. Inside Islam is a new media initiative that challenges preconceptions about Muslims and Islamic faith around the world. The series regularly runs on WPR’s Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders program, hosted weekday afternoons by Jean Feraca. You can listen to broadcasts you missed online or see what Jean has lined up for the coming week at

This year, the Wisconsin Film Festival will host a companion series of Inside Islam films. Football Under Cover is on the roster (Friday at 5:00 p.m. at Madison’s Orpheum Theatre), and David Assmann is slated to appear. The 2009 Wisconsin Film Festival will screen 199 films around Madison, April 2 (today!) through April 5.

Melville in Wisconsin

April 1, 2009

Yes, the author of Moby Dick, who sailed to London, Rome and Constantinople, rounded Cape Horn, and stopped at Hawaii, Tahiti and the Galapagos, also visited Milwaukee. After the last of his novels published during his life failed to elicit little but scorn from critics and indifference from readers, Herman Melville took to the lecture circuit.  From late 1857 to early 1860, he attempted to support his family by recounting his travels. The ruins of Rome were a favored topic, for the speaker, if not his audiences. By all accounts, Melville the orator was even less successful than Melville the author, as the nodding heads of his dozing listeners in a half-dozen Midwestern states confirmed.

Melville had already made a metaphoric tour of the heartland in the pages of the novel whose dismal sales drove him to the speaker’s podium. Published appropriately on April 1, 1857, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, is set on the riverboat Fidele as it steams down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans. Melville introduces a cast of travelers who tell their stories to the chameleon-like confidence man who shape-shifts into the character best suited to procure their trust. As Melville asked in an earlier work and,  as we who entrusted our savings to the confidence men of today,  can repeat:

“Who can forever resist the very Devil himself, when he comes in the guise of a gentleman, free, fine, and frank?”

During his brief stay in Milwaukee, Melville might have crossed paths with Wisconsin’s own confidence man, Byron Kilbourn. Founder of Milwaukee, land speculator, canal builder, railroad financier and procurer of political power–“the very Devil himself”–Kilbourn had recently completed the wholesale purchase of a substantial portion of Wisconsin’s elected government.

That is, he bribed the governor and a majority of legislators to bestow on his company a huge grant of federal land in this state. Kilbourn planned to use the proceeds from the sale of the land to build a railroad from Milwaukee to La Crosse while rewarding himself and his cronies with generous salaries, secure railroad bonds and hefty bonuses.

Deeming the multi-million dollar land grant insufficient to both lay the track and bulge out their pockets, Kilbourn and company plunged into the farm mortgage scheme. They dispatched teams of confidence men–“free, fine and frank”–to the country precincts to persuade farmers to mortgage their farms and purchase railroad stock. Cash from the sales would build the railroad. The railroad would prosper, its stock would soar and enrich shareholders who would also receive dividends they could use to pay down their mortgages.

It was a win-win deal, especially for the railroad financiers and complicit bankers who bundled the mortgages into notes–mortgage backed securities–and sold them to investers in eastern states. The largest in Wisconsin, Kilbourn’s La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad sold $1.1 million in farm mortgages worth hundreds of millions  in today’s dollar.

The railroad/real estate boom inflated an economic bubble that inevitably burst and, in 1857, help tip the country into a harsh recession. Factories, banks and railroads went bankrupt, including every railroad in Wisconsin.  Stock sold by Kilbourn’s confidence men became utterly worthless.  The mortgage-backed securities did not.

About 6,000 farmers in Wisconsin were obliged to repay their debts without the promised income from the railroads. They yelled foul, sued in the courts, petitioned the legislature for a bailout, all to no avail. The railroad mortgages weighed on farmers in our state well into the 1880s.

Byron Kilbourn lost his railroad but was not held accountable for the losses he inflicted on his investors or the gains he put into his own pocket. He bounced back to end his days as a real estate speculator in–where else?–Florida.

Herman Melville abandoned the lecture circuit and resumed writing for an ever dwindling audience. In 1866, he took a day job as a customs inspector on the New York docks.  He kept writing, night after long night. When he died in 1891, he left behind a box of manuscripts, including the script of Billy Budd. Melville’s other great American novel, it was not published until 1924.

The Confidence Man languished unread and unappreciated until a few decades ago when critics heralded it as a precursor of postmodern fiction. Like the rest of Herman Melville’s work, it is recognized and read worldwide.

By comparision, how many of us have ever heard of Byron Kilbourn?

(For an “inviting overview” see Melville His World and Work by Andrew Delbanco.)