Home Town Windows

July 2, 2009

The latest segment of  Wisconsin Public Television‘s Home Town Stories series will air on Monday, July 6 at 8:00 p.m. It has been my pleasure to be part of the team producing the series, now presenting its fourth segment.

The mission of HTS is to present the history of Wisconsin “one town at a time.”  The “town” featured this time round is the combined community of Manitowoc and Two Rivers.

Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society

Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society

HTS takes the stained-glass window approach to its subject.  The map of Wisconsin is the frame. Each home town story represents a single section of window. Like multi-colored and diversely shaped chips of glass, facets unique to a community are fitted together to tell its story.  The town sections are then added to the frame and merge to  illuminate the story of our state–just as the stained glass windows of medieval cathedrals illuminated the story of European Christianity.

The metaphor works well for television–a medium as graphic as stained-glass, and potentially as stunning and inspiring as a rose window.  A historical image can be animated for television but, since most historical images are photographs, the television presentation is often as static as a window–but less colorful.  No medium is perfect.

Narration is present on television, as are Biblical verses in church windows, but not as important as the images. Text can be found in a history book, or in the Bible but, like medieval stained glass, television is not truly aural, nor are words on screen easily readable. It is graphic, popular,  mass communication.

The Manitowoc/Two Rivers segment of the Wisconsin window focuses on our state’s maritime history: with images  of fishing, lighthouses, life saving,  ship wrecks and especially shipbuilding, from the first lake schooners to World War II submarines. All our lakefront cities, from Superior to Ashland, Marinette to Kenosha, have maritime stories to tell, but none is so immersed in the waters of the lakes as Manitowoc/Two Rivers.

It fills this portion of the Wisconsin window as neatly as La Crosse (HTS 3) told the story of Wisconsin and the Mississippi River, Green Bay (HTS 2) presented the first European contact, and Janesville (HTS 1) conveyed the impact of the prairie.

As in a church window, space is limited, and the challenge for the producers is to fit as much of the story as possible into tight quarters.  But they’re working, “one town at a time” to fill the frame.

–Michael Goc