The Warmth of Other Suns

May 27, 2011

Milwaukee was a frank and clattering workhouse of a town, a concrete smokestack of a place with trolley cars clanking against a web of power lines and telephone cables filling the sky. Curls of steam rose from the rooftops and factory silos and from the gray hulk of the Schlitz brewery over by the Cherry Street Bridge.

“It was the other side of the world from the wide-open quiet land of the cotton fields.

This was Milwaukee in 1937 as described by Isabel Wilkerson in her wonderful book, The Warmth of Other Suns, The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The book attracted a lot of attention when it appeared in 2010 and it merits continued notice even if newspaper critics and talk show hosts have covered it and moved on.

Its subject is the migration of millions of African-Americans from the states of the old Confederacy to the cities of the Northeast, Midwest and California that began prior to World War I and continued into the 1970s.

They fled from an all-encompassing environment of relentless dehumanization, economic impoverishment, and arbitrary, brutal violence. It wasn’t just segregation on buses, in bathrooms and at water fountains, although that was bad enough. It was impeding, hampering, denying “colored” children access to education. It was keeping their parents enserfed on sharecropped farms or in the lowest-paying, lowest-skilled jobs. It was making a fiction of the constitutional right to equal protection under the law that thousands of Americans, black and white, had fought to preserve,

So they left, by the million. By Wilkerson’s estimate, six million boarded the “colored only” cars of the Seaboard and Illinois Central railroads, crowded into the back seats of Greyhound buses, or set off in autos not knowing if they would find a restaurant where they could eat, a hotel with a room they could rent, or a gas station with a restroom open to them.

Six million is a statistic. One life is a story and Wilkerson focuses on three that add to her work’s power and meaningfulness. Only one touches on Wisconsin, that of Ida Mae Gladney. She came north with her husband George from Mississippi to Milwaukee in 1937 because her sister was already in town. George was unable to find work, so the Gladneys moved to the south side of Chicago, but their lives played out like that of many who settled on the north side of Milwaukee.

They did not strike it rich, raise daughters who sang for Motown, or sons who played for the Bulls. They worked at low-skill, blue collar jobs, skimped and saved for decades until they could afford a modest home of their own in what would prove to be one of the most racially segregated cities in America. It was not the Garden of Eden, but it was better than the Mississippi they had left.

Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities were not major destinations for southern states’ migrants, but the African-American population of Milwaukee increased from less than one thousand to nearly one-quarter million in the 20th Century. Those are statistics. Each life is a story.

We cannot know them all, but Isabel Wilkerson gives us a taste and whets the appetite to learn more.

–Michael Goc


Food Memories

May 18, 2011

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

Learning to eat is something I don’t remember. I remember that my now-step-sister was impressed that I, a sophisticated 10 year old, ate salad. I remember that before I ate salad and my mom insisted that I had a vegetable with every meal, I ate a lot of carrot sticks. I remember “breakfast for dinner” nights got more exciting when we got a waffle iron. And I remember learning about fish eggs and chicken livers by accident. I remember making boxed macaroni and cheese as a kid (I developed an expertise), but don’t remember the first pie I ever baked with my dad. I do remember making loads of pies, though. Point is, once you scratch the surface on the subject of food, it’s easy to roam down memory lane. The stories flow.

But I don’t remember figuring out how to use a fork or drink from a cup. As I watch my daughter negotiate forks, spoons, and sippy cups, I wonder about this process we all have successfully passed through. Much of the pleasure of eating for her, it seems, has to do with figuring it out.

I took her along to Brodhead this weekend to see “Key Ingredients: America by Food,” a Smithsonian exhibition on display at the Brodhead Public Library. Janet Gilmore, a folklorist with an interest in foodways, was there to encourage people to share their family food stories.  And she also shared stories of her own, and those of her students from the UW-Madison courses she teaches, about learning to eat. Specifically, learning to eat foods that one must develop a taste for. These foods tend to be associated closely with establishing a cultural bond and achieving a level of maturity within that culture. Many in the audience agreed and remembered learning to eat lutefisk or Limberger cheese.

The Author in cheesehead hat at "Key Ingredients"

The author in a cheesehead hat at "Key Ingredients"

The “Key Ingredients” exhibition is accompanied in Brodhead by a local exhibit called “Food for Thought.” Here you’ll learn food history and discover food stories from the region, such as the fact that all Limberger cheese sold in the country originates from the Chalet Cheese Co-op in Green County. You’ll also find out what popcorn, pickles and potato chips have in common (and I’m not spoiling anything to tell you it is not merely that they are snack foods). At every event scheduled during the six week run of “Key Ingredients” in Brodhead, I’m told there will be popcorn, pickles, and potato chips!

And cheese. Because it is Green County, and because Swiss Colony‘s history is entwined with the area, and because who doesn’t want to eat a little cheese after trying on a cheese hat (part of the “Key Ingredients” exhibition). The food story I will remember from our daytrip is of my daughter, just over a year old, getting another lesson in the hows and whats of eating. She was minding her own business, playing with her toy car under my bench, when I noticed her mouth was full. Of cheese. Some cheese she had dropped earlier. When I swiped it directly out of her mouth, she was more than a little displeased and made it loudly known.

If she remembers anything of our outing, I hope she remembers her first taste of popcorn (and not that I fished perfectly good cheese from her hungry mouth)!

I highly recommend making the trip. If you go, here are some suggestions from a local who really knows (and who had a huge part in creating the local “Food for Thought” exhibition currently with “Key Ingredients at the Brodhead Public Library).


Fiber mill in a village that rocks

May 10, 2011

I came to see machinery but before I was there five minutes I met a goddess.  I think Argyle is that kind of place.  You’ve gotta love these creative, entrepreneurial types.

From Michigan, the note in the box says, "State Fair #1"

The term “Fifty-mile Fiber” brought me here to check out the Argyle Fiber Mill, one of those great little destinations well off the thoroughfare.  Salt-of-the-Earth kind of people.   They raise animals – alpaca, Icelandic sheep and llamas –  in addition to cattle, pork and fowl of all kinds.  The Mill purchases fiber locally – thus the Fifty Mile goal – and provides retail services, consignment opportunities and a great place for aficionados to gather.

You can buy great yarns, including 100% Icelandic, 100% alpaca, blends using both or even the “houseblend”, which can include Icelandic, alpaca, llama, mohair, merino and whatever else they have small amounts of leftover.

The Mill does custom processing, mostly for breeders with small flocks.  They process fiber based on the specific needs of each customer and produce clouds, roving, batts and yarn.  When you deal with the Argyle Fiber Mill, you’re assured that you will get your own wool back.  “No minimum, no blending, your animal,” states a succinct Kristi.

They support and supply local fiber producers and artisans, although they have customers from throughout the Midwest and all around the country.  I kept thinking of how many neat knitted creations I’ve seen in shops recently that might have had some connection to this place.  Kristi says, “There isn’t a soul who doesn’t appreciate a hand knit item from someone they know and love.”

Kristi sets-up the spinning machine

I did get to see some neat equipment, by the way.  The Mill is a full-service operation located in an old hardware store.  The production action is in the rear of the building, and the techno-nerd in me loved the spinning machine, although there were quite a few other pieces of equipment there to wash and prepare fiber.  Nothing is wasted, and the day I visited they had some lesser quality fiber ready for making rugs.

The Mill sponsors a number of classes from time to time, but Wednesday nights have become a special time for gathering.  Argylia, Goddess of Knitting, Wine and Laughter, presides over a comfy spot in the lower level where people gather every Wednesday evening to knit, spin and chat.  They are the Argylian Society of Knitters.  Folks come quite a distance and represent a wide variety of ages, viewpoints, communities and expertise.  Most have animals.  The group makes items to donate, and has helped organizations like the Special Olympics, the Veterans Hospital and members of the armed forces.  Who would have thought about the need for a nice, knit helmet liner!

Argylia - Goddess of kintting, wine and laughter

I asked Kristi pointedly if it was true that Wednesday nights are when women gather to complain about their husbands and she said, “yup”.  Hmmmmm.  But she hit on the success of the group when she said, “Knitting remains a relaxing, soothing, comforting constant – and at the end of the day, you have something!”

The Argyle Fiber Mill represents more than just entrepreneurship; it is a place with a heart and a purpose beyond a job.  The people who run the place realize they are part of something bigger, certainly in the geographical sense and something larger attitudinally as well.  A community of spirit: People who support each other’s creativity.

And by the way, behind the door with the “Art Inside” sign is a great little studio where Pam works and plans community art classes.  So the Fiber Mill can probably also claim it is a business incubator, because I know that in that room they’re hatching some great ideas for community art projects.

Argyle is a postcard picturesque little community of about 800, on the Pecatonica River in Lafayette County.  It has its own hydroelectric plant on the river (how cool is that?), and was for a time the home to Wisconsin’s own Fighting Bob Lafollette.   Its community school survives and thrives – every kid in the district in one building that shares the playground with the village park next door.  The Pecatonica River winds through town and its wetlands grace the perimeter.  And you’ve got to see the turtle – designed and built by the students, local artists and artisans and scads of community members.  It took years but most everyone got involved in one way or another.

Historic Partridge Hall

Entrepreneurial communities are those places that create an environment that attracts, retains and supports talent.  I’ve seen some neat, thriving places in my time and Argyle is definitely an entrepreneurial community.  It is an industrious place with great history – something fairly common in agriculture country – but also welcomes new folks and new ideas and, frankly, the mixture makes the Village glow.

The Argyle hydro plant

By the way, if you’re into community development, don’t miss the 2011 regional conference, Building Economic Strength Together (BEST), held this year in Argyle on May 24.  There will be two business tours: the Fiber Mill and another excellent local business – the Thunder Bridge Trading Company.  Click here for more information.

The famous Argyle Turtle, designed and built by students, teachers, local artists and just about everyone else. Yup, you can crawl right through it!

Give Argyle a visit sometime soon.  It’s near Monroe, Darlington and Blanchardville and other neat places in southwest Wisconsin.  Together, they’re great day trip material.  You’ll find scores of shops and hundreds of creative, innovative people.

And you can also connect with the Fiber Mill folks through their Facebook page.

Do you know of an entrepreneurial community, either an urban neighborhood or a rural place?   Let us know about it.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI

Owen Conservation Park

May 10, 2011

By Brian D’Ambrosio (Author, Madison For Dads: 101-Dad-Related-Adventures

One of Madison, Wisconsin’s most dearly held secrets, the hiking and panorama at Owen Conservation Park offer great scenery of mixed woods and prairie, and a city skyline overlook. The view of the city shows only a scant percentage of the buildings and gives the impression that there is very little around but forest and country.

History of Owen Conservation Park

Madison has certainly grown since the early 1900s. On a summit showcasing the city’s west side, this 84-acre park was once the summer retreat of former University of Wisconsin French professor Edward T. Owen (1850 – 1931). He named it Torwald. Owen was not only an educator but also real estate investor and conservationist. He feared that unchecked urban development would ruin the natural beauty of Madison. With associates John Olin and Edward Hammersley, he donated land for a 12-mile pleasure drive on the west side. Owen heavily influenced the creation of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, which bought and preserved acreage for public parks and drives decades before the city comprehended the meaning and import of such ideas.

Hiking and Birding at Owen Conservation Park

Today, prairie and oak savanna have reclaimed Owen Conservation Park. Native prairie plants, aquatic plants, trees and shrubs envelop or blanket the ponds. The three wildlife ponds completed in 2008 give permanent water habitat to migratory waterfowl and other wildlife, including deer, turkey vultures, herons, wood ducks, and shorebirds. Goldenrod, coneflowers and bluestem are among the scores of plants that generate a reward of rotating color and consistency throughout the year. The park features 3.4 miles of trails of packed dirt, grass, and wood chip. Trail traffic is light and all of the loop options are easy. No dogs or bike allowed. Trails are groomed for cross-country skiing in winter. Access is limited from 4 a.m. to one hour after sunset.

Owen Conservation Park Directions

Various entry trails from all sides give community-park accessibility to Owen Conservation Park. High trees around its boundary give the impression that much of the enveloping world is primitive and countrified. From its intersection with University Avenue on the west side, follow Whitney Way south 0.2 miles to Old Middleton Road. Go west (right) 0.6 miles to Old Sauk Road. Turn left and at 0.4 miles the park entrance, 6021 Old Sauk Road, appears on your left. Follow the park road to the parking lot. The trailhead is to the right of the lot entry in the northwest corner of the lot.

Wright in Wisconsin and the World

May 3, 2011

In less than two weeks, an exhibition about Wisconsin’s most important architect will come to a close. Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century at the Milwaukee Art Museum and continues through May 15.

I visited a few weeks ago and think the show is worth seeing, even though I wasn’t convinced that the theme announced by the title was clearly or effectively carried through the 150 objects that make up the

Jacobs 1

The first Jacobs house in Madison

show. A large model of Wright’s Broadacre City (1932-1958) appears near the beginning of the show and is fascinating to observe as object and concept.

Since the exhibition relies heavily on plans and drawings, that means a lot of close-up viewing that, combined with the labels, can be tough on the eyes. Nonetheless, many of the illustrations are glorious and the material on the Milwaukee projects is especially good. Other Wisconsin work, including the first house for Herbert and Katharine Jacobs in Madison (above) is also in the show.

I’ve seen a lot of Wright material in person and in exhibitions. My visit to Milwaukee was well worth the time.

–Michael Bridgeman