Farewell To A Landmark

June 20, 2012

Building 200 in early 1945, with a giant flag on a towering flagpole in the front lot and banners marking awards for production flying nearby.

As far as historical landmarks go, Building 200 is among America’s homeliest. It’s a two-story barracks-like structure built for function with no attention paid to form beyond the basics of level, plumb and square. Anyone who has spent time on a military base in the years since World War II has seen buildings like it.

For exactly seventy years this month, Building 200 has stood off Highway 12 on the Sauk Prairie just down from the Barabo Hills. It was, until a couple of months ago, the headquarters of the United States Army at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant. Here the Army Corps of Engineers and the Army Ordnance Department supervised the work of the various civilian contractors who constructed and operated the plant since 1942.

Homely it is. Two stories of narrow office corridors in the shape of a rectangle with a cross corridor creating two open courtyards. Not that the weed-choked courtyards are decorative. They are merely a means to admit natural light to the inner row of offices. The exterior is a catalog of historical siding. Wooden clapboards in the 1940s covered by asbestoes sheathing in the 1950s covered by vinyl in the 2000s. The framing is entirely wood post and beam, instead of iron or steel, precious materials reserved for more strategically important purposes. Instead tthe Army used top-grade Pacific Coast fir, old growth lumber, hard to find today.

World War II was fought out of Building 200, so was the Korean conflict. From 1965 to 1975, the managers in Building 200 oversaw the production of propellant for the ammo discharged by the rifles, machine guns, artillery, and rockets fired by American troops at war in Southeast Asia. Pick a scene of combat from a Vietnam war movie, the only way most of us experienced that war. It’s more likely than not that, in the real war the movie imitates, the ammo fired in that scene was manufactured at Badger.

Just as importantly, Badger and Building 200 were part of the Cold War arsenal of the United States. When the communist governments in eastern Europe collapsed, when the Soviet Union dissolved, when China moved away from strict Maoism to whatever philosophy governs it today, they didn’t throw a party in Building 200, but they could have. Just as Badger was part of the victory in the relatively short World War II, it was part of the decades long grinding down of communism afterwards.

As a result, Badger worked itself out of its job. It was decommissioned in 1998 and Building 200 became headquarters for a massive effort to decontaminate over 5,000 acres of infrastructure, soil, groundwater and surface water in nearby Lake Wisconsin.

Much of that work is completed. The Army and its contractors no longer need the 66,000 square feet of office space in Building 200. The property itself has been transferred to the Wisconsin DNR and will become part of the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area. Efforts by preservationists to prevent the demolition of Building 200 and convert it to a visitor center/museum have attracted little support.

Demolition work has already begun. Seventy years ago, when Building 200 was first ready for occupancy, over 8,000 workers were swarming over the grounds beyond to complete the over 900 structures necessary to begin production as scheduled in January 1943.

Today, a handful of equipment operators will pull Building 200 down. It’s not an architectural masterpiece, about as far from a Calatrava or a Lloyd Wright as a building could be.

Let’s call it a landmark to transience, a reminder that the greatest of human achievements, like the humblest, are temporary.


Antler Basket Weaving

June 18, 2012

Jen's antler basket for yarn

It’s no secret that Wisconsin is filled with talented artists. What isn’t always evident, though, is how willing they are to not only share their craft, but to teach it as well. Such is the case with Mary Luckhardt-Klemm, who makes a variety of woven items in her western Sauk County home, the most stunning of which are her antler baskets.

My friend, Jennifer, first met Mary and saw her work during the Fall Art Tour in 2011. After bringing her in to teach basic weaving to a troop of Boy Scouts, we had the fortune to visit Mary in her studio and learn how to incorporate an antler into the construction of our baskets.

Mary prepping an antler shed

the basket studio

Jen pulling round reed

Jen and Mary

One of my favorite things about visiting any artist is the opportunity to tour their workspace. Being in Mary’s studio was a multi-sensory experience. It was filled with raw materials and finished objects, all rich with a variety of colors and textures.

We learned about preparing the antlers, which can become handles or components, such as a rim or base. Even the tips of the horn as well as splices of it are used as feet and beads, or to cover the end of a frame piece. Once the frame is constructed and basic binding has been done to secure the edges, the basket can be woven using a free form or planned design. We chose natural materials, including sea grass and round reed, to fill in the weaving and finished up with a dip into a natural stain solution.

If you’re interested in learning to weave, chances are that there are classes in your area. Wisconsin is rife with weavers talented in a variety of areas, from Native American black ash and birch bark weaving to extremely modern art installation pieces. Inquire at your local community or crafting center, or ask a weaver when you see one at a craft show. Additionally, there is a partial list of basket weaving guilds in Wisconsin at The Country Seat, Inc website.

[The finished baskets featured in this piece are the work of Jennifer Mack.]

woven antler basket

Jodi Anderson


Christopher Sholes: Inventor of Typewriter, Keyboard Layout

June 17, 2012

By Brian D’Ambrosio

In 2012, the typewriter may be an anachorism. The increasing dominance of personal computers, desktop publishing, high-quality laser technologies, and the pervasive use of web publishing, email and other electronic communication techniques, have widely replaced typewriters in the United States.

Christopher Sholes invented the first practical typewriter and introduced the keyboard layout that is familiar today. As he experimented early on with different versions, Sholes realized that the levers in the type basket would jam when he arranged the keys in alphabetical order. He rearranged the keyboard to prevent levers from jamming when frequently used keys were utilized. The rearranged keys in the upper row formed the order QWERTY, and the design exists to this day. 

Inventor’s Wisconsin Link

Sholes was born in Danville, Pennsylvania. As a young teenager, he apprenticed with a printer. Shortly after, he moved to Wisconsin where he worked as a printer, editor, and journalist. Always interested in issues of the day, Sholes served two terms as a Wisconsin senator, another term in the state assembly, and helped found the Republican Party in Wisconsin. Eventually, President Lincoln asked Sholes to become customs collector for the port of Milwaukee.

Sholes enlisted the help of investors to sell his typewriter, but his marketing tactics were not successful. For the remainder of his life, Sholes continued to work at typewriter inventions, but made no basic improvements, and eventually sold his interest in the original machine piecemeal during the years from 1872 to 1880.

In 1873, he sold his rights to the Remington Arms Company. The company began manufacturing the Remington typewriter, and Sholes continued to devise improvements for it. In 1878, he added a shift key to give users the option of lowercase or uppercase letters.

Sholes spent his later years in retirement in Milwaukee.

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of From Football to Fig Newtons: 76 American Inventors and The Inventions You Know By Heart. Available Electronically Here.