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.

Edna Taylor Conservation Park: Gems of Madison

March 27, 2012
Edna Taylor Conservation Park

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Edna Taylor was a writer, teacher and dairy farmer who sold 37 of her 98 acres to Madison to help create the 56-acre conservancy park which bears her name. Taylor, who had the strongly admirable environmental foresight to protect the beautiful wetland and forest, died before the completion of the park. The city bought the land in 1972, four months after her death.

Popular for local school field trips and with birdwatchers, the cattail-rich park is neatly and inconspicuously situated in the midst of frenetic pockets of residential housing and commercial development. Rife with frogs and birds, the hidden gem teems with wildflowers, oak stands, cottonwoods, lily-pads and blue-flag iris. Ponds here play host to everything from egrets and great blue herons to woodpeckers.

Edna Taylor Conservation Park

Tucked off Monona Drive and Femrite Drive, Edna Taylor Conservation Park offers three out-and-back hiking loops, a spring, marsh habitat, a glacial drumlin, oak stands, nature viewing platforms, and a Native American effigy mound. The area incorporates a little more than 3 miles of trails; the scenery is comprised of wetlands, willows, oak forest, ponds, savanna, and a handsome assortment of wildflowers. At the corner of the parking lot a large memorial stone dedicated to Edna Taylor denotes the trail’s beginnings.

The trail starts in between high grass and pretty marshland, and is easy to follow and well-maintained throughout. Birders will have exciting field days watching Canadian geese, cranes, herons, and mallards. Redwing and tricolor birds are abundant in the marshy ponds, and the surrounding shrubbery is especially comely in the fall. Raspberries abound in the fields in July. Observation platforms at the edge of the ponds are great for spotting water fowl. It’s common in the springtime to spy tiny Canada geese chicks and tadpoles.On the east side of the park are six linear Indian effigy mounds and one panther-shaped mound, all listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Edna Taylor Conservation Park abuts the equally enjoyable Aldo Leopold Park; wedged in the thickness of evergreens, a sign denotes the change of parks. Trail traffic is generally pretty light, and the park is open 4 a.m. to 1 hour before sunset. Restrooms and water are available at the park office during those hours.

Edna Taylor Conservation Park Directions

From the Beltline Highway (US 12/18), drive north on Monona Drive 0.6 miles and hook a right on Femrite Drive. The parking lot for Edna Taylor Conservancy Park is on the left about 0.4 miles from Monona Drive. To the right of the parking is the easily identifiable trailhead. The entry to the Aldo Leopold Nature Center is also on the left side, approximately 1,000 feet from Monona Drive.

Brian D’Ambrosio’s Madison for Dads: 101 Adventures now available for $4.99 as Ebook:

Wisconsin’s Literary Landmarks: From “Our Town” to “Citizen Kane”

March 6, 2012

Wisconsin’s Literary Landmarks

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Joseph Webster House, Elkhorn, WI

As hard as it may seem at times to give reasons for, there is more to learn about and excite the sentiment in the Badger State above and beyond milk and cheese (regardless of how deliciously impressive) and the Green Bay Packers (notwithstanding stunning Super Bowl success). Wisconsin has produced many influential authors and dramatists and served as the source for many great fictional bodies of work. In this article you’ll take a winding journey, from Pepin to Kenosha, on the path to discover Wisconsin’s unique ancestry of literary landmarks, storybook attractions, and scholarly sites, and how the unstoppable spirit of a few of its residents came to heavily influence the tenor of mythical Americana.

Sterling North Boyhood Home, Edgerton

In Edgerton, Wisconsin, tourists with the most bookish of bents will enjoy  visiting the landmark boyhood home and museum of Sterling North (1906-1974), world-famous author of Rascal, So Dear to my Heart, The Wolfling, and 28 other works.  In 1963 North completed the book Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era. Set in 1917 when he was 11-years-old, the best-selling book chronicles a boy’s fondness for and friendship with a pet raccoon in the fictitious “Brailsford Junction.” The home, which is open from April 5 through December 20, Sunday afternoons 1:00 to 4:30 p.m., may be toured by appointment. Refurbished to its 1917 setting, furnished with period antiques, the museum showcases North’s desk, typewriter, photos, books and many family artifacts and memorabilia.

Lorine Niedecker, Fort Atkinson Poet

Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) was a poet of eminent endowment whose life and work were long cloaked in anonymity. The introverted daughter of a carp fisherman, she spent most of her life on a flood-riven plain in southern Wisconsin. She was born and died on a marshy spit of land known as Blackhawk Island near Fort Atkinson. The Friends of Lorine Niedecker sponsors a monthly poetry reading in Fort Atkinson, which is rich with Niedecker-related sites, including W7309 Blackhawk Island Road, the location of Niedecker’s writer’s cottage and modest home. Both of which are private property, but access is allowed through an appointment with the Friends of Lorine Niedecker. Other notable markers include: Union Cemetery, County Road J north of Hwy 106, Cemetery Road, the burial place of Lorine Niedecker and her parents Henry and Daisy; 506 Riverside Drive, the home where Lorine stayed during the school year 1917-1918 with family friends; 1000 Riverside Drive , the home where the Niedeckers lived from 1910-1916; 209 Merchants Avenue, the Dwight Foster Library, home to Lorine’s personal library archive; 401 Whitewater Avenue, the Hoard Historical Museum, which operates a room with myriad artifacts related to the poet’s life.

Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, North of Baraboo

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac will be read and revered ad infinitum. This classic, featuring philosophical essays and natural observations established Leopold (1887-1948) as America’s preeminent environmental thinker. Published in 1949, shortly after Leopold’s death, A Sand County Almanac is a masterpiece of nature writing, widely referenced as one of the most seminal nature books ever penned. Writing from the vantage of his retreat shack along the shore of the Wisconsin River, Leopold mixed conservation and wildlife essays, polemics, and memoirs, in what has become a catalyst for the country – and world’s – evolving ecological awareness. “Outdoor prose writing at is best……A trenchant book, full of beauty and vigor and bite…All through it is (Leopold’s) deep love for a healthy land.” So raved the New York Times. The Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm is located near Baraboo, Wisconsin. Purchased by Leopold in the early 1930s, he converted a chicken coop, which he dubbed ‘the Shack’, for his family to spend weekends. Tours of the Shack are offered Saturdays, from Memorial Day through the end of October. Guided tours originating at the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center are the only way to access and view the inside of the Leopold Shack.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Birthplace, Pepin 

It appears that every state wants to claim a piece of author Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957). Anyone who watched the Little House on the Prairie TV series knows that Walnut Grove is in Minnesota and there’s a bust of Laura on display in Missouri where she settled in her later years. Laura also lived in Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Florida, New York and South Dakota. Near the tiny village of Pepin, Wisconsin, Wilder’s birthplace is commemorated. The Ingalls family lived in a small cottage when Laura was born, in 1867. You’ll find a replica of her log cabin at the Little House Wayside and an historical marker in Pepin Park. Plan on visiting in mid-September to participate in Laura Ingalls Wilder Days.

Zona Gale Home, Portage 

Zona Gale Home, Portage, WI

Novelist and playwright Zona Gale (1874-1938) achieved nationwide popularity as a writer and won the first ever Pulitzer Prize awarded to a female for Drama. Once she gained a niche in the literary world, she returned to her place of origin – Portage, Wisconsin – where she lived and worked the rest of her life. Zona Gale was born in Portage on August 26, 1874, and, barring a brief time in Minnesota, lived there until she entered the University of Wisconsin. At the time of her birth, her father was a Milwaukee Road railroad engineer, working at the time out of Minneapolis. Zona’s mother chose to be prepared for the birth of their first and only child at the Portage home of her mother. Gale first garnered attention for her short stories set in the fictional town of Friendship Village. Published in 1908, Friendship Village proved very well-liked and she went on to write a similar series of stories. Miss Lulu Bett shared best seller honors in 1920 with Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, and the adaptation of the novel brought her the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, in 1921.

Hamlin Garland Homestead, West Salem 

Hamlin Garland was born in a West Salem log cabin on September 14, 1860. After spending his teenage years in rural Iowa, Garland (1860-1940) became a teacher in the Boston School of Oratory. Between the years of 1885 and 1889 he taught private classes in both English and American literature. Some time was also spent lecturing on land reform in and around Boston, where he made the acquaintance of Oliver Wendell Holmes, George Bernard Show, William Dean Howells, Edwin Booth and other worthies. It was in 1917 that A Son of the Middle Border was published. The next year, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. For the novel A Daughter of the Middle Border he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for best biography of 1921. In 1893, Hamlin Garland bought his parents their first home, called the Hays house, in West Salem, Wisconsin. The homestead, open weekends May through October, came to be known as “Maple Shade.”

Joseph Webster House, Elkhorn 

At 9 East Rockwell Street in the small town of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, stands the neat, modest, white Greek Revival style house where composer Joseph Philbrick Webster (1819-1875) lived. He lived here from 1857 until his death in 1875, at the age of 56. Most of Webster’s more than 1,000 songs were penned during this period. Some of his classics are still well-known today. “Lorena” was heard and immortalized in the classic movie Gone With the Wind. Webster’s compositions were eclectic, including music for ballads, religious hymns, nationalistic drama, and a cantata – a vocal composition intended for musical accompaniment and a choir. The house, which served as a stopping point and sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad, is open year-round to the public.

Thornton Wilder Birthplace, Madison 

Thornton Niven Wilder (1897-1975) was born in Madison, Wisconsin (at that time a town of eighteen thousand inhabitants) at 140 Langdon Street on April 17, 1897, the son of Amos Parker Wilder, a Wisconsin State Journal editor, and Isabella Niven Wilder. His twin brother died at birth, and Wilder grew up with an older brother and three younger sisters. He took to writing as a youngster, eventually earning his undergraduate degree at Yale, and graduate degree at Princeton. By the time he died on December 7, 1975, at his home in Hamden, Connecticut, Wilder garnered international fame as a playwright and novelist. To this day, his works are translated, performed and prized by audiences worldwide. Wilder’s most famous work, Our Town, explores the lives of people living in the quintessentially American small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. It was first produced in 1938 and received the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Madison was the first of three “our towns” in Wilder’s boyhood (he lived here until he was eight), and it is indicative of Wilder’s interests that each was academic – Madison, Berkeley, New Haven. Though primarily associated with Our Town, Wilder also earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. A small plaque commemorates the birth site.

John Muir Park and Boyhood Home

Father of our national park system, farmer, inventor, sheepherder, explorer, writer, founder and first president of the Sierra Club, and conservationist John Muir (1838-1914) was perhaps America’s most rugged and prominent naturalist. Raised near a little lake outside Portage, Wisconsin, Muir’s family immigrated to the United States from Scotland in 1849. They build a home (long since eroded) and started a farm called Fountain Lake Farm; Muir’s formative years in the Badger State instilled a love of nature and land. Muir published six volumes of writings, all describing discoveries of natural environs. Additional books and compilations were published after his death in 1914. Perhaps what is most important about his writings was not their number, but their sagacious content, which continues to hold an influential effect on American ideas and the policies that help to nurture and preserve nature’s elegant habitats. The park is open year-round.

Orson Welles Birthplace, Kenosha

The son of a gifted concert pianist and wealthy inventor, Kenosha’s Orson Welles (1915-1985) proved a precocious child, excelling in music, art, and even magic. By age 16, Welles had set out to make his mark in the dramatic arts. Within three years, he’d entered stage, film, and radio, and by 1941, he’d co-written, directed and starred in Citizen Kane, considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. Born George Orson Welles to Richard Head Welles and Beatrice Ives Welles, May 15, 1915, Welles once said: “I never blamed my folks for Kenosha. Kenosha has always blamed my folks for me.” Built in the 1880s, Welles’ birthplace is a private residence, the front of which holds a bronze plaque commemorating the home town mastermind.

August Derleth, Walden West Festival 

August Derleth (1909-1971) was a prolific writer, publisher, and anthologist. Though best remembered as the first publisher of the horror writings of H.P. Lovecraft, he wrote in several genres, including biography, detective fiction, science fiction, poetry, and historical fiction. Sauk City’s August Derleth Society sponsors a yearly event the second weekend in October, The Walden West Festival. The festival includes satires, musical performances, speakers, a drive to Derleth-relevant sites, and an evening poetry gathering at the writer’s grave. Permanent exhibits linked to Derleth are located at Leystra’s Restaurant and the Cedarberry Inn in Sauk City, the Sauk City Library, and at the Sauk County Historical Society, in Baraboo.

–Brian D’Ambrosio



Lorine Niedecker’s Cabin in Fort Atkinson, Wisc. – A Literary Landmark

January 27, 2012

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Photo of Lorine Niedecker's Cabin in Fort Atkinson, Wisc. - A Literary Landmark, By Brian D'Ambrosio

Lorine Niedecker was a poet’s poet. English poet Basil Bunting considered her to be one of the finest poets of the 20th Century, and William Carlos Williams called her the Emily Dickinson of her time. Though internationally noted, in Wisconsin she remains a stranger – so much so that a 2003 biography of Niedecker by John Lehman was titled America’s Greatest Unknown Poet. Lorine Niedecker is referred to as a poet of place because her imagery was so rooted to her life on Blackhawk Island. She celebrated the visions and sounds of Blackhawk Island, a stumpy, marshy peninsula along which the Rock River pours before emptying into Lake Koshkonong. As an objectivist poet, the simplicity of her words still intuitively touches our own experiences.

The daughter of a Wisconsin carp fisherman, Niedecker was greatly influenced by her life on Blackhawk Island. She was born in May 12, 1903, on a spit of land near Fort Atkinson. She lived much of her life beside a flooding river in a Spartan cottage without electricity or running water. An only child, her words weave the textures of her culture, family and neighbors.

The seminal point in her poetic development came in 1931 when she read Louis Zukofsky’s “The Objectivist” issue of Poetry magazine. By 1940 Niedecker viewed herself exclusively as a poet. Reclusive and shy, her primary motivation was to have her poetry shared and read and her reputation as a poet locked. Niedecker’s poetry reflects her vision of the world, water, fish, fowl and flood. She spent her childhood outdoors watching blackbirds, willows, maples, boats, fishermen and spring floods engulfing her little house. In a letter to a friend in 1967, Niedecker confirmed the pure inspiration she found in her surroundings on Blackhawk Island: “Early in life I looked back of our buildings to the lake and said, “I am what I am because of all this – I am what is around me – these woods have made me….”

View of Spit From Lorine Niedecker's Cabin

She lived first in the log-sided house and later the house alongside the waterway from 1947-1970. Today, literary followers from around the world make their way to Blackhawk Island to view the small one-and-one-half-room cottage where Niedecker lived and wrote. The Lorine Niedecker homes are privately owned and not open to the public.

The Friends of Lorine Niedecker sponsors a monthly poetry reading in Fort Atkinson, which is rich with Niedecker-related sites, including W7309 Blackhawk Island Road, the location of Niedecker’s writer’s cottage and modest home. Both of which are private property, but access is allowed through an appointment with the Friends of Lorine Niedecker. Other notable markers include: Union Cemetery, County Road J north of Hwy 106, Cemetery Road, the burial place of Lorine Niedecker and her parents Henry and Daisy; 506 Riverside Drive, the home where Lorine stayed during the school year 1917-1918 with family friends; 1000 Riverside Drive , the home where the Niedeckers lived from 1910-1916; 209 Merchants Avenue, the Dwight Foster Library, home to Lorine’s personal library archive; 401 Whitewater Avenue, the Hoard Historical Museum, which operates a room with myriad artifacts related to the poet’s life.

“Our job is to promote and identify the work of this great poet,” said Ann Engelman, president of Friends of Lorine Niedecker. “Her fellow poets were so promotional of her, from William Carlos Williams to Allen Ginsberg. Her fellow poets really praised her.”

Few people were aware of Niedecker’s poetry, and she died virtually unknown outside of contemporary circles. Her poetic reputation has enhanced so widely that in 2011, Engelman can claim that no anthology of 20th Century American poetry is whole without some of Lorine Niedecker’s work.

Lorine Niedecker

“Her esteem as a major American poet grows each year,” said Engelman. “In Wisconsin, she is still very much unknown. Our goal as a society is to change that.”

Lorine Niedecker: A Life, UW Press
American Poetry Archival Project, University of Nebraska

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.

Odd Wisconsin Attractions: Clinton’s Truck in the Tree

March 15, 2011


Truck in The Tree: By Brian D'Ambrosio

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Driving along Interstate 43 in southern Wisconsin near Clinton, the shiny, classic Chevy truck in the sky rises above the concrete and asphalt horizon like an absurd vision. You look once at the Chevy wedged between two tall trees. You look a second time. You gawk at it a third and fourth time. You still cannot comprehend what you are seeing. It’s a spectacle unlike any other: a truck in a tree.

The Truck in the Tree began as an ordinary request to a father from his son for a tree house. A creation of the “Mad Man of Wisconsin”, a play on Clinton resident Mark Madson’s last name, the turquoise and white 1959 half-ton Chevy Fleetside pickup truck has been wedged between two basswood trees since 1994, It stands as a sentinel to Madson’s maniacal, motley collection of reworked vehicles, statues, and sculptures made of old scraps, parts and components.

Madson has long been an ardent thinker, recreating new from old and looking at things from a uniquely keen perspective; in fact, he describes himself an “upside-down and backwards guru.”

One of Madson’s more recent vehicular-based creations is the Packer Mobile, a 1978 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz that he debuted in 2008 when the Pack was headed toward a 13-3 season. He drove nearly 400 miles roundtrip to Green Bay to watch his beloved Packers annihilate the lowly Lions. Four hundred miles isn’t too demanding of a pilgrimage. Except for when it is late December, and you are driving the northern section of Wisconsin in an exposed convertible, top down, with the wind whipping front to back, and sideways. During the drive, it was a bitter 13 degrees, with a wind chill dynamic of about 40 below. The Packer Mobile featured a six-foot flagpole bearing the Packers flag, as well as an 11-foot flame-painted surfboard, a blue shark fin, and bullhorns. The Packer Mobile is in fact Madson’s sixth conversion of this Cadillac-turned-convertible, the last of which was dedicated to the saucily insolent Jimmy Buffett.

The Truck in the Tree stands testament to one Wisconsinite’s bold attempt to change or enhance the state’s built landscape. In fact, Madson’s experience and imagination has garnered him appearances on television shows such as Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Junkyard Wars, and the Discovery Channel’s Monster Nation. On Monster Nation, he morphed a car into a small package – the ultimate act of inventive recycling and mashing.

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of Madison For Dads: 101 Dad-Related Adventures.

The Day Otis Redding Died: December 10, 1967, Lake Monona, Wis.

December 6, 2010

By Brian D’Ambrosio, Editor

Soul singer Otis Redding had acquired his own plane to make touring less hectic, but the twin-engine Beechcraft H18 would prove his fatal undoing. At around 3:30 p.m. on a foggy Sunday afternoon, December 10, 1967, the plane, which encountered a storm en route from Cleveland to a concert in Madison, plunged into the frigid depths of Lake Monona. Redding, 26, and four members of his Bar-Kays band were killed. The musicians were headed to The Factory nightclub, scheduled to perform at 6:30 p.m.

The crash killed six others, everyone on board except for trumpeter Ben Cauley (bassist James Alexander had luckily avoided the flight altogether). On the cusp of achieving pop superstardom, Redding, best known for his hit, “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” recorded just three days earlier and released after his death, was dead. The tune was Otis’ first posthumous release and his biggest-selling single ever, topping both the R&B and pop charts on its way to going gold. Engineers tastefully overdubbed the sound effects, the mournful cries of seagulls, the singer’s lonesome whistling, after Otis’ death.

About 4,500 mourners, including a dazzling array of soul giants such as James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Wilson Pickett, crowded Macon’s City Auditorium for Redding’s funeral, a week later.

On December 3, 1997, thirty years later, hundreds of people showed up to the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center to Georgia-born soul singer and songwriter. They’d never met the man, but they loved his music, and came to express their appreciation of the full impact of Otis Redding as a soul pioneer who inexorably altered the rhythm & blues landscape – and, ultimate, all of pop music- with his gritty, lustrous vocal, sexy, slinky lyrics and unforgettable songs.

Cauley, who hadn’t visited Madison since the crash, received a standing ovation. He told his audience how he’d awakened early that Sunday four decades ago and headed to the Cleveland airport for the trip to Madison. That day, he said, Redding told him he’d just finishing recording the supremely meditative “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” A few hours later, Cauley was flung out of the plane on impact. As he floated in the icy waters of Lake Monona, clinging to a cushion, he watched the rest of the plane’s passengers — including the man he once described as “…a groovy cat, like an older brother” — drowned.

When his short speech was finished, Cauley sang some of the songs that might have been on the bill at The Factory, including a trumpet-laced version of Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

He was born in Dawson, Georgia, approximately 100 miles south of Macon, on Sept. 9, 1941. His family moved into a Macon housing project when Redding was three. He began singing in the choir of the Vineville Baptist Church. Now home to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, Macon is arguably the vital center of soul. Little Richard, James Brown and Otis Redding – three men who shaped American blues music in from the 1950s to the 1970s and beyond — all launched their careers here. Strangely, although he consistently impacted the R&B charts beginning with the Top Ten appearance of “Mr. Pitiful” in 1965, and he is remembered for producing some of the toughest, sweetest, most enduring soul music ever created, none of Redding’s singles fared better than #21 on the pop Top Forty.

There’s one noteworthy aspect to Redding’s life not often touched upon: No one has anything unflattering to say about him. No scandals lurking in the closet, no unsavory incidents of rampant egotism to shatter his clean image, no shafting of his sidemen on long road jaunts. Just a sincerely talented soul man who enhanced the lives of everyone associated with him but died much too soon.

Heartbreak never sounded good. Or happened so abruptly.

Article excerpted from Brian D’Ambrosio’s travel book A Wee Bit of Wisconsin

Roadside Chats: Martha Downs, Woodworker: Black Earth, WI

December 2, 2010

By Brian D’Ambrosio

On a cold, austere-feeling weekday morning, Martha Downs studiously saws, styles, and sculpts wood to fit the full scope of her imagination.  In the chalky calmness of her Black Earth shop, trailed around by an old, sawdust covered dog, she harmoniously works in an earnest, thoughtful quiet.

“My shop gives shape and form to my thoughts,” says Downs, a lean, witty, experienced craftsperson, most comfortable wearing torn dungarees, ankle deep in sandy surroundings.  “I walk the fine line between being a tradesperson who has a job to do and an artist who creates and interprets and has visions, I think I’m somewhere in between.  It’s not totally important to me that what I’m building isn’t my vision,  I’ll influence it, and balance its aesthetic elements. “

Here, Downs designs and builds durable tables, shelving, headboards, cabinetry, beds, and doors. Her pieces mainly come commissioned with her clients’ tastes and ideas in mind, or she often accepts referral work from contractors.  She is the brains, boss, and brawn at Downs Woodworking, the theorist, the captain, the follower, the artist, and the quality control specialist.

“Things do not leave the shop until I am satisfied,” says Downs. “Sometimes I’ll try materials out on myself first, and I spend any quiet periods I have between projects poking around, experimenting with wood.”

When possible Downs sources local wood, primarily walnut from Mount Horeb, and utilizes local materials. Multitasking, though, is a skill best left for those pushing pencils in their cubicle nations, not something that feels natural for an invested woodworker like Downs, for she can only exert her energies on one piece at a time.

“I don’t like working on multiple pieces at once,” says Downs.  “When I’m working I do have ideas in mind for other projects, but I prefer to focus.  My average day is spent in the shop working; I’m not much of a nighttime worker. “

Stylistically, Downs draws heavily from Scandinavian and American mid century modern design influences, spending whatever down time she has brushing up on the various technical aspects of woodworking, furniture building, and workshop management.

Population 1,320, the village of Black Earth, boasts rich soil, thawed glacier beds, wavy pastures, a restored train depot, a five star supper club, and some fine trout fishing. Undulating and pastoral, a drive through the countryside here is indeed inspirational. Alas, it can also be a bit isolating for a lone commercially active cabinetmaker, especially when she is searching for some conversation.

“I’m away from everybody so I don’t get a lot of input,” smiles Downs, who has lived in Black Earth for five plus years. “There’s nobody to talk to near the water cooler. I have to search for input. But you know, I’ve had plenty of other so-called normal jobs in my life, working for other people, and that type of work lacks too many other things for me.”

As a woodworker, it is always tough to break through the clutter of competition, and it is a heck of a lot tougher still, for Downs, when it comes to debunking the cherished concept of American Big-Box-addicts that all custom furniture pieces are too expensive, or, perhaps worse, too elitist.  It seems we have conditioned ourselves to forsake genuine quality in favor of lesser cost, shun heirloom preciousness in favor of expendably poor, mass-produced purchases, and eschew those generational keepsakes built by our neighbors for cold, austere disposable items, shipped from the dimmest corners of the earth.

“The assumption usually is that it is going to be too costly,” says Downs, a former wine consultant, with a college background in sociology and history, who has worked with wood for more than twenty-five years. “But the truth is, my expenses are high, between the shop, material investments, rent, and liability insurance, I can’t afford to be cheap. And the perception exists that custom is unaffordable, yet people spend a lot or the same amount on similar pieces that come out of factories.

“I make things for those who want something long lasting,” she continues, “and who are proud to have it. In the end, a custom piece of furniture needs to make sense. It should be well built, thorough, and something the owner can take pride in. “

Indeed, upon examination of Downs’ work, it is easy to see custom furniture building as something steeped in the management and practice of nuance.  That she has honed her hand skills with planes and chisels, developed an eye for delicate curves, and has a sixth sense of what a prospective customer may want, is clear. Uniqueness results from these subtleties. A subdued arch or dimension here, or a tiny variation or characteristic added there – these refinements accentuate unique furniture. It is sort of like having a unique copy of an ancient manuscript, but, well, much bigger, and with a utilitarian bent.

Notwithstanding the benefits of sui generis labor, it can still be most taxing for autonomous artisans such as Downs to market, or exploit, the rich depths of their creativities and talents.

“I probably don’t do enough to make myself known,” says Downs, then adding, “I believe that it’s best for me to communicate through the emotive nature of my work.”

To read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s Wisconsin travel, history, artist profiles, and roadside conversations.

Hamlin Garland Homestead: By Brian D’Ambrosio

October 25, 2010


By Brian D’Ambrosio

Some pithy poet once said, “A man lives, he dies; he is only killed by forgetfulness.” Generals, statesmen, celebrities, sports figures, movie stars, and writers are by and large the types of characters who, for better or worse, usually keep and store well in the collective recall of public awareness. But while history records them as notable, often the communities in which they labored or lived irrespectively overlook their native yields. Many fail dismally even to remember or to recognize the value of their distinct achievements.

Since its beginning in 1851, West Salem, Wisconsin, has seen many noteworthy events take place and many an individual has left their mark upon the village. One of the most consequential is Hamlin Garland. To think of and to understand Garland, a prolific author and poet, it is necessary to begin by keeping in mind the forces which brought his parents to West Salem; to see his father, Richard Garland, as he pushed onward toward the goal of level, rich farmland on the expanding frontier.

It’s illuminative for us to revisit a few words of description of Wisconsin and West Salem as written by Hamlin Garland:

“My Wisconsin birthplace has always been a source of deep satisfaction to me. That a lovely valley should form the first picture in my childhood memories is a priceless endowment. It doesn’t matter so much what Green’s Coulee looks like now or what it looked like to grown-ups in 1865. It will always remain and charming and mysterious place to me

“It is still vivid in my mind. I have but to close my eyes to the present, and the tiger lilies bloom again in its meadows. The mowers toss up once more the scarlet sprays of strawberries. The blackbirds rise in clouds from out of the ripening corn. A hundred other sights and sounds, equally beautiful and equally significant, fill my inner vision.”


Born in Greenwood, Maine, on April 1, 1830, Richard Garland ran away from home to work on a railroad. Later he returned home and persuaded his parents to move westward. Arriving in Milwaukee in 1850, they started out across the promising countryside. Weeks later, they had arrived in an open meadow not far from the Mississipi River and the Minnesota border, a place called Green’s Coulee. To the east was a mill pond. A trout brook came in from the north, and a grist mill rose against a conical hill around whose base the mighty river ran in a reedy curve. On the bottom lands to the west, scattered pines were growing, and in the edges of these groves and on the banks of the stream, a group of wigwams denoted the presence of Indians. Here they laid down roots. Richard worked at various jobs, always dreaming of owning his own farm. He soon married a woman called Isabel McClintock. It was in a swatter’s cabin, half way between West Salem and the county hospital that Dr. William Hughes Stanley delivered a baby boy, christened Hamlin Garland, on September 14, 1860.

During the Civil War, Richard joined the Union army. Upon his return, the family moved westward, making their new home in Winnesheik County, Iowa, in 1868. After spending his teenage years in rural Iowa, Garland became a teacher in the Boston School of Oratory. Between the years of 1885 and 1889 he taught private classes in both English and American literature. Some time was also spent lecturing on land reform in and around Boston, where he made the acquaintance of Oliver Wendell Holmes, George Bernard Shaw, William Dean Howells, Edwin Booth and other worthies.

A trip during 1887 back to Wisconsin led him to write his Mississippi Valley stories. His impressions induced a mood of bitterness. During the weeks he worked on his father’s farm he became aware that every detail of his daily life on the farm was assuming literary significance in his mind.

“The quick callusing of my hands, the swelling of my muscles, the sweating of my scalp, all the unpleasant results of physical pain I noted down…Labor when so prolonged and severe as at this time my toil had to be is warfare…I studied the glory of the sky and the splendor of the wheat with a deepening sense of the generosity of nature and the monstrous injustice of social creeds.”

It was three years later that Main Travelled Roads was published. An instant attack was made on the book in the Midwest because it pictures the ugliness, endless drudgery and loneliness of life on a farm. Reviewers in the East, such as William Dean Howells, however, praised him.

“The stories are full of those gaunt, grim, sordid, pathetic, ferocious figures, whom our satirists find so easy to caricature as Hayseeds,” wrote Howells in Harper’s Magazine. “The type caught in Mr. Garland’s book is not pretty; it is ugly and often ridiculous; but it is heartbreaking in its rude despair.”

In 1891, his first novel, A Spoil of Office, was published. It was based on the political unrest in the agricultural regions of the country. The Populist movement was now in its heyday, and Hamlin’s father, Richard, was a delegate to the Omaha convention of the Populists. The winter of 1892 was spent in New York, but the following year Garland moved his headquarters to Chicago. One year later Hamlin bought his parents their first home, called the Hays house, in West Salem. It was situated on the road leading to the town of Mindoro, where so many of his mother’s family and friends lived. Built in 1857, the house was part of a wooded four acre lot, and immediately, Hamlin began enlarging it, raising the west end to the two story bay window first, tearing out the partition in the living room, putting in a furnace and bathroom. The only part left unchanged was the stairway. From 1893-1915, Garland summered here, and from 1916-1938, he extended his stays from spring till fall. 


In 1912, an overheated grease fire, which started in the kitchen when the maid was lighting the fire in the oil stove to heat water for the morning washing, destroyed much of the home.  But Hamlin quickly restored it. The Garlands had the first tennis court in West Salem and tennis parties were frequently held there. Named “Maple Shade” for the beautiful maple trees which shaded the kitchen and rear entry, it held tremendous views of the surrounding hills and valleys. Garland’s mother lived permanently in the house; Richard continued to spend summers in Dakota.

Hamlin’s first born, a daughter named Mary Isabel, was born in West Salem in 1903, while the second was born in Chicago in 1907. Their summers were spent in West Salem until 1915 when they began summering in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The folks of West Salem recall Garland as an eccentric and withdrawn man, as an article in the Saturday Sentinel alludes:

“The inhabitants of La Crosse County have been troubled by the fact that he writes books. From the society of these blissfully unliterary persons he departs each year into the book sets of Chicago and New York where he is more profoundly terrorized at the display of new books.

It was written that Garland might be met on the street but never acknowledged the passerby. One woman called Mrs. Tilson, who lived across the street from Garland for many years, when asked how she ever got the man to return her greeting, said that the exchange happened only because she had been “working on it for twenty years.”

It was in 1917 that A Son of the Middle Border was published. The next year, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Four years hence, A Daughter of the Middle Border was published. For this novel, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for best biography of 1921. The University of Wisconsin gave Garland the degree of Doctor of Letters on June 21, 1926. In the bestowing this honor, Professor Frederick Paxson said: “Hamlin Garland is the novelist of our northwest farmer country. For thirty-five years his easy pen has worked at the life of our people…His writings are words of art, but they are also documents that may become the source of history…as the preserver of the fact and flavor that gave identity to the Middle Border from which we sprang.”

Garland sold Maple Shade in 1938.

In the long run every man has to shut down – Garland died in 1940 – and if he is remembered thereafter it is by the effort of others.

In 1959, Errol Kindschy was a young man, barely into his 20s, when he first saw the village of West Salem through the eyes of a fledgling social studies teacher. He had only been in the town for two weeks before the school year began, and on the first day he posed the same opening inquiry to each of the six classes he was hired to instruct. 

“I asked if anybody famous was from this area,” recalls Kindschy. “For five classes, I was told quite affirmatively no. But on the last class of the day, one of the boys raised his hand, and he said that an author of some kind was from the town. He didn’t even know his name. This got me curious.”

Kindschy asked neighbors and coworkers about this famous mystery man, most of whom knew nearly nothing about the accomplished writer beyond the vague recognition of his name: Hamlin Garland.

There was one woman, however, one Rachel Gullickson, who was rather offended by Kindschy because he didn’t know the slightest bit about Garland. Not only was she familiar with Garland, a huge fan of his writing talents, but she lived in what was once his homestead.

“Gullickson moved in when Garland moved out,” said Kindschy. “This made me even more interested in Garland, and also quite interested in the fact that no history of West Salem had ever been written. When the Garland homestead came up for sale in 1972, I bought it, restored it, formed the West Salem Historical Society, and resold it to the society at a low rate.”

And though a bit run down and neglected at the time of the purchase, Kindschy saw a glimmer of a forgotten world. He understood that a single house may have only limited architectural significance, but the former residence of a great writer makes an indelible impression.

Thanks to Wisconsin Historical Society funds, donations and volunteer muscle, the Hamlin Garland Homestead was restored to the period of 1912 to 1915. The restoration of the Garland Homestead, which neatly reversed the structure from a jumbled three apartment subdivide, started in 1974, and concluded two years later, opening to the public on July 4, 1976.

“It’s been more than 30 years and most of Wisconsin still doesn’t know we are here,” says Kindschy.

Kindschy wants to push forward nevertheless. He intends to translate some of Garland’s better material into German and Japanese himself. Plus, he still has ample material from Garland’s extensive catalogue to get acquainted with.  

“I’ve read thirty-eight out of the fifty-two books Garland wrote,” says Kindschy. “And, honestly, some of them I wish I never picked up, and some of them are fantastic. Main Travelled Roads and Trailmakers, which is the story of the Garlands coming into this area, are my favorites.”

“Somewhere in Garland’s life,” he continues, “he discovered that all the books he was reading had happy endings. He didn’t like this. In my opinion, he became the first American realist, Jack London and others followed. In his lifetime, he was known as a controversial dean of American Literature. I’ve dug up old newspaper articles in which he was booed off the stage here in West Salem at the old settlers’ meeting, and booed off the stage at the University of Madison, for supporting American Indians and women’s independence and education, promoting the occult and séances, and proposing a single tax system.”

Kindschy and I tour Garland’s study, which includes his rocker, desk, movie projector, ink wells, pictures, and books.  It’s one of the most evocative rooms in the house, silent and peaceful, with Garland’s own card table and playing cards, and a bookcase of his original books, many autographed to members of his family or friends.

It’s Kindschy’s favorite room – and it shows in his keenness. I never saw any one so feverishly alive as this little, old man this room, his bright, withered cheeks, over which the skin was drawn tightly, his darting eyes, under their prickly bushes of eyebrow, his fantastically-creased white and gold curls of hair, his subtle mouth, and, above all, his hands, never at rest. His fingers are short, tight, bony, wrinkled, with every finger alive at the tips, like the fingers of a mesmerist. His hands are never out of his sight, they travel to his nose, crawled all over his face, and grimace in little gestures.

“Garland had an indoor bathroom and tennis court and lawn mower,” says Kindschy, pointing to the back yard. “So people thought he was putting on heirs. He wouldn’t converse with the local people at all. His short stories were thought to have portrayed some of the local Germans in a negative light. He described them as he saw them, I guess. They wanted to talk about family and farming, he wanted to talk about literature and books. Those farmers, they didn’t see his work as a writer.”

One hour or so later, we are back downstairs in the museum room, which includes Garland’s actual Pulitzer Prize, his original book illustrations, first editions, family photos, letters, autographs, cards, and poems, all of which have been collected by Kindschy over time. 

“One time I was playing Hamlin Garland,” says Kindschy, flipping through a scrapbook of Garland-related press clippings.  “And this 80-year-old woman came up to me and said ‘do you remember when I brought cookies to your house? I knocked on your door, and you asked me what I wanted, grabbed the plate, said thanks, and slammed the door. I cried all the way home. She must have thought I was Garland.”

As we exit the museum room and prepare to return to the vagaries of the banal, comparatively dull world outside, Kindschy speculates on the long-term fate of Garland’s writings, which he thinks might someday have a revival. A revival he hopes to spark with a blitzkrieg of Garland events scheduled to coincide with the one-hundred and fifty year anniversary of his birth in September.

During a brief interlude in the conversation, I tell Kindschy how much I appreciate all that he has done to preserve and enhance a deference that transcends a single, tangible structure, and that stimulates symbolic, hopeful feelings drawn from the desire to learn our cultural heritage.

Seemingly quite touched, he clicks off the lights, grins affectionately, takes a deep breath, and says, “I am proud of what I have been able to do to contribute to the recognition of Hamlin Garland.”

 To read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s Wisconsin art, history, and travel articles.

Joseph Webster House, Elkhorn, Wisconsin

September 13, 2010

By Brian D’Ambrosio

At 9 East Rockwell Street in the small town of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, stands the neat, modest white Greek Revival style house where Joseph Philbrick Webster lived. Webster was the composer of the popular hymn “In the Sweet By and By” and the American Civil War romantic favorite, “Lorena,” which was heard and immortalized in the classic film “Gone With The Wind.” He lived in Elkhorn from 1857 until his death in 1875, at the age of 56. Most of his more than 1000 songs were penned there. Webster’s compositions were eclectic, including music for ballads, religious hymns, nationalistic drama, and a cantata – a vocal composition intended for musical accompaniment and a choir.

Joseph Webster, a precocious musical talent was a businessman, music teacher, and piano tuner, who   moved his family to Racine, Wisconsin, in 1856 and finally settled in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, in 1859. The prolific Webster composed “Lorena” in 1857, an antebellum song with Northern roots duly considered the most popular song of the American Civil War era. Lorena was based on Webster’s fond recollection of an Ohio girl named Ella Blocksom. In 1860 he composed “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets”, which later found fame under the titled “Wildwood Flower”.  In 1868, he wrote one of the most enduring and recognizable Christian hymns in American history, “In the Sweet By and By.”

Joseph Webster House Museum

Webster’s family continued to live in the house until 1951. After the last Webster descendant passed away, the house was sold to the Walworth County to serve as a museum. The Webster House is loaded with vintage pieces that belonged to Webster and his family. The Music Room displays Webster’s splendid compositions, notes, and song books, as well as his treasured rosewood piano and numerous other 1800s period instruments.

Directly behind the Webster House stands an 1850 hand-hewn oak beam barn, with the carriage of General John W. Boyd inside, as well as other artifacts related to the Boyd Family’s achievements.  Webster is interred at the Hazel Ridge Cemetery in Elkhorn, where his epitaph announces, “Joseph P. Webster. In the Sweet By and By We Shall Meet“.

The Webster House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The house is now the center of the Walworth County Historical Society. The Webster House is located at 9. East Rockwell Street, Elkhorn, Wisconsin, on the corner of Rockwell and South Washington Street, one block from Highway 67.

To read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s Wisconsin travel, art, and history articles.