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



“Oh that glorious Wisconsin”….landscape.

April 26, 2011

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

April the month of Earth Day is about to close and we ‘Sconies should be proud of the attention paid to our conservation trinity of Nelson, Leopold and Muir. Gaylord Nelson got his customary credit as the father of Earth Day, while John Muir and Aldo Leopold were the subjects of new, nicely produced video biographies.

As the videos showed, Muir and Leopold were scientists and philosophers, but also eloquent and lyrical writers. No line in either man’s work, so strikes us home state folks like Muir’s ecstatic, “Oh that glorious Wisconsin wilderness,” where the Scotch farmer’s son experienced, “Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons.”

Glorious it was and in Wisconsin, the Muir family farm, but it was not wilderness—at least if you define wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  That’s how the United States government defines it in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and I think most of us would agree that wilderness presumes the absence of “man.”

The Marquette County where the Muirs settled in the 1840s was a mix of woodland, grassland and wetland as yet largely “untrammeled” in the negative sense posed by the Wilderness Act. But “man” was much more than “a visitor” here. Native people had been living on this land, managing and shaping it for thousands of years before the wagon bearing the Muir clan bounced onto the premises. The sedge meadow flanking Fountain Lake, the bluestem prairie where young John and his brothers wrestled, the patches of tough oak and hickory “grubs” that persuaded Muir to keep his breaking plow “trimmed” so they might be more easily sheared off, were components of a landscape created by earth, water, climate and the hands of men and women.

Fire was their chief tool, and the grasslands—prairie, savanna, wet meadows–covering nearly all of southern Wisconsin until the arrival of immigrants like the Muirs, their handiwork. As Muir wrote, “Had there been no fires these fine prairies, so marked a feature of the country, would have been covered by the heaviest of forests.”  He went on to say that the “farmers prevented running grass fires,” and as soon as they did so, “the grubs grew up into trees and formed tall thickets so dense that it was difficult to walk through them and every trace of the sunny openings vanished.”

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The farmers may have prevented the grass fires, but not by swatting at them with wet blankets or organizing bucket brigades. They stopped the fires by plowing and clearing away the grass and shrubs that were their fuel and by removing the people who ignited them. In 1848, one year before the Muirs settled on their farm, the last natives to hold a recognized claim to land in the vicinity, the Menominees, were ordered north to their reservation on the Wolf River. With them, they took the fire that shaped the landscape.

Muir had a blind spot when it came to recognizing the landscaping work of native people. He always saw the direct hand of god at work, and did not admit that god’s work could be and was performed by skin clad natives who were as ingenious and—for all we know—as spiritually-minded as he. I wish that Muir had recognized the role native people played in creating the first patch of earth he came to know and love, but his omission does not invalidate his experience or his message.

As shaped by native people, the Muir farm was the glorious place where nature streamed into a young man’s soul and wooingly taught him wonderful glowing lessons.

–Michael Goc


Visualization, Synchronicity and Planning

November 15, 2010

By Evelyn Patricia Terry

After discovering I wanted to be an artist, I planned to plan my life, but I couldn’t create a plan past getting an education, which seemed much more controllable. After that, life seemed “up for grabs.” Though I’ve since learned to rely on visualization and synchronicity to move forward (more about that later), I first entertained the idea of college teaching—both to earn money and because “professor” sounded important.

Magic is Dreaming Tall Dreams, Evelyn Patricia Terry.

Magic is Dreaming Tall Dreams, Mixed media monoprint, 22” x 30” (at Cuvée Lounge). Evelyn Patricia Terry. All rights reserved.

But I really desired to be like the much-celebrated Picasso, who represented passion, commitment, personal vision and prosperity. There was no mention of African-American artists or women in my classes, so Picasso was it in 1968. Art history was like American history–very little mention of non-white races. I excitedly believed I was going to be the first African-American artist.

After earning one degree, I was informed by some nebulous network that to acquire a job teaching at a college or university, an MFA was a must. I went to Chicago after also being told that universities and colleges did not hire people who graduated from the same institution. Inbreeding of ideas was an issue. I wanted to live in Wisconsin, even though the winters were harsh and heating bills were high, so earning a degree from outside might help.

Evolving from the Silence, Evelyn Patricia Terry.

Evolving from the Silence, Pastel, 30” x 44” (at Cuvée Lounge). Evelyn Patricia Terry. All rights reserved.

I married, had two children, and then divorced while the children were young. There are only 24 hours in a day, so I had to release something: art needed eight hours; my children needed at least eight, more on the weekends; and I had to sleep. Producing art was too personally rewarding for me to let go, because of the appearance of “hard times.” Instead, I chose to let my goal of “professor” go, even though I did earn the MFA after divorcing.

An introduction to a church study group for “New Thought” enabled me to embrace being a full-time artist without fear. “New Thought” introduced me to visualization and the philosophy of synchronicity. One of the first things I learned was “do not get a job to acquire health insurance: working to get health insurance is planning to get sick.” I was shocked. Instead I was instructed to look within for my income source and for healing. Have the faith of a mustard seed and choose for “love of” something, rather than “fear of” something. Knowing I could muster up that tiny bit of faith, I committed to being an artist and a mother. I never wanted to feel that my two young children were in the way of producing art or that art was in the way of their total nurturing. I integrated them into the creative process. When they were about 6 and 7, I hired them to assist me. I remember asking about a pastel that I was working on, “Is this finished?” One of them said, “If you have to ask, you know it’s not finished.”

Meditation and positive visualization played a major role in keeping my mind focused on healing. Before 1990, I suffered from bouts of excruciating back pain (sciatica) for about 12 years, along with tooth decay, bronchitis, sinusitis and unsightly painful skin conditions like eczema and acne. After reading many books about the power of consuming juiced raw green vegetables, vitamins, minerals and exercising, I accomplished healing. I secured a great dentist who is also an artist. Presently my health is better than it has ever been.

Pandora's Box: Thirteen God Workers Come Forth

Pandora's Box: Thirteen God Workers Come Forth, Pastel, 22” x 30” (at Rosenblatt Gallery). Evelyn Patricia Terry. All rights reserved.

Synchronicity, concentration on what I want for my life, and positive visualization play major roles, whenever I experience times of lean sales. Among other things, I affirm that art sales are incredible, that I enjoy leading workshops from kindergarten to seniors, and I embrace lecture tours. For six months, I am presently exhibiting abstract artwork from three bodies of work at Cuvée, a champagne and events space in the Third Ward above Artasia Gallery. In the same building, on the second floor at the Rosenblatt Gallery, I am also exhibiting two pieces from my Pandora’s Box series. It is interesting to note that one day after I visualized possibilities for my art to go beyond my studio space, the Cuvée opportunity occurred very synchronistically, through a chance encounter. Although synchronicity and visualization has gotten me this far, I often feel that planning could allow me to reach many other goals–but I don’t know.

Don’t miss Evelyn Patricia Terry’s artwork, on exhibition this month at the Rosenblatt Gallery (ph. 414-220-4292) and at Cuvée (ph. 414-225-9800). Both are located in the Isabella Ryder Building, 181 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. You can also view her work at www.evelynpatriciaterry.com.


Small town girl makes good and holiday contemplation

December 17, 2009

We heard she had done well “out east”.  Folks said she was a friend of Pearl S. Buck and had lots of other hoidy toidy friends as well.  For someone from a small, rural place like Hollandale, Wisconsin, that would be something to crow about.  But all this was back in the 1940s and 50s so no one here really had any facts.  But it was a fun story and as clueless as I was I had fun telling it, too.

In these parts she was simply Alyce Engelbert Stocklin, the daughter of Nick Engelbert, the guy by Hollandale who built the statues and decorated his yard with them.  She went to school here – little town of about 300 – and like many kids, left for a big city to further her education.

Nick and his wife Katherine had four children.  They all did well, we’re told, which makes sense because the parents really stressed the importance of education.  All four indeed were college-educated.  I think 60, 70 years ago that may not have always been the case for young women but it was for the Engelbert girls as it was for their brothers.

The Engelbert kids have passed away now, but I was fortunate to meet them in 1997 when they came home one last time.  The Kohler Foundation had purchased and restored their childhood home – now known as Grandview – and the occasion was the gifting of the place back to the community.

The four Engelbert children, home for the last time. Alyce Engelbert Stocklin is between her brothers Ed and Ernie.

With the site came a lot of history and some great archives: lots of old pictures, family memorabilia, documentation of Nick’s art, Katherine’s many outstanding gardens, old news stories and information on the site’s restoration.  Recently the Kohler Foundation gave us a new box – more treasures to be discovered.

Like many rural folk I am seldom inside when the weather is decent.  The chill of fall brought wood chores, which is a huge job.  It takes scores of pick-up truck loads to keep us warm, so weeknights and weekends are consumed.  But when winter finally set upon us in earnest with the first major snow, it gave permission to relax and be thoughtful.  I sat down with the newest archive box like a kid at Christmas.

After an hour or so of sorting through old pictures, I got to a three-ring binder that seemed kind of musty and forgotten.  As I paged through quickly, the 1950 clipping of women planning a fashion show and tea did not grab me at first.  It is an ugly old photocopy.  But I had just done some reading on Pearl S. Buck so I stopped to check it out after I saw “Welcome House” in the headline.

And there was Alyce Engelbert Stocklin from little Hollandale, leaning over to look at something being held by Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein, who hosted the get together.  To her left was Mrs. James A. Michener.   I thought, “Oh my – the stories were true – big time true”.

So with apologies for name dropping, all this is fun and, if you’re from a little place often confused with the Dutch, it is certainly something to be proud of.  Who cares if it was in the last century?

Of course, the real story is what she did, not whom she did it with.  Another clipping in the musty folder showed a picture of Alyce holding an orphan.  The headline is: “Break Down Racial Barriers” and the caption reads, “Mrs. Walter Stocklin and an unadoptable”.

Some of the things in the article were a little disturbing but worth sharing. Those were different times.

It read: “Welcome House was founded in 1949 by Pearl S. Buck, author of “The Good Earth” and other books, who has lived in the Orient for many years.  Miss Buck and several of her Bucks County, Pa., neighbors, including Stocklins, began the project to give “unwanted” children of part American, part Oriental blood a chance for opportunity equal to that of other American children.

“While adoption has become an accepted part of American social life, these “half caste” children have remained a problem because they are unwanted in many American homes because of prejudice against color differences and “slanted” eyes.  As a result, according to Mrs. Stocklin, many children of exceptional intelligence must be sent to institutions……..”

I thought of my brother-in-law Allen, who was “detained” in a “relocation camp” during WWII.  Allen was as American as I am, but of Japanese heritage.

And I wondered what values were instilled in young Alyce by family and her little country school that made her such a supporter of these children.   Courage is certainly right up there.

My daughter and one of my sons graduated recently.  They too, are Hollandale kids, although the school is now Pecatonica and their father is not the artist Nick Engelbert was.  As a jaded, older parent it seems that sometimes values can lie somewhere between Facebook and the Food Court – but maybe not.   I think those same principles that Alyce championed continue to be instilled by our teachers and families.  The kids still get it and maybe more so.  We aren’t the same America; we’re a better America.

It’s hard to stop thinking about this, but that’s OK, it’s the holiday season and some contemplation is good for me.

I stopped by a snowed-in Grandview this morning, waded through the drifts and sat on the porch for a while.  It is vacant and cold but still Alyce’s home.

And I thought about my daughter.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Wisconsin Rural Partners, Hollandale, Wisconsin

Happy holidays everyone………

Lineman, Lawyer, Ojibwe

September 24, 2009

Football season is upon us and it prompts me to write about my favorite National League Football team. No it’s not the guys in green and gold from the city by the bay. It’s a team from the earliest days of the NFL that–as far as I know–never played a game in Wisconsin, but had several Wisconsin natives on the roster, and that went by the unlikely name of the Oorang Indians.


Oorang Indians, 1922. (No. 1) Alex Bobidosh, (2) Jim Thorpe, (3) Ted St. Germaine, (4) George Vetternack. (Ben Guthrie Collection, Lac du Flambeau).

In the fledgling days of the NFL a dog breeder named Walter Lingo wanted to boost sales of his line of Airedale dogs, known as Oorangs. He concluded that, if a Green Bay, Wisconsin meat packer could sponsor a football team to push pork chops he, a La Rue, Ohio dog breeder, could field a team to peddle puppies. He needed a marketing gimmick and found it in an unlikely place.

The boarding schools established by the federal government to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into the majority, white culture included comprehensive sports programs wherein Indian kids learned to play basketball, football and of course, “the national pastime” of baseball. By the opening years of the 20th century, “institutes” such as Hampton in Virginia and Carlisle in Pennsylvania were turning out “All-American” caliber athletes, most notably 1912 Olympic champion and the “World’s Greatest Athlete,” Jim Thorpe.

Lingo filled his roster with Indian school alumni and hired the aging but still famous Thorpe as player-coach. The Oorang Indians first took to the gridiron for the NFL’s 1922 season. On the roster were three young men from the Ojibwe reservation at Lac du Flambeau–George Vetternack, Alex Bobidosh and Ted St. Germaine.  Of the three, St. Germaine was the standout, but not for his ability with a football. Born in 1885, he left Lac du Flambeau to attend the University of Wisconsin, but found the atmosphere more friendly at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where he played football and earned his bachelor’s degree. Then it was on to Howard University and Yale where, in 1914, he acquired a law degree. Even with a degree from Yale, he soon learned that he was more likely to find a job on an Indian college coaching staff than in a white attorney’s office.

He was already thirty-seven years old when he suited up as a lineman for the Oorangs. When he strode onto the field in 1922, Ted St. Germaine became the first and probably the only attorney at law to play for an NFL team and certainly the only Native American lawyer to ever knuckle down on an NFL line.

The Indians were not much of a marketing gimmick and were even less of a football team. They survived two seasons, won three games and lost sixteen. When the 1923 season ended so did the team. The Flambeau men came home to their reservation. Bobidosh became a renowned master of Ojibwe traditional bark craft and, in the 1950s traveled, along with a supply of saplings and birch bark, to Anaheim, California, to build an Ojibwe long house at a new style amusement park called Disneyland.

Coach Jim Thorpe and lineman Ted St. Germaine, Oorang Indians, 1922. (Ben Guthrie Collection, Lac du Flambeau).

Coach Jim Thorpe and lineman Ted St. Germaine, Oorang Indians, 1922. (Ben Guthrie Collection, Lac du Flambeau).

St. Germaine became a tribal judge and, in 1932, was the first Native American admitted to the bar in Wisconsin. When Franklin Roosevelt initiated legislation to end the assimilation and allotment policies that had, one, taken children away from their parents and forced them into boarding schools and, two, carved up communally-owned reservation land into individual holdings, Congressional hearings were held around the country. The spokesman for the Lac du Flambeau delegation at the Hayward, Wisconsin, hearings, was Ted St. Germaine. He argued for Indian self-government and tribal control of natural resources as stipulated in the treaties of the 19th century. Some of these concepts were incorporated into the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, but the Ojibwe’s treaty rights governing natural resources were not recognized in Wisconsin until the 1980s.

Ted St. Germaine was long gone by then, as were the Oorang Indians, and the well-intentioned but inhumane policy that brought them together.

The pigs know…it’s all about dirt

September 23, 2009

A friend of mine just started farming his parent’s land and he invited me out to help dig potatoes last weekend.  Before we got down on hands and knees in the dirt to unearth the tubers, he said the pigs needed a shower.

The three dudes, as he calls them, were weighing in around 200 pounds after about 8 months of eating. On Sunday, when I arrived, they were lumped together in the shade. Pigs don’t sweat, my farmer friend told me. When he got the hose out, they came trotting out in a hurry to splash around and get their snouts down in the newly created mud puddle.

As I spent the next hours harvesting purple, red, and gold potatoes, all found like prizes hidden within the rich soil, I thought about Will Allen.

Will Allen is a very successful farmer in urban Milwaukee. Will inspires people to garden, to grow food, and to improve their landscapes and lives. And he says, with impressive conviction, that to grow food in poor or tainted soil is irresponsible.

His main message is this: It’s all about the dirt.

Will Allen bought the last parcel of agricultural land in Milwaukee and, back in 1993, connected with teens from the surrounding neighborhood to provide work restoring the soil and the greenhouses to grow food. It was an area of the city where people needed jobs and that offered residents no other options for fresh veggies. That was the beginning of Growing Power.

To hear Will go through a brief history of the past sixteen years is jaw-droppingly inspiring. Now he travels the world sharing his techniques for creating huge quantities of high quality soil, putting it to high-density use, fertilizing it with worm castings, and changing the landscape for the better.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council brought Will Allen to Madison last week as a pre-event for the Wisconsin Book Festival (October 7-11 in Madison). The room at the Goodman Community Center was overflowing with fans, followers, and some new faces (now known as the recently converted). Forget about fire code, people were crammed in there! By the end of his talk, Will had everyone happily yelling “Soil!” when he asked, “What is the key to feeding everyone healthy food?”

And what do soil, dirt, and farming have to do with the a statewide cultural organization like the Wisconsin Humanities Council?

Dena Wortzel, the director of the WHC, may have said it best when she explained, “For our part, what we hope to do is help folks in Wisconsin use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone.”

The event was planned to bring people together to talk about what’s going on, what people are excited about, and how new ideas can be realized. This conversation, on-going and building, is part of a history, heritage, and legacy in Wisconsin.

“I don’t know if it is in the air, the water or the soil,” Dena continued, “but for more than a hundred years, Wisconsin has been home to visionaries of land and community, from John Muir to Aldo Leopold, to Will Allen – as well as less publicly known, but equally passionate people like all of you.”

I’m with Will on this one: it must be in the soil!

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

Meet George Tzougros

May 13, 2009

When politicians, pundits and government watchdogs use appropriations for the arts and education in the same sentence as “pork,” I first want to debate the meaning of the term “government pork.”

Then, I want to introduce them to the Wisconsin Arts Board‘s Executive Director, George Tzougros. Who better than he to explain why investing in the arts and arts education pays off  for Wisconsin communities? Now, thanks to Arts Midwest, YouTube and the Portal Wisconsin blog, I can.

So, politicians and pundits, meet George Tzougros.

Next, meet Sue Martinsen. Up north in Ashland, Wis., she has embarked on a decade-long mission of bringing revenue to her community through the arts.  The mural artist and businesswoman says she concocted the idea for an Ashland Mural Walk after watching tourists pull over to view Ashland’s first historic mural (completed in 1998),  take a snapshot, get back inside their cars and speed off to their intended destinations. With the Mural Walk, now twelve murals strong, Ms. Martinsen’s goal is to make Ashland the intended destination.

“I make no bones about it,” she says. “These murals are about getting people to come to Ashland, shop in Ashland, vacation in Ashland, move to Ashland, work in Ashland. It’s all about Ashland. It’s about jobs and commerce.”

The Asaph Whittlesey mural painted by Kelly Meredith and Sue Martinsen was Ashland's first of twelve mural projects.

This mural, the first of 12 painted by Kelly Meredith and Sue Martinsen, depicts Ashland's founder.

Ashland is not alone in recognizing the relationship between art businesses, education and community prosperity. The Web pages at PortalWisconsin.org are filled with stories of arts and culture organizations that serve as economic anchors for their neighborhoods–the sea of dots you see on Mr. Tzougros’ map land in Menomonie, Milwaukee, Hollandale and places too numerous to mention.

Still, with all the talk about bridges to nowhere and three million dollar projectors, even as Americans continue to lose jobs and homes, it’s no wonder many are angry about what they see as government waste. Unprecedented federal spending proposals have ramped up the squabbling, with accusations aimed in every direction. Republicans and Democrats alike promise theirs will be the party to provide greater transparency in the legislative spending process:  “I will make them famous and you will know their names,” John McCain famously said of lawmakers who insert earmarks into federal legislation.

We should know their names, I think. As citizens, we should be frugal, vigilant and skeptical. But let’s not confuse sound investment in communities with wasteful spending. As a statement released by the National Endowment for the Arts reads, “the arts and culture industry is a sector of the economy just like any other with workers who pay taxes, mortgages, rent and contribute in other ways to the economy.”

Remember one person’s pork may be another’s bread and butter.

At the Arts Board Web site, artists and others can find a “Toolkit for the Economic Crisis.” Meanwhile, please watch for more about the ongoing Ashland Mural Walk project in PortalWisconsin.org’s feature section later this month.

–Tammy Kempfert

MUS-kuh-day, not Mus-KOH-dah

April 29, 2009

Now there’s no excuse for mispronouncing the names of Wisconsin places and people. Wisconsin Radio Network reporter Jackie Johnson, AKA Miss Pronouncer, has created a Web resource devoted solely to state phonetics. Site visitors can click on hundreds of Wisconsin-specific names for online audio pronunciations–places like Muscoda (MUS-kuh-day) and people like Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (kuh-BEER BAH-zha bee-uh-MIL-uh).

At her Web site MissPronouncer.com, Ms. Johnson writes, “I started out pronouncing all the names you’ll hear on this Web site myself, but in the cases when you’ll hear other voices, such as many of the lawmakers and cabinet members, those are the actual people pronouncing their own names. The exception is the voice pronouncing athletes, which has Wisconsin sports guru Bill Scott at the microphone.” She came to Wisconsin Public Television‘s Madison studios for an interview with Frederica Freyberg of Here and Now a while back.

If only Miss Pronouncer would head west to my home state, South Dakota. The state capital is PEER, folks. Not pee-AYR.

–Tammy Kempfert

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: www.blanchardville.comwww.rivervalleytrading.com or call 608-523-1888.

Ricky Rolfsmeyer

Wisconsin Rural Partners

Hollandale, Wisconsin (Pop. 283)

Inquisitive Eating

March 17, 2009

Foodways are living tradition—diverse, meaningful and enduring—for those who pause to understand and appreciate them. ~Terese Allen

I just had the luxury of spending three weeks in Thailand and Laos. The excuse for the indulgence was my honeymoon. The purpose of the trip, or at least a strong driving force, was to eat. My husband and I love the fresh and exotic flavor combinations of southeast Asia, and we did our best to sample everything!

One of the reasons I enjoy traveling is trying new food. I know others share this passion. I noticed in a recent issue of Wisconsin Trails magazine that many of the destinations around the state were highlighted for their regional food specialties. In Wisconsin, where our farms, forests, lakes, bogs, and rivers provide edible products year round, there is always something to try if you ask the locals for recommendations. I also keep a copy of Mary Bergin’s book, “Hungry for Wisconsin: A Tasty Guide for Travelers,” nearby so I can find those exceptional and tasty treats when I’m on the road!

Happily, I am going to be spending lots of time thinking about food, and the foodways unique to Wisconsin, in the coming year. For the Wisconsin Humanities Council, I will be directing the tour of Key Ingredients: America by Food. This is an exhibition, produced by the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program, that traces the history of food production, consumption, and culinary traditions throughout the United States. Six small, rural communities in Wisconsin will host the exhibition, starting in October of 2010, and will take the opportunity to explore these ideas in their own region. Along with the host communities, I will learn a lot about the foods of Wisconsin, and undoubtedly get to taste some new and interesting dishes. One thing I know already: I don’t have to fly half way across the world every time I want fresh and exotic flavors!

photo of the author by Mark Scalf

photo of the author by Mark Scalf

Heads up for fellow Wisconsin food fans: “The Flavor of Wisconsin: An Informal History of Food and Eating in the Badger State” comes out (revised and updated!) in May of this year from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

P.S. The Wisconsin Humanities Council is accepting applications from rural communities with populations under 10,000 to host Key Ingredients. Applications are due April 15, 2009.