Fox Lake’s Big Band Legacy

May 1, 2012

Since 1973, jazz lovers in Fox Lake, Wis., have organized the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee, a community-wide tribute to a local jazz legend.

Berigan—born Roland Bernard Berigan in Hilbert, but raised in Fox Lake—built his reputation as a trumpet playing phenom during the 1930s swing era. At that time Berigan was not only playing with Benny Goodman and other big band greats, but he also recorded a number of albums with his own band. Berigan’s 1937 recording of the Vernon Duke/Ira Gershwin-penned “I Can’t Get Started” won him a posthumous spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1975.

Bunny Berigan Day in 1974 with (left to right) Henry Ballweg; Bunny’s brother Donald; daughter Joyce; grandson James; and nephew Kaye. Photo: Harriet O’Connell Historical Room at Fox Lake Public Library, Fox Lake, WI.

A volunteer-driven effort originally coordinated by Berigan’s daughter Joyce, this year’s Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee takes place May 18-20, 2012. Julie Flemming, who has coordinated the event in recent years, says the Jubilee attracts traditional and Dixieland jazz fans from all over the country. Five bands are slated to perform, including the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee Band, led by California-based Wonewoc native Bob Schulz; and the Kaye Berigan 5 TET, led by Bunny’s nephew Kaye, who now plays trumpet with Milwaukee’s SUPERband.

Bunny Berigan, 1937. Photo: Harriet O’Connell Historical Room, Fox Lake Public Library, Fox Lake, WI.

A graveside jazz tribute will honor both Berigan and Joyce Berigan-Hansen, who died in 2011.  Also, on hand throughout the weekend is Berigan biographer Mike Zirpolo, author of the 2011 book Mr. Trumpet.

Zirpolo’s 550-paged work of jazz scholarship “is the most definitive biography of Bunny ever—a fabulous book,” says Julie Flemming. And she should know. Flemming curated the online image archive, Bunny Berigan: Fox Lake’s Own, part of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections. While she may not have heard of Berigan when she moved to Fox Lake decades ago, “I  can now identify Bunny’s relatives better than I can my own,” Flemming confesses with a laugh.

“For 33 1/2 years, I ran the Fox Lake Public Library, and ten years into my job as a librarian, the historical society ladies allowed me the key to historical room,” Flemming says. “That’s when I started wondering, ‘Well, who is this Bunny Berigan?'”

Her edification began when she would overhear performances while volunteering in the kitchen at the Jubilee. Soon she would start watching jazz documentaries, reading books on jazz, driving to Madison for monthly Madison Jazz Society performances, and after Joyce Berigan-Hansen grew ill and Flemming retired, taking on more and more of the Jubilee planning. This year, she tells me near the end of our conversation, she accomplished most of the work while recovering from a car accident, which left her with a broken neck.

If the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee is a labor of love, staffed by Fox Lake volunteers and sponsored by local organizations, Julie Flemming seems to embody her community’s collective devotion to preserving its jazz heritage.

By the way, I loved this bit on Bunny Berigan that aired late last year on Wisconsin Public Radio. Over Berigan’s expressive trumpet solo on “I Can’t Get Started,” we hear Wisconsin Life contributor Dean Robbins describe his teen-aged infatuation with the recording: Berigan’s trumpet playing “conveys a melancholy that approaches the sublime,” he says.

You’ll find details about the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee, coming May 18-20 to Fox Lake, at the festival website.

Find information about other Wisconsin jazz events at the links below:

Birch Creek Summer Jazz Series, Egg Harbor

Eau Claire Jazz Festival

Great River Jazz Fest, La Crosse (no link available)

Isthmus Jazz Festival, Madison

Kettle Moraine Jazz Festival, West Bend

Riverfront Jazz Festival, Stevens Point

–Tammy Kempfert


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



Visiting Spirits

October 11, 2011

Michael Goc

Sandra Swisher-Pheiffer as "Yankee Mama" Jane Bonnell and Harriet Dehlinger as the "lonely" Sophronia Temple.

The ghost walk season is upon us and historical groups around Wisconsin are inviting the curious to visit local cemeteries and meet the spirits of the people who lie beneath the tombstones there. It’s a good idea, because history is story, and our graveyards are full of slumbering stories waiting to be roused.

Many cemetery tours focus on the famous and the infamous. Statesmen, captains of industry, theatrical performers and notorious criminals attract much of the attention. The Adams County Historical Society takes a more democratic approach. This is as it should be, for midst all the infinite varieties of human experience, the one we all share is death. So when we visit our country cemeteries, as we did on the sterling morning of October 1, we stop at the graves of just plain and ordinary folks.

There was Sophronia Temple, a Massachusetts native who moved with her husband Timothy to the sandy prairie about ten miles north of Wisconsin Dells in the 1850s. In a letter she wrote to friends back home, she expressed the loneliness of life on the frontier “We have but little to take our attention from our own fireside. No sewing circle, no prayer meeting, no social gatherings of any kind, but few neighbors…This is a fine country to get a living in but I never have been content. I should be if only I had society.”

Lonely Sophronia might have perked up had she visited her neighbor in life and death, Jane Bonnell. A New Jersey gal who also came west in the 1850s, Bonnell had a house full with nine sons and one daughter.  When the “rebellion” started in 1861,  Bonnell’s sons enlisted. It was not long before she had seven sons in the Union Army. We don’t know if that is a record for either side, but it is impressive. She saw six of her boys come home alive. The seventh, Aaron, who was shot dead at Atlanta, is buried at her side.

Bonnell’s other neighbor, Dana Billings, had a more pleasant war. He volunteered in the fall of 1864, collected a bounty of $315 and spent the final months of the war with an artillery unit defending Washington D.C. from an assault that never came. As he wrote home to his wife Annette, “the army is the best place to make a man lazy that I ever saw.”  Not all who served were heroes.

Take Daniel Ackerman. He was sixty-nine years old when he came west with his son Theron, also in the 1850s. They used a warrant good for forty acres of government land that Daniel earned for serving in the New York state militia in the War of 1812. Forty years later, the government’s promise to a veteran, even one who saw no combat, was still good.

Fritz the miller of White Creek as channelled by Don Hollman.

Fritz Witt, the jovial miller of White Creek, came to Adams County from Mecklenburg in northern Germany with his wife Katrina, a Holsteiner.  He could handle a steam-powered mill, but he preferred to work with water, and he ran mills at Mirror Lake, Delton, Arkdale and Easton before coming to White Creek. The thin soil in these parts had all but given out by the 1890s and farmers planted the crop of last resort, buckwheat. Witt then fine-tuned the stones on his mill to grind and sell “the finest buckwheat flour in Wisconsin.”  Lemons to lemonade for the farmers and himself. Flour was one thing, family was another.

Neither Fritz, nor Katrina, nor their son Chris could make life better for Chris’s wife Lucy. Orphaned as a child, Lucy married Chris in 1900. They had their first child, Harold, in November 1901, but he died the following January. Lucy never got over it, although she felt better after her second baby, Blanch, was born in the spring of 1903.

Rachel Kulack, the spirit of Lucy Witt.

Then her depression returned. In the summer she took Blanch to visit Fritz and Katrina who lived on the bank of the White Creek mill pond. Unable to sleep one night, she got out of bed, left the house and headed for the pond. Hearing the door of the house open and close, Katrina woke up. She found Blanch sleeping peacefully but Lucy’s bed was empty. She roused Fritz and the neighbors and they searched around and in the pond. No one knows if Lucy stepped into or slipped and fell into the water. But the pond was small, the current slow, and no one heard her cry out for help. Her body was found on the rocks at the foot of the dam. History is story and each stone in a cemetery marks a story waiting to be told.

The Warmth of Other Suns

May 27, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Michael Goc


“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


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………

It’s all part of our history

October 21, 2009

I read today that the average fuel efficiency of U.S. cars has improved by three miles since the Model T Ford. In other words, according to the study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, in the last 101 years, American cars are only getting an average of three more miles to the gallon.

In the same publication, I also read that the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit restored protections of more than 40 million acres of public land. This overturned what the last President did to make what the preceding President had done valid once again.

I think we can learn a lot from history. I gather American car manufacturers have had other things on their minds and American Presidents don’t share a consistent vision for public lands.

Actors Patrick and Samuel Porter in "Camp We-Kan-Tak-It" at the Boerner Botanical Garderns. Photo by Debbie Kmetz.

Actors Patrick and Samuel Porter in "Camp We-Kan-Tak-It" at the Boerner Botanical Garderns. Photo by Debbie Kmetz.

One historical and notably American act I’ve always thought seemed sensible is the Civilian Conservation Corps. After a performance by the Milwaukee Public Theatre called “Camp We-Kan-Tak-It” about life in a CCC camp I attended last week, the audience was asked “Would this work today?”

Seventy four years ago, the Emergency Conservation Work Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt. The largest peacetime army in history, the Civilian Conservation Corps was mobilized to improve domestic infrastructure.

I’ve romanticized the whole thing, smiling proudly when reading a memorial at a state park commemorating the work of the CCC and lately rooting for our current President’s talk of creating jobs, stimulating the economy, and restoring National Parks with a modern Conservation Corps.

The performance only encouraged my hopefulness. The script and musical lyrics were written by a small team of historians and enthusiasts to convey the concerns of the day, the reasons men had for enlisting, and what life was like living in the camps. I learned that the men made $30 a week for 40 hours of work, but kept only $5. The rest was sent home to their families. There were also classes offered at night, such as a journalism class that produced a camp newspaper.

“The Humdinger,” a resource guide produced by Voices Theater and the Milwaukee Public Theatre to resemble a CCC camp paper, explains: “From 1933 to 1942, the CCC gave jobs to three million unemployed young men, brought relief to their families, and helped conserve America’s natural resources.”

The rates of unemployment in Wisconsin cities have pretty much doubled in the past 12 months. Milwaukee’s stats have risen from 5.5% to over 10%. This is nothing close to the national average during the Depression, which soared as high as 75%. Thank goodness! But why wait until we’re in utter crisis to take a lesson from history?

Clearly, there is much of American history to be proud of. I say use the wisdom of experience to shape a positive future.  As for auto engineering, I hope there are many good ideas yet to be had.

by Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

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

Homecoming Weekend

September 19, 2009

Before. Detail of Whitehorse sculpture, prior to removal. Photo: David Medaris, Isthmus Publishing.

High schools and colleges everywhere will hold homecoming celebrations this month and next, but the only one I plan to attend has nothing to do with football.

Next Saturday, September 26, neighbors in east Madison will gather to commemorate the return of a much-loved work of public art to a tiny lakeside park. “Let the Great Spirit Soar” is a Harry Whitehorse sculpture, commissioned in 1991 by the City of Madison Committee for the Arts, the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission and the neighborhood. Here in the Elmside division where the sculpture is located, we know it as the Effigy Tree.

Having suffered significant damage from years of Wisconsin winters, the piece was twice removed from Madison’s Hudson Park for repair by Ho-Chunk artist Whitehorse. Last year, neighbors worked with Whitehorse to propose and finance a more permanent solution. They raised the money to transfer the piece to a Milwaukee foundry, where it was cast in bronze. Now the sculpture, originally carved from a lightning-damaged hackberry tree, has come home.

The Ho-Chunk Nation has generously offered to sponsor Saturday’s event, Elder Gordon Thunder will emcee, and the Thundercloud Singers will perform.  But as much as neighbors love the sculpture, it’s more than art we’ll be celebrating. Like the Effigy Tree itself, the festivities honor the ancestral Indian mounds that tie the Ho-Chunk Nation to this land. The sculpture marks the location of three mounds: bear, lynx and panther effigies.

Last year, I wrote a Portal Wisconsin article on Wisconsin’s Indian mounds, in which I referred to the Effigy Tree conservation effort. In the course of my research for that piece, I discovered a map of mounds that had been lost to urban development. It indicated that my neighborhood in Madison’s Elmside addition is the original site of a cluster of linear and conical effigy mounds. In fact, I believe my own house might sit atop what was once a large bird effigy.

Though I haven’t been able to relocate that map, I do own a reproduction of a real estate poster distributed in the late 1800s proclaiming the Elmside addition to Madison “the Saratoga of the West.” Lots in this “Garden of Eden” could be had for as little as $200, or nearly $5000 today (as calculated by the Web site That’s quite a deal by 21st century standards, especially given that my random search of land values (without improvements) in the neighborhood revealed prices around 20% more than that.


After. Detail of Whitehorse sculpture, repaired and cast in bronze. Photo: Tammy Kempfert.

However, I think it’s wise to recognize the hidden costs. Thanks to investigative journalists like Barbara Ehrenreich and Michael Pollan, I think a lot about the real costs of cheap labor, cheap food and cheap land, those hard-to-measure tolls that never appear on the price tag. And while there’s not much I can do to change the fact that a sacred site was lost to my current dwelling, I can participate in efforts to honor and preserve the three mounds that remain.

In making a case for recasting the sculpture in bronze, Effigy Tree Project spokesperson Ann Brickson has said, “Permanent materials remind us of our permanent obligation.” I interpret her comment as referring not only to the sculpture, but to the mounds. And on Saturday, I expect we’ll reaffirm that responsibility.

Please join our homecoming celebration! The public is invited to the ceremony, beginning at 1:00 p.m., September 26, at the corner of Maple Street and Lakeland Avenue in Madison. A portion of Lakeland Avenue will be closed during the festivities.

Finally, if you would like to know more about the history of the Effigy Tree Project, David Medaris has chronicled the campaign in Isthmus Weekly, a Madison-based paper:

The Harry Whitehorse ‘Effigy Tree’ is in peril

The Effigy Tree departs overlook above Lake Monona

The Effigy Tree returns to its home on Lake Monona

–Tammy Kempfert

The makings of happiness

July 5, 2009

This year the Independence Day holiday makes me think of Nick Engelbert, the farmer and self-taught artist who in the 1930s through 50s created the Grandview art environment in southwest Wisconsin.  Nick was an immigrant from Austria, who married Katherine Thoni, who emigrated from Switzerland.

After schooling and Army service Nick bicycled throughout Europe, then embarked on world travel, working on ships as a nautical engineer and visiting Jamaica, Puerto Rico, South America and the West Indies.  He landed in Baltimore, Maryland in about 1908, and over the next few years traveled the U.S. extensively, harvesting wheat in Kansas, picking grapes in California, and prospecting for gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The guy got around.

MVC-337FNick came to love the United States deeply and he chose to settle in this country near the village of Hollandale in Iowa County, where he created Grandview.  He practiced democracy with fervor.  His daughter Alyce remembers, “Father was basically a man of few words except when it came to politics and the relating of his past experiences and travels.  On the former he expounded at length and there was many a heated discussion of political issues among friends and relatives at our home.  It was the era of the LaFollettes in Wisconsin and our parents were their ardent supporters…”

Nick the artist reflected his patriotism in his sculpture. In the 1940s he told a reporter, “You can’t really appreciate the United States until you’ve actually lived in other countries.  It is because of my deep appreciation for what the United States has given me that I am continually working on this historical farmyard.”

His humor and acute understanding of American democracy is particularly evident in one tableaux, in which Uncle Sam attempts to drive a

"Can anybody do a day's work with a team like that?"

"Can anybody do a day's work with a team like that?"

team comprised of a Republican elephant and counterpart donkey.  A sign nearby read, “Can anybody do a days work with a team like that?”

Immigrant Nick summarized his appreciation for his new place best when saying,“Old Glory represents liberty, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness.  It is sure none of the three can be found under any other banner. I know, because I have looked for them all over the world, and I have never found anything worth having anywhere else.  If a man can’t be happy on a little farm in Wisconsin he hasn’t the makings of happiness in his soul.”

A lot of school kids visit Grandview, and we like to remind them that the likes of Nick and Katherine immigrating here a hundred years ago is much the same as folks today coming from Mexico, Somalia or Laos.  The students can see how a self-taught immigrant artist of yesteryear still enriches our lives today, and understand how today’s immigrants will do the same. Like our forebears, they seek the makings of happiness.

The influence of immigrants from many nations is reflected in art all around Wisconsin.  What’s your favorite?

Ricky Rolfsmeyer

Hollandale, WI