Land of the Glass-Studded Giants
The north woods of Wisconsin are home to outsized trees and deep snowfalls, elk herds and big fish tales. If giants walked the Earth, they’d be right at home here, and they’d spend the weekends galumphing with the giant kiddies through Fred Smith’s Concrete Park.
Smith (b. 1886) was a person of hefty ambition. He built a house and barn on his homestead in woodsy Price County, Wisconsin, just outside the town of Phillips. After working many years as a lumberjack, he quit in 1948, constructing and running The Rock Garden Tavern on Highway 13, right beside his home.
But opening bottles of beer wasn’t enough to occupy Smith. He soon turned his energies to making things like a huge barbecue pit (barbecue monument, is more like it). Immense and fancy, it's built with two shades of brick, cement slabs, large chunks of limestone both dressed and rough, and sinuous lines of mortar painted forest green. On either side of the oven are low-pillars also studded with stone and topped with silhouettes of Indian heads made out of cement and mortared rock.
This was one of the first – and most utilitarian – elements of a backyard sculpture project that would roll on 14 more years. Before he suffered a stroke in 1964, Fred Smith managed to build 237 pieces, most of them larger-than-life-size figures, a sculpture garden of heroic proportion and mysterious intention.
“Nobody knows why I made them,"Smith admitted, "not even me.”
Whatever its motivation, this vast assembly of chieftans and presidents, drunks, dogs, clydesdales and ox-drivers is a open-air pantheon of the north country.