Land of the Glass-Studded Giants

Madam Toussaud has her wax museum of movie stars, and Wisconsin's Fred Smith recreated his superstars, too: lumberjacks, Indian guides, and giant muskies, all made of cement.

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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.

Since many of his sculptures are so large, Smith had to build them in parts. He made armatures of wood, wrapped them in mink-wire and then covered them with layers of cement. For the largest pieces, Smith would pour concrete into molds dug in the ground and then, with the help of friends and neighbors, fit the limbs together and lift the figures onto prepared bases.

The tallest, standing near the center of his three-acres of statues, is of Paul Bunyan, legendary woodsman, presiding among pine trees over the scene. Nearby two real-life lumberjacks covered with red reflectors (Smith identified them as Barry Swanson and Gust Johnson) are felling a cement tree with an eight foot saw.

Bill Bishop
A lumberjark himself for many years, Smith memorialized the trade in his concrete park. Barry Swanson and Gust Johnson saw a cement tree as Paul Bunyan, behind them, surveys the scene.

Smith freely mingled historical and mythical figures, whitetail deer and hunting hounds with African lions and angels. He also had a way of Wisconsin-izing every subject he took on. Ben Hur appears to be reining in two jumping mules. And the knotted manes of draft horses are fashioned out of Rhinelander bottles. A large cement stele bears the famous image of soldiers planting the flag on Iwo Jima, only in Fred Smith’s rendering they push up Old Glory before two of Wisconsin’s tall red pines.

Along with the park’s big scale and extensive range of subjects, Smith’s endeavor giantly dazzles with embellishment. The tavern provided him with a handy supply of brown and white bottles, which he turned into epaulets, deer hide, feathers, and rumply “fabric.” But many other other shiny things glitter in his sculptures too. Several figures puff out chests chocked with blue-glass electric insulators, and Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln’s backs both bristle with clear slivers (a tense marriage, apparently). Chunks of red granite sparkle on the withers of a ox. And the diagonal pattern on an Indian chief’s robe gleams with red stone, blue glass shards, and white oyster shells.

The North Country weather has played a monumental role here, too. In 1976, not long after Fred Smith died, the Kohler Foundation bought the concrete park, a timely acquisition for Sacajawea, Paul Bunyan and the rest. In February 1977 a historic wind storm blew down most of the pines Fred Smith had planted through the park and damaged over 70% of the figures. With Kohler’s team of conservators, the works were repaired and restored (many of old wooden armatures had deteriorated badly). In 1978 the park reopened and was made a gift to Price County.

Bill Bishop
Smith’s rendering of the famous image from Iwo Jima includes a Wisconsin sunset and two red pines.

Sustaining the park are fundraisers througout the year here, periodic art classes, a gift shop that sells post cards and local crafts, and a faithful group of supporters who, along with the county and Kohler, support the sculpture garden. In a town of barely 1700 people, Fred Smith’s Concrete Park is a grand marvel, and the success of its preservation has been just as titanic. Visiting is free 365 days a year for giants and lesser beings alike.

 

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