There's always a crowd in the county seat of Portage County, Wisconsin.
Stevens Point, Wisconsin, is vividly, proudly haunted. Residents number about 26,000, but that’s not counting the town’s former brewmasters, nuns, loggers, Civil War soldiers, and schoolteachers. They’re still here, inhabiting Stevens Point today thanks to the conjuring of local historians, artists, volunteers and patrons.
Working a collective séance, Stevens Point has created several immense and well populated murals, so that there’s a continuous crowd downtown.
The first mural, Rivermen (2004), honors the local timber industry. Artist Kelly Meredith designed it on a building just across the street from the Wisconsin River, portraying a number of contemporary townspeople as lumbermen of early Portage County.
Later murals by Meredith and fellow artist Greg Luedtke feature “Most Influential Events,” “Ten Most Influential Citizens” and “The Old Post Office.”
But the most stunning work of all bends around a corner right on the town’s main square. It depicts a stock fair day circa 1910, with draft horses pulling sleds and wagons and throngs of citizens squeezed into the foreground, jolly and somber gentlemen alongside women dressed in velvet, wearing large feathered hats.
Lloyd Havitz, a very-much-living Portage Countian, pointed out pharmacist Gwidt and Henry Duda, an early citizen who “did all kinds of stuff,” including hauling cattle and operating a tavern. Lloyd explains that the murals mingle portraits of famous and infamous residents past with current day citizens, though everybody’s dressed in turn of the 20th century finery.
One commentator remarked, “There are several aspects to this series that I consider smart and innovative in the way they garnered attention and contribution from the community. The first is the style.” “Rivermen,” for instance, was painted in outline form after its design was completed by Kelly Meredith. She painted the outline and base layers on the building and volunteers contributed by filling in the outlines like a giant paint-by-number.”
In keeping with the inclusive – one might say “encompassing” – theme of the mural, Meredith’s determination to involve local amateurs in the painting must have been key to building enthusiasm for the project.
The same commentator notes that funding the murals was a matter of enticement, too. “Community members could pay to have their face included in the mural.” It’s one thing to have your name on a brick, quite another to see yourself grinning above a red bow tie.
The Market Day mural was finished in 2006. Its more than 100 local figures are all identified by name on the city’s website.
To have the eyes of early school teacher Mandana Hale follow you down the street and then pass by the knowing smile of today’s town activist Henry Korger is eerie and exhilarating, a spectacular compression of time.
Will the circle be unbroken? Yes. And in Stevens Point, the wait is over.