Folk Art: Swetsville Zoo
Fort Collins, Colorado
Bill Swets used to be a farmer. Now he's a zookeeper -- except that his zoo has no living creatures. The animals in the "Swetsville Zoo" were all built by Bill -- from car parts, farm machinery, and scrap metal.
Bill is a soft spoken man with a ready smile, and totally self-trained when it comes to his creative pursuits. "To be a farmer, you've got to be able to fabricate metal," he tells us. He is hard of hearing these days, but still hard at work. When we arrived he was up on a farm building roof, wrestling with a repair.
Bill started creating metal creatures in 1985 -- a shovel-beaked bird with bicycle frame body, "just a hobby that became more than just a little."
"I started putting them out in the yard, and people stopped to see. It kept growing and growing..." After a couple of years Bill numbered his huge collection of sculptures. The self-guided tour sheet lists 43; now there are over 160.
The stubby yellow and white turrets and drawbridge of a "castle," the Swets' home, stand near the entrance to the Zoo. Most of the zoo is arranged along a winding wooded path around the property.
There are little, bread machine-sized imps standing next to large mechanical contraptions -- cartoon train engines, towering dinosaurs and futuristic spaceship vehicles. A bright red motorcycle equipped with jet propulsion looks like it could be taken out for a spin.
Though the Zoo doesn't quite surpass the other-worldliness of the Forevertron, or the scale of some roadside scrap metal dinosaurs we've seen, Bill's unique comic sense is pervasive.
Most of the sculptures convey his admittedly "twisted" humor -- a metal golfer aided by a dinosaur caddy, a hitchhiking creature holding a boombox to his ear with a prisoner's ball and chain on his ankle.
"It's all built in my head before I even start. Usually it comes out pretty close to what I had in mind."
A few of Bill's sculptures comment on political or current events -- a Monica Lewinsky reference or the first Gulf War. There were no George Bush sculptures when we visited. At the time, Bill said the Bush administration was "Too new."
Most of the sculptures were created between 1985 and 1995. Bill admits to slowing down in the new creature department when his wife Sandy became ill in 1996. "We went through some rough times. I had my wife in the Mayo clinic, and I dropped out of the work for a while. But I still got her with me."
The Swetsville Zoo has endured other trials as well. Bill built the castle facade in 1997, then "it burnt down in June of 1998, so I rebuilt it." A flood from the Poudre River took its toll in the area, but the zoo held on. A mini-train ride that used to travel among the sculptures has been removed.
We asked about the other collection of folk art at Swetsville -- a series of weird alien dioramas, "The Bungled Jungle," in several rooms. They were created by good friends of the Swets. "Pat Landrith and Susan Montano -- they lived here for 12-15 years. They moved to Salida some years back. That's their living -- they go around the country and sell their art."
Bill climbs into his Autosaurus II -- a drivable half-animal, half-machine with the 351 Ford engine in it. When his wife hears him rev the engine, she comes out of the house and waves. In the back of the Autosaurus is another creature, ready for installation.
And Bill has more ideas for sculptures. "Now I'm in a better frame of mind."