Fred Smith's Concrete Park
Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park, south of Phillips on Highway 13, is a horde of over 230 out-sized folk art figures and bas relief slabs, set among shady trees and well-mown grass.
A son of German immigrants, Fred Smith was born in 1886, and spent his working life as a Northwoodsman. When he was 50 he built the Rock Garden Tavern, which he managed after his retirement as a lumberjack. It was then, according to local lore, that he saw a boy's sweater with the image of a deer leaping over a log. For whatever reason, Fred decided to make his own version of the leaping deer -- on a big cement slab.
That was the start. For the next 15 years Fred, with no art training, filled his property with a cluster of cowboys, Indians, lumberjacks, and farmers; as well as elk, moose, bear, and ducks. He built his ponderous sculptures by wrapping wooden skeletons in wire, layering them with concrete, and embellishing them with glass insulators and Rhinelander Beer bottles from his bar. Fred's male and female figures are squared off and broad-shouldered, more 1930s-robot than human, with lopsided heads and wonky eyes -- as much the result of Fred's chosen medium, cement, as his sculptural skill.
Some figures ride horses or drive teams of oxen; others stand in long rows, the sun glinting off their glassy armor. Paul Bunyan and a heavenly angel loom among their followers; Ben Hur and Sacajawea lurk in the shadows; Fred's original deer slab stands next to Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln.
By the 1950s Fred realized that what he was building was a roadside attraction. He couldn't read or write, so he dictated his thoughts to a typist and affixed the sheets to outdoor plaques. Fred labeled a guy with a camera "a little shrimp" and a teamster hauling a kerosene tank "Long Gust," although he failed to say why Gust has a giant Red Crown Gasoline crown on his head.
In short, Fred had difficulty describing his art. "Them ideas is hard to explain," he said in an interview quoted in the Park's promotional literature. "Nobody knows why I made them, not even me."
Fred had just completed his most ambitious work, a Budweiser beer wagon, when he suffered a stroke in 1964. It brought his project to a halt. Fred talked of additions, but a lifetime of hard work had taken its toll. He died in 1976. Soon after, a storm knocked down most of the figures. The property was purchased by the artsy Kohler Foundation -- which now calls it "an ingenious spatial narrative" -- the statues were repaired, cleaned, and in some cases moved to more convenient spots; and the Park was then turned over to the county, so it's free!
Travelers are invited to wander through this impressive sculptural display, eternally clogged with silent farm folk and lumberjacks. Beer bottles -- but not beer -- abound. Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park is more than outsider art: it's a visionary approach to recycling.
From photos taken at the Park on previous visits, we see that the Kohler people have reworked some of Fred's sculptures, adding colorful new bric-a-brac and paint, and restoring blown-out body parts where needed. None of it significantly alters Fred's original work, which is as unique as ever.