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Horse with beer bottle mane, ridden by man with glass insulator coat.
Horse with beer bottle mane, ridden by man with glass insulator coat.

Fred Smith's Concrete Park

Field review by the editors.

Phillips, Wisconsin

Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park, south of Phillips on Highway 13, is a horde of 237 out-sized folk art figures and bas relief slabs, set among shady trees and well-mown grass.

Indian Chief and Little Guy.
Friendly meeting of woman and giant Indian.

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 "Shorty Export" 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 -- the result of both Fred's lumpy chosen medium and 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.

Wagon team.
Clydesdale beer wagon was Fred Smith's biggest, and last, sculpture.

Thirsty statue knocks back a brewski.

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 Friends of Fred Smith organization, so it's free!

A little shrimp.
Tourist with a camera: Fred Smith's tribute to his curious visitors.

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.

The Rock Garden Tavern now has an Airbnb (with profits going into Park maintenance) and a gift shop open during the warm weather months. From photos taken at the Park on previous visits, we see that the Friends of Fred Smith 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.

Fred Smith's Concrete Park

N8236 S. Hwy 13, Phillips, WI
One mile south of Phillips, on the east side of Hwy 13.
Dawn-dusk (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Free, Donations appreciated.
RA Rates:
The Best
Save to My Sights
Roadside Videos
Dash Thru Fred Smith's Concrete Park

Fred Smith's Concrete Park.

Our first visit to this array of beer bottle and concrete sculptures was all too quick and unsteady (eventually we returned and took our time...).Go to video

Nearby Offbeat Places

Fred Smith's Lincoln-Todd MonumentFred Smith's Lincoln-Todd Monument, Phillips, WI - < 1 mi.
Deer StatueDeer Statue, Fifield, WI - 14 mi.
Old Abe, Civil War Mascot EagleOld Abe, Civil War Mascot Eagle, Park Falls, WI - 18 mi.
In the region:
World's Largest Corkscrew, Hurley, WI - 56 mi.

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