Wisconsin Concrete Park

Wisconsin Concrete Park Paul Bunyon

A Stroll Through a Self-Taught Sculptor’s Concrete Wonderland

During a drinking session one night in the 1960s, someone bet lumberjack-turned-artist Fred Smith that he could not build a sculpture of Paul Bunyan standing on a marble.

“Hold my beer,” he said.

OK, maybe not literally. But Smith wasted no time creating a 16-foot-tall mustachioed man standing on a globe.

“People said I couldn’t set him on marbles,” he later told a pair of interviewers. “He’s sittin’ on goddamn marbles, ya’ know. People thought I was crazy. But he’s young, Paul, ya’ know. He stands on marbles.”[1]In my head he sounds like Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Bunyan is just one of 237 sculptures that Smith produced and displayed in Wisconsin Concrete Park, a folk art lover’s dream located just south of Phillips in northern Wisconsin. 

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There’s no admission fee to wander among Smith’s concrete creations, many of which are studded with bits of broken glass and found objects. But donations are appreciated.

A self-taught artist, Smith sculpted whatever came into his head, including Native American heroes, wildlife, movie scenes, neighbors, and friends. 

“Nobody knows why I made them. Not even me,” he once said. “Them ideas is hard to explain, ya’ know. Might be something ya’ see or hear about from someone else. Could be anything.”[2]Menacing Granny Voice

The last work he completed before a stroke ended his artistic career was a life-sized Budweiser Clydesdale team—eight horses, two ponies, one dog, and a wagon loaded with beer barrels. (Scroll to the bottom of this post to see it.)

Smith never learned to read or write, but he gave plenty of interviews and dictated thoughts to a typist. Reading his colorful descriptions of his work and life is nearly as much fun as seeing the pieces themselves.


Wisconsin Concrete Park Sacajawea
Sacajawea

According to his interviewers, Smith greatly admired Native Americans and deplored the way they were treated by settlers. He described Sacajawea like this: “She been on the Mississippi River. She been in there 3 years with Lewis and Clark. Then she took ’em and went to the Rocky Mountains… The woman didn’t need no compass. She was the one that opened up the whole country.”


Wisconsin Concrete Park Chiann
Chiann

“Here shows Chiann, a big beer drinker,” reads Smith’s description of this guy. “He has been a cowboy in seventeen different states. He had been a drinker all the while he was a cowboy. He found the famous Rhinelander Export Beer, which is the finest beer that he ever drank in his life.”[3]Soyia found an 8-pack of Rhinelander during the trip, and I am as big a fan as Chiann. I could drink it every day.


Wisconsin Concrete Park Stump Farmer
Stump Farmer

Not every piece comes with a detailed story, but this is apparently one of two “stump farmers,” who cleared tree stumps to make land farmable.


Wisconsin Concrete Park Photographer
Photographer

This fellow didn’t have a story either, but at least he has a cool camera.[4]The dude with the camera looks suspiciously Asian. HOW POSSIBLY PROBLEMATIC!


Wisconsin Concrete Park Oxen

Oxen

“Mr. Knox and the Oxen,” part of a larger series that Smith created to show how work was done in his early years. Smith was born in 1886 and went to work in lumber camps when he was still in his teens. He made 99 cents a day: “[I] lived 5 kids and a woman on that money. Never had no debts, never!”[5]Patriotic American Granny Voice


Wisconsin Concrete Park Mr. Everson's Kerosene Wagon
Mr. Everson’s Kerosene Wagon

“A local man of Phillips, Hans Everson, delivered kerosene and Red Crown gasoline…with the tank shown here from 1901 to 1915.”[6]Notice the crown on Mr. Everson’s head. A bold artistic statement on social class?


Wisconsin Concrete Park One of a Two of a Kind
Wisconsin Concrete Park Two of a Two of a Kind
Two of a Kind

Preserving all of these figures is a big job. Twice, storms badly damaged parts of the property, and many of the sculptures have had to be repaired.


Wisconsin Concrete Park Statue of Liberty
Wisconsin Concrete Park Angel and Woman
Statue of Liberty & Angel and Woman

Smith never sold any of his work, nor would he let it be moved to museums, because he wanted people to see the pieces where they were made and where he felt they belonged. 


Wisconsin Concrete Park Budweiser and Clydesdale Team
Budweiser Clydesdale Team

If you zoom in, you can see that there’s a dog riding on the wagon. It’s funny that Smith chose to memorialize Budweiser, as he was very much a Rhinelander man. He and two business partners owned the Rock Garden Tavern next to the park, and, as he recalled: “I just had Rhinelander beer. Only one beer! I bought a truckload of beer every time we went to Rhinelander. 200 cases every time.”

If you work up a thirst strolling among Smith’s sculptures, you can grab a drink at the tavern, which is still operational. And if you really want to spend some time with Smith’s creations, you can rent the two-bedroom apartment above the tavern.

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