Clearing the Way So Men Can Ride Around on Goats Without Being Hassled by their Wives: The Painted Forest

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Inside the Painted Forest

In the small rural community of Valton, WI (roughly 40 people) you will find one of the most fascinating and obscure relics of the old, weird America – The Painted Forest.

Overly long note on the term, “the old weird, America”, because I tend to throw it around a lot. Author and critic Greil Marcus coined the term in his book Invisible Republic, which was eventually rechristened the Old, Weird America in later printings. The book is about how Bob Dylan channeled the spirit of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, while recording what would become the Basement Tape sessions. Smith’s vinyl anthology is a collection of old country, bluegrass, blues and other music for uplifting gormandizers. It includes folk music from Smith’s collection that captures life in the early 1900s America. This was the era of barnstorming baseball teams, freak shows, dime museums, the dust-bowl, rail riding hobos, the three card monte, tent revivals and medicine shows. And for the sake of this blog post, it was the heyday of the fraternal organization (aka secret societies). And not to be too gleeful and nostalgic, the old weird America was also a time overwhelming racism, sexism, xenophobia, poverty, disease and ignorance (but let’s just think of the good stranger parts).

Anyways, I am a sucker for almost any book, movie or CD that carries the term, “old, weird America” in the tagline, advertising or reviews. I love Old, I love weird and I love Americana. How can you go wrong? But I will admit, the term is pretty unfair to the time period, it wasn’t old or weird at the time, it was just America. It is only old and weird in retrospect, because it is obscure now. Most the topics the balladeers in Harry Smith’s anthology squawked about have completely faded in memory, other things still exist, but in a mutated form, i.e. the three card monte becomes internet scams against the elderly, and the freak show becomes reality TV. it is a loaded term, probably overused and not fair to history, but I love it nonetheless and will continue to use it and will happily buy any media you create if you put it in the title (just send me an email and I will give you my money). Digression over.

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This inconspicuous building in the middle of nowhere houses one of America’s strangest and most esoteric murals

Back to the subjects at hand, the Painted Forest, the artist Ernest Hupeden and the secret society/ fraternal organization the Modern Woodmen of America.

Ernest Hupeden (1858-1911) was a German immigrant who moved to America in 1878. He was a transient and it is unclear why or how he ended up in a small rural village in central Wisconsin. He would travel around and paint paintings for people in exchange for money or alcohol. He painted small portraits on glass bottle, pie tins, and other odds and ends, but his grandest creation was undoubtedly the panoramic mural he painted between 1898 and 1901, that has since been dubbed The Painted Forest. This was commissioned by the Valton chapter of the Modern Woodmen of America (MWA), and over a century later still covers the walls of their long abandoned meeting hall.

Nowadays, the MWA are a life insurance company, but they began their life as a fraternal organization. The name Modern Woodman did not derive from the originators being woodmen, but it is more symbolic meaning they are clearing the forest for society members to build homes, communities and achieve security (through insurance). Like other secret societies of the day, it was a place for men to get together, probably drink, smoke, talk about boobs, plan charitable events, make business contacts and due to the collective power of their members, secure life insurance for all the members. Membership in fraternal orders has dwindled considerably since the late 1800s/ early 1900s, when roughly 20-40 percent of American males were members of some or multiple orders. Other popular societies with great names include the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Odd Fellows, the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine -aka the Shriners, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Pilgrim Knights of Oriental Splendor. Heck, even Fred Flinstone was a member of a secret society – the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.

Valton’s MWA camp commissioned Hupeden first to do a battle scene above their stage, reportedly paying him in room and board. They then had him paint a giant floor to ceiling panoramic story that covers the whole of the interior, which he finished in 1901. What Hupeden painted is a remarkable and slightly eerie tale starting with a man riding a goat (which represents an initiation ritual), injured and alone in the forest, who survives through thick and thin with the help of the Modern Woodmen (to simplify the story). Parts of the painting are strange, including a future look at what they assumed might become of Valton, including a bustling downtown. There absolutely is no bustling part of Valton, population of less than 50 people with at best a bustling growing Amish population. There are other scenes, some strange and esoteric and others grisly, including a scene of MWA members being burned at the stake. Hupeden passed away in 1911, found frozen in the snow, ten years after finishing his masterpiece.

This building and the reason we get to enjoy its mysteries today is due to the preservation efforts of the Kohler Foundation. Decades passed between the time it was a MWA lodge and it was saved by the Kohler Foundation in the early 1980s. During the time in between it was used as a community center yet all that time the Valtonians never thought to have the walls painted over.

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A hoodwink

But wait, there’s more, and things get even stranger. They also exhibit some amazing objects from the MWA and secret society antiques and costumes, including some offbeat “side-degree” initiation apparatuses. Besides the things I talked about that these secret societies like to do, like providing insurance and drinking beer, they liked to pull pranks on initiates. They had formal and proper rituals, so the initiate could reach a new degree (think Grand Poobah), but for fun they also performed pseudo initiation rituals, for what were called “side-degrees” – not official degree rankings. One of the most famous side-degree initiation rituals was goat riding. See the picture up above of the goat on three wheels, well the initiate would hop up on the goat blindfolded (wearing what was called a “hoodwink”, which is why now to be “hoodwinked”, means to be tricked). The other members would tool him about the lodge till he fell off and presumably everyone would laugh at him. Other side degree initiation rituals include a breath test, where the initiate/ sucker would blow into an apparatus to test the strength of their lungs, which would then shoot flour into the blower’s face.

The Painted Forest is a remarkable piece of vernacular art from the turn of the 20th century. The Kohler Foundation ultimately gifted the site to Edgewood College, who look after it to this day. I absolutely loved visiting the Painted Forest; it is a preserved peek into a very mysterious part of America’s past. Hupeden’s artwork and the subject matter are so fascinating. There really is nothing else like it anymore. Although, it has limited hours (see below), it really is worth going out of your way to check out.

Start riding!

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Going down the Rabbit Hole:

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Cabinet of fraternal curiosities

There are a couple of books I recommend if you desire to take a deeper dive into the strange world of old, weird, fraternal organizations. First off, there is a beautiful new (late 2015) coffee table book concerned with the art and relics of secret societies from the early parts of the 20th century, called As Above, So Below. It is filled with great photos and a great history lesson.

The other two books are about the ridiculous hazing apparatuses, like the ride-able goat, many of which were created by an Illinois based company – DeMoulin Bros. The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions and Catalog 439: Burlesque Paraphernalia and Side Degree Specialties and Costumes. They are both fun, strange reads. Catalog 439 actually reprints a full DeMoulin Brother’s catalog from 1930, that is just chock full of crazy side degree pranks and games, including lots of things that either explode or send an electric shock to the newbie.

If you want to see DeMoulin Bros Side degree objects in person you either have to either befriend David Copperfield, who apparently has a sizable collection of their goods hidden from the public in his magic fortress, or visit the DeMoulin Museum, in southern Illinois. The museum is about an hour drive from St. Louis, MO. DeMoulin Bros are no longer in the secret society business, they now make marching band costumes. If you are in Texas, check out the Webb Gallery, in Waxahachie, a little over 30 minutes south of Dallas. The book I mentioned previously, As Above, So Below, is based around Bruce and Julie Webbs, the gallery owner’s fascinating collection.

How to Visit:

The Painted Forest is located Valton, WI at the intersection of 6th St and Painted Forest Dr. It is a tiny community and you will have no problem locating the MWA building once in Valton. It is about a 45-minute drive west of the Wisconsin Dells and 1.5 hour drive northwest from Madison, WI. Unlike the other members of the Wandering Wisconsin art environment trail, which are open daily, visiting times are limited. It is open on Saturdays between Labor Day and Memorial Day, between 1:00-4:00. Outside of these limited hours, Edgewood College, the site’s caretakers, can at times open up the Painted Forest by appointment. Check out their website for contact information.

In the Area:

This is rural farm country, but there are some amazing places within an hour or so drive.

First off, the Wisconsin Dells, 45 minutes due east, is an old school tourist mecca, replete with natural wonders and several water parks. In the general Dells area there are two prime examples of a Wisconsin dining tradition – the Supper Club. Supper Clubs are slightly upscale restaurants and bars that are as the name implies only open for dinner. They are known for their steaks, seafood and an only in Wisconsin drink, the brandy old fashioned. Like fraternal organizations I think the brandy old fashioned is mostly enjoyed these days by old timers but they are actually pretty decent. Ishnala, is a supper club located in a state park on the edge of a lake. It has amazing scenery. Del-Bar, the more urban of the two, located on a busy stretch of road in the Dells, was designed in the early 1940s by a protege of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and is built in the prairie style. Both have good food and a great atmosphere.

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The Forevertron

Just south of the Wisconsin Dells is where you will find the Forevertron, one of my very favorite art environments. I realize that I overuse terms like “amazing” and “inspirational”, but the Forevertron, built from the scraps of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi wasteland, is one of the most amazing, inspirational art environments in this whole dumb world. Simply, it makes me happy to be alive.

Power on!

 

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Wisconsin Part 4: The Wegners build a grotto

We are back to the land of badgers and dairy cows to tackle another spot on the Wandering Wisconsin art environment trail. This week I present to you – The Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto.

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After visiting the Dickeyville Grotto in 1929, and being impressed and inspired by what they saw, Paul and Matilda Wegner, said, “I can do that.” They then went back to their farm in Cataract, WI and started building.  At this stage in the game, they were retired and while neither had been artists by trade, they really took to transforming their land into a unique personal monument.

Wegner 4The Wegners lived long enough to see their humble yard turned into a popular tourist attraction. Paul passed away in 1937 and Matilda five years later in 1942. When they were alive, they would not let travelers take photos of their mosaic statues. Instead, they made them buy a real-photo postcard. However, since they passed away over 70 years ago they are no longer able to stop you from clicking away (even if they came back as scary ghosts they will probably not understand digital technology and presumably will not haunt you…in case that is a concern of yours).

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The Glass Church

They built several nice pieces, including what at the time was dubbed the “glass church.” A mini chapel encrusted with broken glass mosaics. When Paul passed away, they held his service here.

Most of the statues around the yard are concrete with glass and pottery mosaic shards. Besides the glass church, the Wegner’s built a fence, an American Flag, a Wegner 6reproduction of their 50th wedding anniversary cake, a replica of a popular ocean liner named the Bremen and several other pieces.

The Wegner Grotto is perhaps the smallest site on the Wandering Wisconsin trail, but that does not mean it should be skipped, it has some really nice mosaic work and is nicely isolated in the middle of nowhere. And like the Dickeyville Grotto that inspired it, it hearkens back to a time when God (in this case Christianity) and adopted country (the Wegners, like Father Mathius Wernerus who built the Dickeyville Grotto, were German immigrants) were common and important components of everyday life. Many of these older sites are uniquely stuck in the past and make for a fun time traveling trip to a different era.

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Anniversary Cake and Bremen

How to Visit:

The Wegner Grotto is located in Cataract, WI, off Highway 71, about half a mile west of Highway 27. There is no real address to plug into your GPS; however, you can plug in the coordinates 44.061224, -90.867672. It is officially open during daylight hours between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but it can be accessed year round. There are some informative plaques set up around the environment. The site is unmanned, but tours can be set up through the Monroe County Local History Room & Museum, who are the grotto’s caretakers. You can visit the history museum a few minutes away for more information. The history room is located at 200 West Main St. Sparta, WI. Also, contact the museum if you wish to have your wedding at the Wegner Grotto.

The Grotto is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It is about two hours northwest of Madison, WI and two and a half hours southeast of Minneapolis.

In the Area:

There are a few really interesting travel opportunities nearby.

Only about a fifteen-mile drive away in Sparta WI, there is the Fast Corporation Fiberglass Mold Graveyard. Fast is a company that makes large fiberglass statues that are used all across the country, often for advertising. In the large yard around their factory, they scatter their molds and other assorted half-finished projects, so they can be used again later on. There is row after row of giant cool animal and character molds. People are free to wander around the yard. It is a ton of fun to peruse (and it’s free).  It is located at 14177 Co Hwy Q, Sparta, WI 54656.

If you like space memorabilia and bike riding you could not be in better luck. Because upstairs from the Monroe County Local History Room, and I did not make this up, is the Deke Slayton Space & Bicycle Museum. Two totally random museums in one. Old bikes on the right hand wall, space stuff on the left. Deke Slayton was a member of the Mercury 7, the first American astronauts to fly into space. The museum is located at 200 West Main St. Sparta, WI.

I can’t vouch for the next stop on the itinerary because they were closed the day I was in the area, but about 20 minutes north of the Wegner Grotto is the Jackson County Historical Society Museum in Black River Falls, WI. Now most county history museums are sort of big snooze fests, but this one looks really interesting. They have a permanent exhibit that I think could be very cool to fans of the old, weird America. I am really bummed I missed out. In 1973, Michael Lesy wrote a cult favorite book named Wisconsin Death Trip. The book has excerpts from violent and strange news stories found in late 1800s rural Wisconsin newspapers. Stories include suicides, disease, murder, arson and as crazy as it is to see in a local newspaper – ghost sightings. These stories are co-mingled with photos by Charles Van Schaick, a rural Wisconsin photographer of that time. The odd assortment of news clippings mixed with the old photos makes for a haunting, strange and slightly surreal book. Well, the Jackson County Museum has local boy Van Schaick’s photos on exhibit. The museum is located at 321 Main St, Black River Falls, WI. Check their website or Facebook page for hours.

Wisconsin Part 3: A walk in the woods

On a quiet country road, a few miles outside of Sheboygan WI, James Tellen turned the property surrounding his summer cottage into a mystical fantasy world that integrates beautifully with the setting. Unlike some other sites like last week’s Glenn Stark Yard, which has a claustrophobic cluttered feel, Tellen’s 30 odd pieces are spread out over a larger area, creating a very peaceful serene feeling.

Miniature tavern scene

James Tellen crafted his site, dubbed the Woodland Sculpture Garden, between 1942 and 1957. He got the idea at the age of 62 to start building while sick in the hospital. He was inspired while looking out his hospital room window at the statues at the Catholic grotto across the street. Over the next 15 years, he built the statues on the grounds around the summer home and along the windy path through the woods behind the house.

The path behind the house

There is not a cohesive theme to the concrete sculptures. Some are painted, some tellen 5left raw. Around the house on the large front lawn there are fantastical creatures like tree elves and musical dwarfs in mid-silent concert, as well as less fantastical creatures like Abraham Lincoln. There is also a tableau of miniature people at a tavern, various full size people not at a tavern and along the front of the street, there is a group of three Native Americans straddling a log fence. Many of the pieces blend in seamlessly with the wooded area. The long concrete fence looks just like a mangled fallen tree.

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Log fence along the street front

Behind the house the statues get more religious. On a meandering trail through the woods, you will find characters out of the bible including Jesus, the Virgin of Fatima and St. Peter. tellen 6

The Woodland Sculpture Garden is one of the stops on the Wandering Wisconsin trail. I talk all about the trail in a previous post. This art environment is a real gem and while not as heavily populated with sculptures as some other sites this is actually a benefit as it gives the place a calm, mystical serenity, almost like something out of a fairy tale.

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How to visit:

James Tellen’s Woodland Sculpture Garden is located at 5634 Evergreen Drive
Town of Wilson, WI, on the outskirts of Sheboygan. If you are using Google Maps type in Sheboygan instead of Town of Wilson. Sheboygan is about one hour drive north of Milwaukee. The environment is open to the public during day light hours year round and is totally free. There is a parking lot next to the house. Tellen has a couple of cabins on the property that are only open during special events. This site is very popular with mosquitoes who appreciate the realism and level of detail Tellen has instilled in his sculptures, and/ or just being in the woods. Come prepared.

There is no gift shop and no bathrooms (depending on how comfortable you are peeing in the woods). But I highly recommend you hold it in till you get to your next stop, the John Michael Kohler Art Center….

In the Area:

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A piece from Carl Peterson’s no longer existing art environment

Tellen’s site is less than five miles away from another spot on the Wandering Wisconsin route, the John Michael Kohler Art Center, who incidentally are the caretakers of the Woodland Sculpture Garden.

The museum has an amazing collection of outsider/self taught/folk/ vernacular art including pieces from various art environments across the country. If you are a fan of environments then you have to go to the museum. In front of the building are the relocated statues from the Carl Peterson Rock Garden. Peterson was a Swedish immigrant who had built several miniature buildings in front of his house in Minnesota. While Kohler was unable to save the site in situ – on the premises -they were at least able to save some of his statues.

My only gripe with the art center is that I wish it were bigger because they do not have their permanent collection on exhibit. They have really interesting and offbeat temporary exhibits, but I kept reading about all these great things that the center is supposed to have and when I got there none of it was on display, it was all in dumb storage (booo).

Kohler toilet2Hopefully, they have a cool exhibit when you are there. Also, they have great bathrooms. Remember, this is the same Kohler family that made your kitchen sink, so it is only pipe fitting that the museum has artsy toilets. Every bathroom in the place is cool.

I suggest that you go to the museum with a member of the opposite sex. That way you can have have your fellow traveler check their corresponding restroom out and give you the all clear when it’s empty, and then you can see how the other half lives. I am a brilliant strategist.

The museum is free. For the most up to date info for hours and upcoming exhibits at the John Michael Kohler Art Center click here.

I am also a sucker for regional classic food. If a town is known for their special variety of barbecue, pizza, burgers or hot dogs you will find me eating there. When in Sheboygan you have to eat a Sheboygan bratwurst.  It is a delicious, greasy German sausage served with pickles, onions and mustard on a heavily buttered roll. Two places in town known for their brats include The Charcoal Inn, which has two locations and Gosses. I had the double brat at the south side Charcoal Inn. The sandwich was dripping in butter and was delicious in a horrifying, embarrassing way. Make sure to get a few cheap Wisconsin beers and one or two of their famous tortes for desert and then go spend the rest of the night sitting quietly in your hotel room while holding your belly and rocking back and forth.

Keep wandering

 

Wisconsin Part 2: The Holy Ghost comes to Dickeyville

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Many art environments are built without a precedent. There is typically no direct inspiration from one place to another, or if there was an antecedent it is lost to history. There is one environment though that appears to not only been inspired by another, but also helped ignite the art environment craze in the Midwest – The Dickeyville Grotto. The last statement is true only if two or three art environments constitute a “craze”.

The Dickeyville Grotto sits on the grounds of the Holy Ghost Church in Dickeyville, Dickeyville 1WI. Father Mathias Wernerus, a German immigrant and several helpers built the site between 1918 and 1930. While maybe not the craziest or weirdest environments in the land it is one of the oldest, most influential and displays some beautiful mosaic craftsmanship.

Father Wernerus was influenced by the German grotto building tradition of his homeland. Additionally, there is a high possibility (though not 100% confirmed) that he was inspired by the Grotto of the Redemption, an art environment just shy of 250 miles to the west in West Bend, IA.

The Dickeyville Grotto and shrines are made with concrete, crushedDickeyville 7 glass, shattered china plates, sea shells and assorted other knick-knaks. Besides the main grotto at the front entrance (pictured up top, which sort of looks like a giant bird face about to eat someone) there are several other large shrines and embellished garden paths. Like many great art environments, Father Wernerus built the grotto with minimal if any planning or blueprints.

There are two central themes throughout the site, god and country. The main grotto is flanked with an American flag on one side and a catholic flag on the other. Other shrines around the grotto are monuments to Jesus, his mommy Mary as well as Christopher Columbus, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

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The tree of life

The grotto quickly became a very  popular tourist and pilgrimage site. Although, maybe not as popular as it was in the 1930s (one story has it that it once received 10,000 visitors on a single Sunday) it still receives tens of thousands of visitors a year (not too shabby for a folk art environment). The Dickeyville Grotto is part of the Wandering Wisconsin map and directly inspired at least three additional sites on the trail; Paul and Matilda Wegner’s Grotto in Sparta, WI, the Rudolph Grotto in Rudolph, WI and Nick Engelbert’s Grandview in Hollandale, WI.

There is also some evidence that the Dickeyville Grotto was an inspiration for Simon Rodia, the man who built the amazing Watts Towers in Los Angeles, CA. Rodia claimed in an interview that he was a contracted laborer at Dickeyville. In one story related to interviewers by Rodia’s friends, after finishing some work on the grotto he asked Father Wernerus for his paycheck and instead of cash he was given bupkis and was told he was doing “god’s work.” It is unclear whether this is true or not, and some details concerning Rodia’s life before Los Angeles just don’t add up, but it makes for a great story (although it makes Father Wernerus sound stingy).

The grotto is one of the more well known, well kept and popular environments in Wisconsin. The mosaic work is really something else and its dual themes of patriotism and religion represent an old fashioned sincerity that you don’t see much in tourist attractions these days (for better or worse). Whether you see it as a pilgrimage site, an old-school tourist attraction or great example of a folk art environment it makes for a fascinating excursion.Dickeyville 8

How to Visit:

The Dickeyville Grotto is located at 305 W Main St, Dickeyville, WI 53808 in the southwest corner of the state. Like most of the sites on the Wandering Wisconsin trail, the Dickeyville Grotto is open 365 days a year during daylight hours. They ask for a very reasonable $2 donation, so don’t be a chisler (like Father Wernerus) and drop a few singles to help with upkeep. Guided tours are available everyday in the summer and on weekends in the fall. There is a gift shop selling mostly Catholicism related goods and books. The store is open daily April to the end of October, and on the weekends in November and early December. There is plenty of street parking out front and when it is open, there is a bathroom in the Holy Ghost Church next door. Check out their website for the most up to date tour and bookshop hours.

In the Area:

The Grotto is located on the great river road near the borders of Illinois and Iowa. For a little road trip it is about three and a half hour drive from Chicago, IL, two and half hours from Milwaukee, WI.

This whole section of the state is pretty rural and there are some really charming small towns, including Mineral Point about 30 minutes away. Go another 13 miles further east and you will run into the really quirky and great art environment Nick Englebert’s Grandview in Hollandale, WI.

In the immediate area is a really fun little museum, the combined Mining Museum/ Rollo Jamison Museum which is only 15 minutes northeast in Platteville, WI. The mining museum takes you underground into an old lead mine where, and you probably saw this coming, you learn about Wisconsin’s mining history. The other part of the museum highlights objects amassed by Rollo Jamison. Jamison was an avid collector during his lifetime who built his own museum in the 1950’s to showcase his collection of everyday early and mid 1900s objects and assorted oddities. After Jamison passed away in the 1980s, his collection was saved and moved by the city of Platteville to the new museum.

Go now!

References:

Niles, S. A. (1997). Dickeyville Grotto: The vision of Father Mathias Wernerus. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Stone, L., & Zanzi, J. (1993). Sacred Spaces and Other Places: A Guide to Grottos and Sculptural Environments in the Upper Midwest. Chicago: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago Press.

 

 

Wisconsin Part 1: The land of cheese, beer and curious giant statues

There is no such thing as an official tally of art environments. It is fair to say there are at least a few hundred in the United States alone. There are probably many many more that as most are not well documented. While the total amount of existing American art environments is unknown, the state with the largest number of identified sites is probably California. Makes sense; you got a huge state, with lots of open space, flush with hippies, freaks and free thinkers. In the wide-open California desert, where the majority of the state’s environments are located, there is still a bit of the wild west. There seem to be fewer rules, more uncharted territories and lots of room to be able to keep to yourself. It is an area that caters to those with a strong independent streak who don’t mind dealing with insanely hot summers. This same alchemy of rough geography and off the grid rebels alternately promotes the construction of art environments as well as meth labs. But while California makes sense, it is less commonsensical that the state with the second largest amount of identified, still existing environments is Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has large swaths of rural communities, nasty winters and a large population of German and other European immigrants from countries with a tradition of ornate gardens and religious cave-like grottoes. Curiously, next-door neighbor Minnesota, the state probably most often confused with Wisconsin by us Californians, has very few documented environments. Lazy, lazy Minnesotans. Actually, I take that back, as someone told me that Minnesota may have the most examples of “world’s largest” versions of different stuff roadside attractions. Including the worlds largest ear of corn, peace pipe and most impressively, the largest ball of twine tied by one person.

Arguably, the main reason that Wisconsin is pouring over with environments is due to the Kohler Foundation, located in Kohler, Wisconsin. The same Kohler family that makes your fancy bathroom sinks started the foundation. Since the 1970s, initially under the direction of art environment and vernacular art lover Ruth De Young Kohler, the foundation has been working hard and spending lots of excess spigot cash protecting and preserving some amazing places. A few they have had to relocate in order to save, but many they have been able to save “in situ” – in its original place. Kohler goes into communities, buys the property that the environment sits on (if needed), painstakingly documents and conserves the site and then they gift it to a local organization, like a museum, to manage it. Pretty awesome, right? So please consider buying more toilets.

So how does this help you? Well eight classic sites (about half of which were saved by Kohler) and one museum have joined forces to create Wandering Wisconsin. Wandering Wisconsin is a cultural heritage trail complete with suggested itineraries, informative short videos and a pretty map that will help get you around the Badger state. You can email them here and they will send you a free fold out collectible map.

All of these sites are free to visit and most are open 365 days a year. This includes Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park (a personal favorite of mine), the Dickeyville Grotto, The Rudolph Grotto and Wonder Caves, James Tellen’s Woodland Sculpture Park, The Wegner Grotto, Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden, Grandview, the Painted Forest and the John Michael Kohler Art Center. The Art Center as the name implies is a museum, but they do have relocated pieces from disbanded art environments on exhibit and they deal with a lot of the management of the Wandering Wisconsin program (and as you may have noticed, the museum also has the name Kohler in their title).

The great thing about the eight Wandering Wisconsin sites is that they are all old and for the most part very rural.  The oldest site, the Painted Forest (which is one of the most fascinating relics of the “old, weird America” you will ever come across), was completed in the late 1890s, the others were started in the 1920s to early 1950s, with the baby of the bunch, Prairie Moon, finished in 1974. They are all a peek into recent, yet forgotten time, with nods to religion, politics, rural living, patriotism and the immigrant experience.

By banding together these eight sites are able to help each other out. Advertising is the first obvious benefit. The traveler strolls by one site, thinks it is one of the coolest thing they’ve ever seen, picks up a Wandering Wisconsin map and voila, they suddenly have a much busier day ahead of them.  And look I get it, art environments are not for everyone, Hamtramck Disneyland is never going to eclipse Anaheim Disneyland (which is how I prefer people to refer to it from now on) in popularity; but most these places are pretty obscure and they can use all the publicity they can get. Also the eight environments that are part of the trail have started running programs together. Several of the sites put on an annual plein air painting contest, where you show up at the environment and paint  a picture outside with a bunch of strangers and then win prizes.

These eight sites are not all that Wisconsin has to offer. There are at least three major art environments that are not part of the Wandering Wisconsin Trail. This includes two where the artist is still alive – Jurustic Park and the Forevertron and also the late Mary Nohl’s House, which is sadly a strict – view from the street only – due to neighborhood politics. It would be a mistake to skip these three sites, in fact the Forevertron in my humble opinion is one of the two or three greatest art environments, or places in general, in this country. It is the perfect combination of inspired madness, resourcefulness, technical skill, artistic ability and storytelling. It is a true jaw dropping, holy shit, experience.

Over the next month or so, I will be writing individual post for all the above places. There are many more cool, strange things to see and do in the land of beavers and I plan to highlight some of my other favorite attractions while I am at it.

Bye for now