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.
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.
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.
Going down the Rabbit Hole:
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.
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.