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 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