Concrete comes to life
by Matt Bergstrom
In the north central expanses of Wisconsin, far from any large city where most people would think "art" would be found, there is a sculpture garden called the "Wisconsin Concrete Park." My brother Andy and I had come to this area in search of Timms Hill, the highest point in Wisconsin. We happened to find a brochure from the park and saw it was only twenty miles to the north, in the town of Phillips.
We saw the park next to the highway into town and immediately knew this was a special place. Hundreds of concrete figures decorated with bits of glass, china and tiles posed stiffly amid the pine trees. There were figures of people, horses, wagons, deer, lions, and even a twenty foot long walleye. Most of the figures were placed near the road but a few larger creations hid back through some trees.
All of these concrete statues were the creation of Fred Smith, who lived here in Phillips until his death just a few years ago. A visit to the park is a visit into the mind of Fred Smith and the history of this area. Smith was born in 1886, and at the age of 18 homesteaded the land of the park. He worked as a logger in the early days and later opened the Stoney Pub, which is still open today. It was only after his retirement in 1949, however, that he started to build the concrete figures. "Nobody knows why I made them, not even me. This work just come to me naturally. I started one day in 1950 and have been doing a few a year ever since." he says on a small plaque. Until a stroke in 1964 stopped him, he made over 250 sculptures.
The history and life of this area is told by the park. Many of the cement figures are loggers, pioneers and Indians of Wisconsin history. Fred Smith expressed his pride and patriotism in the figures of Lincoln, Sacagawea, and the Statue of Liberty. The forests that originally covered this area inspired his creations of deer and moose. He often used his sculptures to commemorate individual people in Phillips or events he thought were important. His personal energy, unhindered by whatever anyone else thought of his creations, inspired him to create such wonderful monuments and embodiments of his values.
Originally, Smiths plan was to have the sculptures scattered throughout a wooded area so that visitors would discover them hidden among trees and carpeted with pine needles. Several years ago, however, a windstorm knocked down most of the trees and damaged sculptures. An organization was founded to restore the figures but had to move some of them into a smaller area to protect them. Although Fred Smith was not too concerned with the figures durability when he made them, we can hope that they will be there to see for a long time yet.