Wisconsin Concrete Park

An early October road trip took my partner and me to a variety of interesting Up North Wisconsin attractions. One of these was probably the most unique museum I’ve ever visited. This one just happens to be entirely outdoors just south of Phillips, a small town in Price County, Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Concrete Park website tells the story of this amazing place:

The Wisconsin Concrete Park is an outdoor museum with 237 embellished concrete and mixed media sculptures built between 1948 and 1964 by Fred Smith, a retired lumberjack and self-taught artist and musician. Installed throughout Smith’s northwoods property in Phillips, WI, the site is a historical panorama of life-size and larger-than-life sculptures depicting people, animals, and events from local, regional and national history, from local lore, and from Smith’s expansive imagination.

The Wisconsin Concrete Park is a masterwork of 20th century vernacular art environments. Throughout the site Smith depicted history as an elastic entity in which local and national people, events, and histories are intermingled with animals, all sharing a common landscape.

The Concrete Park is now under the watchful eye of the John Michael Kohler Art Preserve. They provide additional background on the site as follows.

Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park consists of life-size and larger-than-life-size concrete sculptures on his former property in Phillips, Wisconsin. His sculptures have armatures of wood, steel pipe, and wire covered with concrete and are embellished with salvaged materials such as beer bottle pieces, mirror shards, reflectors, colored glass, and rocks. Many depict aspects of northern Wisconsin history, told through representations of people, animals, folktales, and events that impacted the area. Included among the life-size figures are Paul Bunyan, Ben Hur, and Sacajawea. His final and most ambitious piece was a Budweiser wagon with drivers and a team of Clydesdale horses.

The Wisconsin Concrete Park is now a Price County park, managed by the nonprofit Friends of Fred Smith. Located along Highway 13 in Phillips, Wisconsin, the park is open to the public.

The Kohler Art Preserve also provides a photo and biographical information about the artist.

Fred Smith
Fred Smith at the Wisconsin Concrete Park, c. 1961. Photo: Robert Amft, courtesy of Friends of Fred Smith.

Fred Smith was born in 1886 to German immigrants in Spirit, Wisconsin, and he homesteaded land in nearby Phillips, where he built a house and raised his family. Smith farmed Christmas trees and ginseng root, and he worked in regional lumber camps until retiring in 1948. He was also an avid musician and loved regaling people with his fiddle and mandolin. Smith had little formal schooling, but that did not deter him from creating a monumental artistic project.

Beginning in 1948, Smith created over 230 sculptures around his home and the Rock Garden Tavern, a bar he built and operated on his property. Smith ceased work on the property, known as the Wisconsin Concrete Park, after he was disabled by a stroke in 1964. Shortly after he died in 1976, the park was acquired by Kohler Foundation, Inc., and preserved. Wisconsin Concrete Park, part of the Price County park system, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Today the Arts Center’s collection includes ten sculptures by Smith, including several small relief sculptures from his Rock Garden Tavern.

Note: Harsh, extremely contrasty mid-day sunlight and heavy shadows made for very difficult photographic conditions, but I did the best I could in post-processing to optimize the pictures I share below. 

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