By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Jul 12, 2003 at 5:29 AM

{image1}If you live in Milwaukee, or any other urban area, you see plenty of concrete. But, you probably have never seen anything like what Fred Smith did with it near Phillips, Wisconsin.

Smith, a self-taught artist, created more than 200 embellished concrete sculptures from 1948 until 1964. Today, they stand in The Wisconsin Concrete Park, on the south end of this northwoods town.

The park, on Hwy. 13, is owned by Price County and maintained by the Friends of Fred Smith, a not-for-profit organization formed to preserve the sculptures.

Many of the sculptures reflect the life of Smith, who worked as a lumberjack, ran a ginseng farm, owned a tavern and did other things to get by in the north country. Some also reflect the history of Wisconsin, and the Phillips area, including the immigration of Czechs, Germans and others.

Smith is said to have drawn his inspiration from many things. For example, his personal favorite was a sculpture of the legendary Paul Bunyan, the king of the lumberjacks.

An interesting trio of the "Lion, Tiger and Angora Cat" reportedly came after Smith read a book, given to him by Chicago designer and artist, Robert Amft, a frequent visitor to the area for the great fishing. The book, "They Taught Themselves," by Sidney Janis included a painting by Brooklyn artist Morris Hirschfield of the three afore-named subjects.

Smith, who could not read or write, looked at the book and created his sculptures, telling Amft later, "See, I can do just as good as that guy."

An impressive sculpture of Ben Hur and a chariot was done after the Technicolor movie of Judah Ben-Hur came out in 1959.

Smith reportedly did his sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln after seeing a picture of a granite monument done in Racine by Chicago sculptor Frederick Hibbard. That work was billed as the first sculpture honoring Lincoln and his wife. So, Smith labeled his, "The Second Monument of Its Kind in The USA."

The Barbecue, one of Smith's first sculptures, was inspired when the Cleveland Indians beat the then Boston Braves in the 1948 World Series. Smith built it for a big celebration.

The Big Muskie

After hearing stories in his tavern about the big muskies that got away, Smith sculpted the "Muskie Pulled By Horses," to commemorate a muskie he claimed was so big it had to be pulled out of Soo Lake by a team of horses!

While Smith reportedly liked his creation of Paul Bunyan best, he thought his most important work was a sculpture of Sacajawea, the famed Native American maiden who helped Lewis and Clark. Smith favored Native Americans, saying, "That's why I got so many Indians here (in his collection). I like Indians because they're damn smart people."

Smith also once lamented, "I hear so much about Indians it makes be pretty near cry. Not far from here, they want to run the Indians off. The Indians don't hurt nobody. They got the right anyway. They was the first people here and they want to run them out now. Makes me crazy when I think of that kind of world."

When asked why he started to sculpt, Smith once said, "Nobody knows why I made them, not even me. This work just came to me naturally. I started one day in 1948 and have made a few every year since. It's gotta be in ya to do it."

The process used by Smith was laborious. He would make the sculptures with molds, usually horizontal. Then, he would haul them to their sites, often with horses or a logging truck. Getting them upright often presented the biggest challenge.

As embellishments, Smith used a lot of beer bottles, which were readily available through his tavern, deer antlers and skulls, and other discarded things from around then logging camps and farms in the area. In that way, Fred was one of the early recyclers and re-users.

"I just like it and could get it for nothing," Smith said of his materials. "I liked it together. Otherwise, your work is too dead. You find things and find a use for them. Don't cost a cent. People ask me if I need things from all over the country."

Preservation Efforts

Some in the community considered the park an eyesore during Smith's life, but luckily several people didn't think that way after he died in 1976. The Kohler Foundation bought the property. A restoration project started in 1977, and suffered a setback when a cyclonic "downburst" hit Price County. Several trees fell and damaged some of the sculptures.

Restoration work continued, however, and was completed in 1978. The site was then gifted to Price County. An annual maintenance program began in 1987, and the Friends group formed in 1995.

Since 1988, the community and then the Friends group host annual celebrations. Musicians and performing artists do their thing. A larger than life puppet show, done among the sculptures, is an annual highlight.

A booklet, The Art of Fred Smith, is available for $8. Lisa Stone, a writer and curator who is actively involved in the preservation of sculptural environments, and Jim Zanzi, a professor of sculpture at The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, produced the booklet.

Some of the information for this column came from the publication.

You also can join the Friends of Fred Smith group by writing at Normal Building, Room 217, 104 S. Eyder Ave., Phillips, WI. 54555, or by calling (715) 339-6371 or (800) 269-4505.

Once you are done viewing the Concrete Park, you can do many other things in the Phillips and Price County area. Phillips has a great Czech festival in June. The area is surrounded by some of the best fishing in the northwoods.

If you like to imbibe, you might try Elvis Presley's Blooms Tavern. The tavern goes back to the old logging days of the area. The owner actually changed his name to Elvis. Don't expect to stay at The Heartbreak Hotel next door, however.

The Chequamegon National Forest and Copper Falls State Park are easy drives away from Phillips.

But, what gives the area a unique attraction is The Wisconsin Concrete Park. As Fred said when he was still alive, "I welcome visitors. I like to watch their reactions…(this is) for all the American people everywhere. They need something like this."

Gregg Hoffmann writes monthly Beyond Milwaukee columns about interesting events, out-of-the-way places, historic sites and quirky characters in "out-state" Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest.

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.