Wisconsin’s Rural Folk Art Culture is Cast in Concrete


Red barns and dairy cows aren’t the only distinctively Wisconsin features dotting the state’s rural landscape. There are also the occasional clusters of concrete sculptures, typically embedded with shards of glass, pieces of porcelain, shiny little stones, seashells, and other odds and ends that sparkle in the sun. Many of these unique concrete collections have been standing proud for close to 100 years in their original places, often the former farms of the people who crafted them.

Sculpture from Wisconsin Concrete Park. A link to additional photos can be found at the end of the article.

“We call all of these sites artist-built environments, and we kind of define that as when an artist lives and works in the same place and their art is meant to populate their home or their studio or their yard,” said Laura Bickford, curator of the John Michael Kohler Arts Museum in Sheboygan, which is heavily involved in the preservation, study, and exhibition of these artist-built works.

She added that although these installments consist of many distinct, separate pieces, they’re meant to be viewed together, as a whole environment.

“It’s all about the relationship of the individual elements to each other and as a total work of art, despite being different pieces, “ she said.

Artist-built environments can be found all over the country, but Bickford said they’re prevalent in the upper Midwest, particularly in rural Wisconsin. The Kohler Foundation, Inc., purchased many of these sites and performed extensive preservation work on the pieces before gifting them back to the counties in which they’re located, or to a suitable local organization, to be maintained as sculpture parks for the public to enjoy.

Many of these sites are located within or near electric cooperative service territory, including the Dickeyville Grotto in Dickeyville, a village in Scenic Rivers Energy Cooperative’s area. This collection of concrete monuments is a devotional grotto created on the grounds of Holy Ghost Parish by Father Matthias Wernerus, who served as priest of the church from 1925–1930. Bickford said this grotto is credited as being a major source of influence for many rural folk artists, contributing to the popularity of concrete folk art in this state.

“The Dickeyville Grotto was a really early one in Wisconsin, and it also coincided with the rise of the automobile in Wisconsin, and the idea of road trips in the 1930s, and then also with the wide availability of commercial concrete,” Bickford explained. “So people would go and look at the grotto because they heard about it, and then they would go home and start trying to replicate what they had seen.”

Wisconsin’s agricultural roots are another contributing factor to the art form’s popularity here; in fact, the state’s farming and folk art cultures are closely intertwined.

“We know that a lot of these artists would farm and work agriculturally during the growing season, but in the winter they would often work in their basement or in an outbuilding on these concrete panels, and then when it was nice out again they would install them outside,” she explained.

A common—and remarkable—characteristic among these artists is that none had formal art training. However, the craftsmanship developed over years of farming lent itself well to this unique form of artistic expression.

And unique it is. The artist-built environments share some basic traits; for example, as many of the artists were recent immigrants, their sculptures often have patriotic elements, reflecting their pride in and gratitude for their new home country. However, each environment is as specialized as the artist who created it.

“A lot of people ended up depicting what they knew,” Bickford pointed out, “so Fred Smith’s Concrete Park [in Phillips]has a lot of Northwoods lore, with lumberjacks and oxen and Native Americans. The Wegner Grotto tells their own immigrant story—same thing with Nick Englebert and Grandview. The Wegners kind of celebrate their backgrounds with the ship similar to what they came over to the United States on and their wedding cake, and the Engleberts have a lot of Swiss and Austrian themes of that group of people who settled in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin.”

Here’s a closer look at some of the artist-built environments located in Wisconsin’s electric co-op country. Each of these is part of Wandering Wisconsin, a compilation of grottos, sculpture parks, and gardens created in the early 20th century that have been carefully preserved and are open for the public to explore. For more information, including maps to help plan a self-guided road tour of the sculpture parks, visit https://wanderingwisconsin.org.

Dickeyville Grotto

Serving as a catalyst for Wisconsin’s concrete folk art installations is the work of Father Matthias Wernerus, completed over five years and dedicated as the Dickeyville Grotto in 1930. These religious and patriotic shrines were dedicated to “the unity of two great American ideals—love of God and love of country.”

The grotto consists of several individual shrines connected by walkways and surrounded by gardens. The main shrine of the grotto houses the Grotto of the Blessed Virgin. Additional shrines include the sacramental shrine of the Holy Eucharist, the Sacred Heart shrine, the Christ the King shrine, the Stations of the Cross, and a patriotic shrine. Each piece within the grotto is decorated with materials from all over the world including colored glass, gemstones, pieces of pottery and porcelain, shells, stalagmites and stalactites, crystals, and different minerals.

In a booklet prepared in 1929, Wernerus said, “Thanks to His almost visible blessing from Heaven, we made the formerly unknown village the point of attraction for countless thousands of people. God’s wonderful material collected from all parts of the world has been piled up in such a way that it appeals to rich and poor, to educated and uneducated, to men, women, and children alike. Future generations will still enjoy the fruit of our labor and will bless the man that conceived and built this thing. Thanks be to God.”

Father Matthias Wernerus’ Dickeyville Grotto is typical of the devotional grottos
built by German Catholic immigrants in the early 20th century, who worked
without blueprints.

The Dickeyville Grotto is located at 305 W. Main St., Dickeyville, WI 53808. It’s open daily for walking tours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in September and October and again in April and May. Guided tours can be arranged. To learn more, visit dickeyvillegrotto.com or call 608-568-3119.

Wegner Grotto County Park

Among the farmers-turned-folk artists who were inspired after a road trip to the Dickeyille Grotto were Paul and Matilda Wegner, who emigrated from Germany and settled in the community of Cataract just north of Sparta, near an area now served by Oakdale Electric Cooperative. The couple farmed for many years, retiring in 1927.

After a visit to the Dickeyville Grotto in 1930, the Wegners began creating their own concrete art. They began by building ornate concrete fences around their farmhouse, similar to what they had seen in Dickeyville, and added an arched opening with the word “Home” embedded with crushed glass.

Soon after they created their first sculpture: a 12-foot concrete replica of the Bremen, a famous ocean liner of the time, to represent their own trans-Atlantic journey to the United States in 1885. Other pieces include a giant concrete cake to honor the couple’s golden anniversary in 1934, a fenced-in prayer garden, a peace monument and pulpit, and a spectacular glass church representing all different denominations. More than 70 weddings were held in this church, as well as one funeral: Paul’s own, in 1937.

Paul and Matilda Wegner’s grotto is also built in the German Catholic devotional
tradition but it includes elements that pertain to their own story, such as a well-known
German ocean liner of the time and a replica of their 50th anniversary cake.

The Wegner Grotto County Park is located at 7788 Daylight Rd., Sparta, WI 54656. It’s open May through September during daylight hours. For more information visit monroecountyhistory.org or call 608-269-8680.

Nick Engelbert’s Grandview

Outside the village of Hollandale, near the area served by Scenic Rivers Energy Cooperative, is the former home of Nick Engelbert, a typical farmhome in many ways except for the elaborately decorated front porch, covered in concrete and studded with bright bits of glass, china, beads, and gemstones. The porch was the first of Engelbert’s concrete creations, but over the following 15 or so years he extended the embellished concrete to the home’s clapboard siding and filled his front lawn with more than 40 sculptures surrounded by colorful flower beds.

Engelbert was born in 1881 in Austria and emigrated to America, where he married a recent immigrant from Switzerland. The couple bought their small farm in 1922, and after their children were grown, Engelbert began transforming his property into a concrete park that, unlike the Dickeyville and Wegner Grottos, has a more whimsical feel.

One installation has Snow White surrounded by seven dancing dwarfs; another has various mythical creatures sharing fountain space with a fisherman. Even some of the patriotic sculptures have a playful tone—one installation has Uncle Sam driving a huge elephant and donkey, while another sculpture paying tribute to Katherine Engelbert’s motherland has three smiling “patriots” circling a Swiss flag.

The Engleberts welcomed the public to stop by and roam about the statues, enjoy a picnic on the front lawn, and enjoy the view—a grand view indeed—from the beautifully bedecked front porch.

Nick Engelberg’s Grandview sculpture park has a magical, whimsical feel, with
fairytale characters and mythical creatures among the patriotic pieces.

Nick Engelbert’s Grandview is located at 7351 Highway 39, Hollandale, WI 53544. The grounds are open during daylight hours; the farmhouse now houses a museum that’s open by appointment. To learn more, visit nicksgrandview.com or call 608-967-2122.

Wisconsin Concrete Park

The city of Phillips, where Price Electric Cooperative is headquartered, is home to the Wisconsin Concrete Park. This outdoor museum is filled with 237 concrete and mixed media sculptures created by retired lumberjack Fred Smith between 1948 and 1964.

Born to German immigrants, Smith had no formal schooling and could neither read nor write, but he had profound views of the changing world around him that he expressed through his art, which he began creating around his home and yard when he was 62. He wanted people to see his work so he built his statues right alongside the road, where they peer out at passersby with almost eerily animated faces.

Many of his installations depict entire scenes, complete with a description that he dictated to a typist. For example, a statue of a woman milking a cow is accompanied by a sign that reads: “Mable, an old milker, has been milking cows for many years. She has tried all the power milking machines. After milking by hand for many years, she finds that the hand milking will beat anything in the long run. So she is here milking by hand. That is the cheapest machine made.”

One installation shows a wedding party riding a carriage, surrounded by well-wishers. Another has a “little shrimp with a camera” taking a picture of a buck jumping over a fence, while another man sips a beer as he watches quizzically from behind. That man is described in Smith’s accompanying explanation as “Chiann, a big beer drinker. He has been a cowboy in seventeen different states. He had been a drinker all the while he was a cowboy. He found the famous Rhinelander Export Beer, which is the finest beer that he ever drank in his life.”

Some installations feature the animals that populate Smith’s Northwoods home, and others reflect Smith’s logging background, including a massive installation of Paul Bunyan and his pair of oxen. Some of the statues are patriotic, and many honor Native Americans. A tall figure of Sacajawea is accompanied with a statement that reads, “I got this Indian woman in the park y’know, Sacajawea. She been on the Mississippi River. She been in there 3 years with Lewis and Clark. Then she took ‘em up and went to the Rocky Mountains. She was with Lewis and Clark all winter long. The woman didn’t need no compass. She was the one that opened up the whole country. That’s why I got so many Indians here. I like Indians because they’re damn smart people.”

Many of Fred Smith’s 237 expressive sculptures at the Wisconsin Concrete
Park are grouped to tell a story. The headline banner photo is also from the
Wisconsin Concrete Park.

Wisconsin Concrete Park is located at N8236 Highway 13, Phillips, WI 54555. The grounds are open year-round during daylight hours. The Friends of Fred Smith also host periodic art workshops and events on the grounds. To learn more, visit wisconsinconcretepark.org or call 715-339-7282.

Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden

Between Cochrane and Fountain City, in Riverland Energy Cooperative’s territory, is the Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden, featuring artwork created by Herman Rusch starting in 1958. Rusch was born to Prussian immigrants in 1885. After 40 years of farming, Rusch retired and purchased the Prairie Moon Dance Pavilion, transforming it into a museum of curiosities filled with unusual machines, taxidermy displays, and natural phenomena.

To dress up the museum grounds, Rusch built a concrete and stone planter and added some flower beds, and he “just kept on building.” Sometimes he added color to the concrete, and other times he embellished it with bits of glass, crockery, and mirrors. Among the most impressive pieces is a 260-foot arched fence, made with iron wheels of old grain drills that had been cut in half, stretched, and then covered in concrete to create the arches.

Over the following 16 years, Rusch created nearly 40 sculptures, including more stone planters; a Norwegian fighting off a bear; a Hindu temple; dinosaurs, snakes, and other animals; and a 13-1/2-foot watchtower.

Creating the museum and sculpture garden, he said, was a way “to kill old-age boredom,” but he also had a deeper explanation for his artwork: “Beauty creates the will to live.”

Rusch died in 1979, but he lives on not just through his folk art, but over it as well; one of his final pieces was a great concrete self-portrait looking over his garden, so he could “see what’s going on here when I’m not around.”—Mary Erickson

Herman Rusch began creating the Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden as a way
of dressing up the grounds of the museum he started.

Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden is located at 52727 Prairie Moon Rd., Fountain City, WI 54629. It’s open during daylight hours year-round. To learn more, visit kohlerfoundation.org/preservation/preserved-sites/prairie-moon-sculpture-garden-and-museum/ or call 608-687-8250.

BONUS: Additional photos from each of the above-mentioned sculpture gardens can be found by following this link.