In 1950, at age 65, Fred Smith began construction of his “Wisconsin Concrete Park.” Using his homestead farm in Price County, Wisconsin, this local lumberjack, tavern owner, farmer, and dancehall musician created a fanciful yet powerful outdoor sculpture environment along State Highway 13 a mile south of the City of Phillips, Wisconsin. Grouped together on about 3.5 acres within the 16.2 acre park, the statues represent an amazing personal expression by one of America’s unique grassroots artists.
Completely self-taught in his methods of construction, Smith built over 200 figures using wooden armatures wrapped in mink wire and covered with layers of hand-mixed cement. He decorated the figures with shards of broken glass and found objects. As proprietor of the tavern next door, Smith had a ready supply of Rhinelander Beer bottles with which to work. Because his statues were often massive, he built them in pieces, pouring the concrete into molds dug into the earth. Then, when the weather permitted, he enlisted the aid of relatives, neighbors, and loggers to hoist them onto their prepared footings, anchoring the statues and attaching various parts with more cement. Smith’s characters came from local legend and personal acquaintances as well as mythic heroes and contemporary newsmakers.
Smith’s first cement piece was inspired by a picture of a large antlered deer jumping over a log that he had first noticed on a boy’s sweater. For the next 14-years his obsession (from ages 64 to 78) culminated in the over 200 figures now in the park. His last piece was the Budweiser Horses Tableau, after which he suffered a stroke and had to quit creating his heroic sculptures. His art embodies a compelling and unique personal vision.
Shortly after the death of Fred Smith in 1976, Wisconsin Concrete Park was purchased by Kohler Foundation, Inc. in order to preserve this unique and fascinating art site. The hard Wisconsin winters and a decade of neglect had begun to take their toll on the fragile cement construction and quick action was deemed essential to the preservation of Smith’s visionary environment.
The Wisconsin Arts Board undertook the restoration of Wisconsin Concrete Park in February 1977 with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the State of Wisconsin, and private contributors. Cleaning, patching, re-footing, and landscaping were well underway when a devastating wind storm struck the area on July 4, 1977. Over 70% of the figures were damaged, and hundreds of the tall pines planted by Smith decades earlier were uprooted. Smith’s barn, which was used as a studio by the conservators, also was destroyed. The storm actually allowed for more thorough restoration. Because many of the sculptures had been broken open, the original rotted wood armatures could be replaced with steel and various strategies were used to reassemble the pieces.
This initial restoration was completed by fall of 1978, and on September 21 of that year the Wisconsin Concrete Park was gifted by the Kohler Foundation to Price County Government for use as a public art park. In 1987 additional conservation measures were again undertaken after a second wind storm, and have been scheduled intermittently since then.
In 1995 support for the park was additionally enhanced by the incorporation of the Friends of Fred Smith (FoFS), a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, whose mission is “to preserve the park and all its resources as close as possible to their original state and context and to maintain and develop the park as a public educational and cultural facility.” The FoFS host an annual celebration at the park on the second Saturday of August. And they secure funding and volunteers for activities such as: educational workshops geared specifically for children/adults/seniors, guided park tours, restoration work, and interior completion of the park’s new Education & Conservation Building.