Grandview and Prairie Moon

Just a few years after the Wegner couple  (last post) began their mosaic-ed home environment, Nick Englebert began to transform his farmhouse and property in Hollandale, Wisconsin into a roadside environment. Like the Wegners he had made the trip to visit the nearby Dickeyville Grotto and it clearly lit the fire in his belly. He went home, stirred up some concrete and began coating his clapboard house.  Into this soupy surface he pushed bits of glass, shells and stones. The effect is surprisingly light and lacy.

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For anyone else this would have been a life-long project, but not for Nick Engelbert, a man of many talents and boundless energy. Prior to teaching himself to sculpt, Engelbert had been a machinist, a sailor, and engineer, a prospector and like any good Wisconsinite of the day, a farmer and cheese-maker . His house transformation was just the beginning of an astoundingly ambitious environment including figurative sculptures which cavort about his extensive property which Engelbert proudly called “Grandview“.

Unlike the Wegners, Mr. Englebert did not adopt any of the religious bent of Father Wernerus’s Grotto. Instead, he paid homage to his European immigrant neighbors, which surely must have endeared his neighbors to him.

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And for his own “portrait” he sculpted first an Austro-Hungarian eagle and then an American eagle.

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Sprinkled about the environment are tell tale signs of Englebert’s love for his adopted homeland.wisconsin112

The oddly random subject matter of his sculptures and evident sense of humor made me wish that Nick Engelbert were still puttering about his yard when I made my visit. Sadly, Engelbert completed his last sculpture in 1950.

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Born just five years after Nick Engelbert in 1885, Herman Rusch, too, was inspired by his visit to Father Wernerus’s Dickeyville grotto. (I assure you, if you make the trek to Dickeyville, on your plane flight home you will start formulating a plan for a yard art project of your own.) Besides the Dickeyville Grotto, Rusch had also visited  and loved the roadside attraction in neighboring Iowa known as “Little Bit of Heaven” created by B.J. Palmer which is sadly no longer in existence. Both Palmer’s and Wernerus’s environments provided  technical and aesthetic models for the do-it-yourself-er obsessive builder.     Like most good Wisconsinites at the turn of the century, Herman Rusch had been a farmer, and though he worked diligently at that endeavor for 40 years, farming just did not satisfy his hungry soul. By the time he retired from farming in the 1950’s he was hankering for something new to sink his teeth into. He found the perfect project already waiting in the wings. His whole adult life, Rusch had been quietly and obsessively amassing a huge collection of Americana–tools, antiques, and oddities from the natural world. He was determined to create a museum of curios and found a dance hall near Cochrane, Wisconsin (I notice the village of Cochrane’s website does not make even one mention of Prairie Moon–hmmm) to transform into an exhibition space.

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For three years he worked on his museum which he dubbed “Prairie Moon”. When the museum (the blue building above) was complete Rusch set to work building structures to grace the grounds of the museum which he hoped would tempt passersby to stop in. Today, all that remains of Prairie Moon are these outside attractions as the museum has long since closed. Most iconic and attractive of Rusch’s structures is the gracefully arcing, mosaic-ed fence that serves as a border to his property:

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In all, Rusch made 45 sculptures to surround his museum, an odd assortment including a miniature Hindu temple:  wisconsin054

an obelisk:  wisconsin051     and a dinosaur (why not?).

One cannot help but be charmed by Rusch’s sculpted self portrait onto which he wrote the following rather awkward inscription on the back: “Born in a log cabin in 1885…A lover and student of nature. Farms 40 years then sells farm to son. Always helping him in busy times and at the same time started this venture when 71 years old. And did all the work himself…A good way to kill old age boredom.”

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When is a Grotto Not a Grotto?

As promised in my last post I am going to show you a few of the many wonderfully odd and audacious built environments in Wisconsin. Last post introduced Grotto builders Fathers Dobberstein and Wernerus who I think can be credited with launching Wisconsin’s curious proliferation of yard art.  There are at least five religious grottos in Wisconsin and many more in neighboring Iowa. Nearly all were masterminded and built (with lots of parishioner help) by Father Dobberstein, but it’s safe to say that Father Wernerus’s grandiose shrine in Dickeyville served as a huge inspiration for many of the subsequent Wisconsin environment builders. One of the first of the non-religious environments was built by the lovely Wegner couple. Like many other Wisconsinites (Wisconsonians?) the Wegners made a pilgrimage in the late 1920’s to the grotto shrine in Dickeyville.  By the time they left Dickeyville they were on fire with inspiration and set to work when they got home building a concrete and mosaic wall around their farm property:

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By the 1940’s they had built up such an impressive environment that their property too became a tourist destination. As if proof that their yard art was germinated from their visit to Dickeyville it is called the “The Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto” even though there is no grotto anywhere in site. The closest the Wegners came to anything remotely grotto-esque would be their little chapel building so at least you know there’s a healthy dose of religiosity mixed into their artistry.

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And it seems you couldn’t built a yard art environment in this era without including the requisite stars and stripes.

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One of my favorite sculptures in the Wegner’s yard is their rendition of the Steamship Bremen that brought the Wegners to America in the late 1800’s. Paul Wegner apparently rigged up a little performance for the tourists, creating the illusion that the ship was sailing using mirrors (but no smoke) held and moved just so by his granddaughter.

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But surely the piece de resistance at the Wegner Grotto is their final collaborative work:  a huge mosaic-ed wedding cake celebrating their 50st anniversary. Paul and Matilda Wegner lived to celebrate two more anniversaries.wisconsin025

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