Like the Birge Fountain, Walworth County’s public sculpture comes in all shapes and sizes as well as with the stories behind them.
Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, factory lines and mass production meant late 19th- and early 20th-century consumers could customize everything from houses to works of art for their yards, said local historian and Whitewater Historical Society board member Carol Cartwright.
“Because these fountains came from a company that created them in parts, you could pick what you wanted, adding extra elements like folds or cherubs,” she said. “The same foundries that specialized in creating Civil War statues in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also offered stock pieces that you could just order.”
Cartwright said the push for public art paralleled the growth of public parks.
“The development of parks started in the mid-19th century, first in bigger cities like New York and Chicago, and then flourishing elsewhere in the late 19th century,” she said. “People wanted to decorate and embellish those green spaces, so public art was extremely important.”
Whitewater’s fountain was named for its donor, Julius Birge, born in 1839, the first child of European settlers in Whitewater. A businessman who eventually ended up in St. Louis, Birge wanted to give back to the community that provided such good childhood memories for him. He asked that the fountain be placed on the site of a park he’d played in and a school he’d attended.
The fountain was made by the J.W. Fiske Co. of New York. Cartwright believes Birge had a hand in determining which elements formed the finished fountain, but its mass-produced pieces only add to its historical significance -- and its charm.
Since its dedication on July 4, 1903, the fountain has remained a landmark at the intersection of North and Main streets near the Whitewater Cultural Arts Center. Over the years, it’s survived attacks by vandals and even has its own trust fund and preservation committee to look after its maintenance.
“It’s representative of an important piece of sculpture in the community,” Cartwright said. “It is kind of unusual to have a piece with this type of decorative element in a small community. The fact that the community has maintained it all these years supports how residents feel about it.”
It was clowns who helped fund some of Delavan’s famous circus statues in Tower Park, on the north side of Wisconsin Highway 11 between Second and Main streets.
The city’s history is intertwined with the circus: Delavan served as winter quarters for some two dozen circuses in the late 1800s, and one of the most famous promoters, P.T. Barnum, organized his circus here in 1871.
The three fiberglass statues, made by the F.A.S.T. Corp. of Sparta, were erected in 1985 through the Delavan Historical Preservation Society and Otto’s Clown Alley #22, a Delavan-based group of clowns from Wisconsin and Illinois.
The statues include a giraffe named Ginny and Romeo the elephant, rearing up on its hind legs to a towering height of 20 feet. Not much is known about Ginny, but the real-life Romeo, a 10,500-pound elephant owned by the Mabie Circus, had a reputation as a rogue and was connected to the death of five handlers.
Standing beneath Romeo is the 6-foot-tall statue of a clown who represents Lou Jacobs, a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performer whose famous face was plastered on magazine covers, posters and even a U.S. postage stamp.
“He’s probably the most famous, recognizable clown in the world,” said Dan Ransom, president of Otto’s Clown Alley #22, whose clown name is JD Hug.
“Lou was a bender, a contortionist. He’d climb down into a little battery-operated car that was 54 inches long and 45 inches wide,” Ransom said. “He’d put his 6-foot frame in a car not 3 feet high and get out of it, and he’d do that two, maybe three times per show. He was very, very talented.”
One of Lake Geneva’s most famous sculptures got its start in the comics. The statue of Andy Gump, the chinless main character of a successful comic strip that ended more than 50 years ago, originally was built for its creator, Sidney Smith, and placed on the grounds of his Lake Geneva estate. When Smith died, the statue was relocated to Wrigley Drive in Flat Iron Park. The statue faced a bumpy road, including being smashed by rioters in 1967 and stolen by vandals. It’s now in its third incarnation.
While he has fond memories of the original Andy Gump statue, Lake Geneva historian Patrick Quinn says it’s another Lake Geneva landmark he favors.
“The Three Graces,” also known as “In Memory of Good Friends” because of the inscription on its base, was willed to the city in 1916 by Reinette McCrea, a wealthy resident, a charter member of the Lake Geneva Garden Club and, according to Quinn, an early feminist.
Three Classical-style women stand back to back on the sculpture, which is located on Wrigley Drive.
“I have always been impressed by ‘The Three Graces’ statue,” Quinn wrote in an email. “I always felt it welcomed me into Lake Geneva as I drove into the city from the south, and it is indelibly etched in my memories of my youth.”
The prolific works of Jay Brost, the founder of Miniature Precision Components Inc. in Walworth, and his wife Barbara Brost can be found throughout the county, including at the Walworth County Alliance for Children Center in Elkhorn, Fontana Beach, Horticultural Hall in Lake Geneva, MPC, the Fontana Public Library, St. Benedict’s Church in Fontana and at several locations around Walworth.
Their sculptures, both of animals and humans, are more realistic than stylized, a trait her husband honed as a longtime fine woodcarver and she developed as an artist, Barbara Brost said.
Like Norman Rockwell did, the Brosts frequently use live models for their works, as in “Summer Breeze,” a bronze sculpture of a wind surfer on the shore of Fontana Beach.
“We had Jay’s oldest son, Jim Brost, put on a bathing suit and kind of hang there,” Barbara Brost said, chuckling. “We use people from our families, anybody we can corral.”
One of Jay Brost’s most memorable works is located at Big Foot Union High School in Walworth. “One Last Glance,” a statue of Potawatomi Chief Big Foot holding a canoe paddle and looking out at the land, commemorates the Native American tribe that once called this area home.
Members of the now disbanded Williams Bay Woman’s Community Club wanted to honor that history, too. Inspired by a marker near Barrett Memorial Library commemorating the wife of Chief Big Foot, who was buried there in 1836, they commissioned sculptor Douglas Henderson to create a Potawatomi woman.
Henderson, who remembers finding arrowheads while growing up in Williams Bay, read a lot of Native American history. As he created the statue, he thought about the somber period decades before the Civil War when, pressured by white settlers in the area, the federal government drove the tribe out of Wisconsin and into Kansas.
The exterior of the sculpture is made of polyester resin, and Henderson based its appearance on a photograph of a Native American by Whitewater native and photographer Edward Curtis. Because Henderson was interested in Native American pottery, he had the woman hold a pot.
Today Douglas Henderson works in radiation oncology research at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison and still paints. The last time he saw the statue he created 30 years ago, he was surprised.
“It’s been there so long, it has lichen growing on it,” he said.