Wisconsin: Cheese curd, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, and a strange concrete village.

We’ve spent the last week in Wisconsin. We’re happy to be back in “America’s Dairyland”, as it says on their car licenses.

For me, Wisconsin is: the best cheese curds, drumlins, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, apples (especially in Door County) and beer. Just now there are trilliums flowering in the forest, and lots of thunderstorms. There is a wonderful mix of people and culture that is evident in the bratwurst and sauerkraut on the one hand, and the Scandinavian fish boil on the other.  Turns out it was also where the Republican Party was founded in 1854, and it’s where the Niagara Escarpment ends.  Who knew?  I thought the Escarpment tailed off at the end of the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario (thanks, Barbara, for clearing this up for me, and I’m sorry I didn’t believe you at first!).

The last time we were here, we visited the Miller beer company store in Milwaukee so I could buy all my Miller family Christmas presents – it was terrific one-stop shopping, and the Miller gear was very well received.

I’ve written a song about Wisconsin, called “Peshtigo”, about a quilt that a train engineer used to keep him from the flames of the worst natural disaster in American history – a fire that wiped out the town on the same day as the Chicago fire (which is why you don’t know about it).  I also made a ribbon-winning little quilt at a retreat in Door County one year, using fabric I fished out of the garbage cans! (I HATE to throw out perfectly good fabric!!!) So we have lots of connections with the state.

Geese from the Garbage

We are in Wisconsin to do a few shows in Madison, Waunakee, Racine, and Lodi. We had a few days off to explore some of the sights in Racine, with our good friend Barbara Vallone, who is a wonderful tour guide.  We started with a Frank Lloyd Wright house called Wingspread, built for Herbert F. Johnson in 1939.


It turns out that Barbara used to work in the building, now used as a conference facility, and we were able to get a tour of the inside.  Very dramatic and Frank Lloyd Wright-ish, and it’s even said that Frank Himself haunts the place.  (A door that I had closed tightly with some effort blew open and closed while we were sitting in the living room. Our guide said it was probably Frank, and that that sort of thing happens all the time.)

The living room – hexagons and a huge fireplace grate.

The house is designed with four wings – hence the name “Wingspread”, and fits into the surrounds beautifully.  One wing is a bit more airy than the others, and juts out quite a bit (thanks to a steel beam that the engineer snuck in after Frank had left the premises – Frank didn’t like to use steel, it seems).  If I were to live in this house, this would be my sewing room! Here are two pictures – outside and inside of this room.

Inside the wing.

I loved one of the fireplaces.  Frank designed it to accommodate logs which would burn standing up.  It seemed like a good idea. The family tried to use it once, and all the logs fell into the room, burning.  They had to pick them up and turf them out the window so that they wouldn’t burn the whole house down.  Needless to say, they didn’t use this fireplace again (they had lots of other normal ones to choose from, though)!

The vertical fireplace

Frank wasn’t really known for his common sense…..he was an artist.

In fact, the roof on this building leaked quite a bit before they repaired it at great cost. Wisconsin gets lots of snow in the winter, and one year there was a series of freeze/thaw cycles that built up the ice on the roof.  The story is told that it started leaking right onto Mr. Johnson’s head!  He called Frank and said “Fix the d**n roof!”. Frank replied “Move your d**n chair!”.  He was quite the guy… But the house is beautiful – stunning.  You should see it.

The next day we toured Fortaleza Hall, just next to the SC Johnson Company headquarters. It is a company that is still family owned and operated, and they early on had a commitment to the environment, adventure, architecture (their headquarters was also designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), and wax.  The main event in this building (recently completed) is an airplane that re-enacted the flight made by Sam Johnson’s father in 1935 to find the best source for the company’s floor wax.  Sam commissioned the reproduction and in 1998 he flew the same flight path as his father did to Fortaleza Brazil, where the wax was found.  The plane now holds a place of honour in this newly constructed building.

The Spirit of Carnauba

The building is beautiful, lots of crystal clear glass everywhere, and an inlaid floor underneath with a map of the world, tracing the flight of this little plane from Racine Wisconsin to Brazil.

Fortaleza Hall

The building has a restaurant for employees in it, and there will be soon a museum dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright downstairs.  I loved the “living wall” – we saw one at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg Florida in January – a wall of living plants!

A perfect reflection of the stairway.

From Racine we drove back to the centre of the state to visit Mill House Quilts in Waunakee.  I’d recommend this quilt shop – there are lots of yummy fabrics, enthusiastic and helpful staff, and owners who work hard at keeping things interesting.  We were part of their annual spring party, and we had a small and enthusiastic group. I love being able to stretch out a bit in concert, and that day we sang for 1 1/2 hours! Thanks to Dianne and Paul for inviting us to sing for you!

Our audience at Mill House Quilts

The next day, we were in Lodi.  We’ve seen the sign for Lodi every time we’ve driven this road, but have never stopped before.  It was good to visit such a large guild – there were over 100 there, and they gave us a standing ovation at the end.  Thanks!

Our audience at Lodi

After the show, one of the long-arm quilters in the audience told me a story. She was in a van full of quilters at the US border just after September 11, 2001.  He had a very nice car, and was well dressed. As the quilters watched, the officials searched his whole car.   He had a smug look on his face that comes from knowing they will find nothing untoward.  They searched the car’s interior, it was clean.  The trunk was also empty.  Then, the spare tire compartment.  It was FULL of fabric!! Not an empty space to be had. His face registered total shock – he had no idea it was there. But the quilters fell over laughing, as did the border crossing guards.  His wife at home is – BUSTED!!!

I love this story!

Today, we drove north in Wisconsin.  It was raining quite heavily when we stopped for lunch in a small park – I thought it said “Country Park”, but in fact, it said “ConCRETE Park”.  We entered a magical park of concrete figures that Fred Smith, a retired lumberjack, had made.  This picture is marred by the rain on the windshield, but you can check out this video for a sunny-day tour. The next time we’re through on a nice day, I want to stop and really take a look at these amazing sculptures!

Can you see the upended beer bottles that make the horse’s mane? Brilliant!

So we move north now, towards Winnipeg and our next show.  It was a great week in Wisconsin.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-travelogue!

To be continued….

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6 Responses to “Wisconsin: Cheese curd, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, and a strange concrete village.”

  1. Judy Morningstar Says:

    Where and when is your preformance in Winnipeg?

    • singingquilter Says:

      Hi Judy – we’ll be there on the 16th of May at St. Martyrs Canadien church. The meeting starts at 7pm. I’ll be teaching two classes the day before too. How far is the ‘Peg from you?

  2. Doris Lewis Says:

    Hi There! This is your Mola friend from Pepperell, MA. I’m enjoying the updates of your travels so much! Almost as much as your new Crazy Quilt CD, I play it every day when I am downstairs sewing!
    Keep up the good work 🙂 Doris

  3. Wendy Says:

    WI is a weird and wonderful state…. now you need to see the Harley Davidson Museum in Mke…. even if you don’t like motorcycles, its very well done and so interesting. Glad you got to see FLW stuff, I’ve seen all of his houses in WI (Spring Green is my favorite)…..

    • singingquilter Says:

      Wendy, we always have to leave something for our next visit. Okay – next time, we’ll put Spring Green on the list! (not so sure about the Harley Museum….)

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