Thursday, January 28, 2016

Just in the Nick of Time – Bel-Aire Manor Motel

In Joann’s recap of our photography adventures for 2015, she mentioned that we had spent some time in Springfield, Illinois on our spring trip.

After all of the activities were over for the Lincoln Funeral Reenactment, we decided to stay one more night at our motel, and catch some old Route 66 items before we left town. We had been to Springfield once before, but only for a quick overnight stay on our way to the Ozarks in 2008.

Several alignments of Route 66 run through Springfield, and we decided to take a different alignment this time. Many of the items I had marked were on Business Route 55 or 6th St. This was city Route 66.

One of our stops on the southern end of town was the Bel-Aire Motel for its signs. The signs included a former neon MOTEL sign with a large Sputnik ball. The ball also used to light and twinkle at night. This was the first true Sputnik ball that we had found to photograph.

This Sputnik was a low-end model that did not rotate. It was probably made by a company in California. Salesmen would travel Route 66 targeting motels for the signs. The Sputnik sign probably went up at the Bel-Aire Motel in the early 1960’s.

These Sputnik signs used to be common as a way to grab the attention of travelers after the former Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into space in 1957.

The Bel-Aire Manor Motel was a 60’s era motel with 80 rooms. In its heyday, it was probably full every night. When we passed by, it was vacant and enclosed within a chain link fence. Just another old motel on its last legs.

We left Springfield on May 4th, and over the weekend of May 16-17, the Sputnik ball was removed by the ACE Sign Co. Luckily, the sign will be restored to its former glory and will be on display at the sign museum in Springfield.

Shortly after we arrived home, I was catching up on my blogs and websites that I follow and found an article that demolition of the Bel-Aire Motel had begun. This is the first we realized that we had made our visit just in the nick of time.

How lucky for us that we decided to spend some extra time that Monday morning in Springfield! It makes us eager to hit the road every chance we get and to capture everything we possibly can. After all, who knows if things will be there the next time we pass by.

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

2015 in Review

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

During the first three months of 2015, we didn’t go photographing even once, so we were quite eager to finally hit the backroads for our spring photography trip to Missouri toward the end of April. We began the trip photographing in towns along the Mississippi River. At first light on the second day, we visited the historic Snake Alley in Burlington, Iowa.

Although San Francisco claims that its Lombard Street is “the Crookedest Street in the World, Snake Alley is touted by "Ripley's Believe It or Not" as the "Crookedest Street in the World." I traveled Lombard Street from top to bottom in 1994 and, I have to admit, it scared the heck out of me. When we visited Snake Alley, we parked at the bottom and I walked up to the top and back down, photographing as I went.

Three days later, we were in western Missouri searching for a vintage Yellow Cab Company sign. It took us quite a while to find it, but eventually we did.

We spent the last three days of our trip in Springfield, Illinois. Our reason for the extended stay in this city was to attend the events of the 150th anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln. We will be writing about these events in the near future. After an extremely long and exhausting day on Saturday, we got up early on Sunday and headed to the center of the city. The capitol building was beautiful at first light.

After a full day of photographing in Springfield on Sunday, we ended the day at the Old State Capitol building as the light faded to darkness. This building served as the state house from 1840 to 1876, when it proved too small to serve its original purpose. From 1876 to 1966, it served as the county courthouse of Sangamon County. The Old State Capitol is the site where both Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama announced their candidacy for president of the United States.

When we returned home, I needed a few days to recover from the exhaustion of the trip, but I didn’t want to miss spring here in Wisconsin. So three days later, I headed to the UW Aboretum’s Longenecker Horticultural Gardens. After photographing the blooming magnolia, lilac, and crabapple trees, a fellow photographer pointed out a robin’s nest in a beautiful pink magnolia tree.

In mid-June, we took a trip to Iowa and Ruth surprised me with a visit to the Little Brown Church in the Vale, a church made famous by the song “The Church in the Wildwood,” written in 1857 by William S. Pitts. Mr. Pitts was a young music teacher from Wisconsin who traveled by stagecoach to Iowa to visit his future wife. On the way, the stagecoach stopped in Bradford, Iowa to change horses, giving Mr. Pitts time to enjoy a walk through the area. When he saw an empty wooded lot, he thought it would be a charming setting for a church. When Mr. Pitts returned home to Wisconsin, he was inspired to compose the song “The Church in the Wildwood.”

The Little Brown Church in the Vale, Chickasaw County, Iowa
The Little Brown Church in the Vale, Chickasaw County, Iowa

Meanwhile, members of the parish, who had been holding services in abandoned buildings and parishioners’ homes, began making plans to build a church. They started to quarry limestone and the church foundation was completed in 1860. By 1862, in spite of being slowed by the Civil War, the building was enclosed. Up to that point, all materials and labor had been donated. To protect the wood of their new building, they needed to paint it, so they purchased the cheapest paint they could find, which was Ohio Mineral Paint. To their dismay, it was brown.

In that same year, Mr. Pitts and his new wife decided to move to Iowa to be near her aging parents, and Mr. Pitts began a teaching job at the Bradford Academy. Imagine his surprise when he discovered a little brown church being finished on the very lot where he imagined his “little brown church in the vale.” In 1864, the church was finally completed and “The Church in the Wildwood” was sung by his class at the dedication.

We also visited Motor Mill, one of our favorite Iowa historic sites. The six-story limestone grist mill is on the National Register of Historic Places. Due to its looming stature and being built in a small space between the Turkey River and a rocky cliff, it’s difficult to find a good place from which to photograph it. After a lot of experimentation, I found a great angle at the corner of the stone cooperage building.

In July, we photographed close to home, and discovered a beautiful farm scene framed by orange daylilies.

In August, after years of wanting to do this, we finally made it to Amish country to photograph the oat shocks. We were also looking for Amish schools that day, so it was a bonus when we discovered a scene with both.

Because it was a weekday, there were a lot of Amish farmers working in the fields, which meant a lot of beautiful horse teams to admire. As we passed one farm, the farmers were pulling a load of loose hay into the farmyard. I asked if I could take pictures of the load of hay and the horse team. As I snapped my photograph, a small Amish boy walked into the scene. He was so little compared to the very large Belgian workhorses hooked up to the wagon.

In late September, we made our annual trek to the Gays Mills area to visit the apple orchards. At West Ridge Orchard, there were crates of delicious apples waiting to be processed.

There was also a colorful display of bright orange pumpkins, waiting to be turned into Jack-o’-lanterns.

On September 27, a clear night was predicted for the Full Harvest Moon. So Ruth and I decided to see if we could capture the moon rising over St. Martin’s Church in Martinsville, Wisconsin. We picked a spot and waited, scanning the horizon for the moon. When it started to appear above the horizon, we realized we weren’t quite in the right place. So I quickly moved the car to a spot that would place the moon next to the church. The moon was a beautiful peach color as it began to rise above the roof of the church.

As it continued to rise alongside the steeple of the church, it began to turn yellow.

We had intended to take a trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the end of September, but the fall colors hadn’t arrived up there as they usually do by that time, so we postponed our trip. But as September gave way to October, fall color was very hard to predict and to find. So we decided to stay closer to home.

I can find beauty in the smallest of things, and early one morning as I photographed at dawn in a cemetery near home, I stumbled on some beautiful fly agaric mushrooms. I’ve wanted to find this type of mushroom for years, but never had until that day. It was a different way to find fall color, but I was grateful just the same.

We also visited the state natural area known as Pewit’s Nest where I found a beautiful fall scene.

A few days later, we found some great fall color along the railroad tracks near Devil’s Lake State Park.

In late October, we decided to head to Beloit, Wisconsin to photograph some things in the city that we’ve been meaning to capture for a long time. We weren’t expecting to find much for fall color because most leaves had already fallen, but we were pleasantly surprised to find some beautiful trees in Oakwood Cemetery in Beloit.

It was our first time visiting this cemetery and there were some very interesting gravestones. What we were looking for, though, was the gravestone of Albert Wirz, a victim of the Titanic. This 27-year-old Swiss farmer boarded the Titanic for its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912. He was headed for Beloit, Wisconsin, where his step-aunt, Maria Brown, had secured a job for him.
On April 14, the Titanic struck an iceberg and Albert lost his life. There were roughly 1,500 victims and only 340 bodies recovered.

Albert’s body was recovered on April 24. According to records, he was wearing a dark suit, woolen socks, and buckle shoes. His effects included the following: two watches, brass chain, one ink pot, match box, knife, memo book, insurance book, passport, keys, purse containing 36¢.

Albert’s body arrived in Beloit on May 11, with the funeral conducted in German on May 12, 1912, in Oakwood Cemetery. His step-aunt and her husband couldn’t afford a marker for Albert and the grave remained unmarked for over 80 years. Finally, on September 5, 1996, through the efforts of the Swiss Titanic Society and the Beloit Historical Society, a gravestone was dedicated to Albert Wirz in Oakwood Cemetery.

In November, the first snowfall of the season occurred on November 20, a few days before Thanksgiving. The roads were still a little questionable the next day, so I just headed to nearby Pheasant Branch Nature Conservancy for a few scenic snow scenes. And it’s a good thing I did because the next snowfall didn’t happen until the end of December.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my review of our 2015 photography efforts. We have much more to share in upcoming blog posts, particularly the reenactment of Lincoln’s funeral.

Happy Shunpiking!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Finding Bigfoot

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

Last Thursday, Ruth and I left home early in the morning to photograph in Richland County, Wisconsin. On the way there, we stopped at our favorite blackboard to see what the roadside philosopher had to say. We’ve had several blog posts in the past about this wonderful blackboard. Here’s one of the messages we haven’t yet shared: “An apple a day will keep anyone away if thrown hard enough.”

That day, however, the message, which appeared to have been Christmas-related, was so worn off that we couldn’t read it. So there was no point in photographing it and I was disappointed. As I looked away from the blackboard, something caught my eye. It was Bigfoot, walking across the open field. Ruth and I started laughing and, of course, I had to get out and take a few pictures.

And then we immediately posted one to Facebook for our almost 10-year-old nephew, Toby, who is a faithful watcher of the show “Finding Bigfoot.” A couple years ago, we gave him a Bigfoot Research Kit for Christmas. The kit description said that it contained items that would “easily double (maybe triple!) your chances of finding Bigfoot.” The kit contained stickers, a membership card, evidence flags, a field journal, a magnifier, and scat bags. And when Toby had a choice between going with his parents up to Eagle River or going with his grandparents to the Pacific Northwest, he chose to go with his grandparents because he had hopes of searching for Bigfoot there.

As we travel the backroads in search of a good photograph, we always appreciate any roadside humor that we find. In this case, our disappointment with the faded blackboard message turned into the reward of finding Bigfoot.

Happy Shunpiking!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Got a Clue?

Here in Wisconsin, January started out very mild, with several days in the mid-30’s. On January 10, however, the temperature began to plummet and we had below zero temps for a few days. Yesterday, there was a really nice break from the cold and there was a fresh covering of snow, so Ruth and I decided to hit the backroads for the day.

Early in the morning, we headed west to Richland County, which has always been one of our favorite counties for photography. On the edge of Richland Center, we passed a sign that said, “Got a clue? We need you!”

I didn’t see what was on the rest of the sign and I began pondering those words when Ruth said, “What do you suppose they would say if I called them and said….” Before she could finish her sentence, I intuitively knew just what she was going to say and I started to laugh. And then she continued:

“I think it was Professor Plum…..”

“….with the rope…”

“….in the lounge.”

After we laughed for a couple of minutes, I asked her who had posted the sign, to which she replied, “Crimestoppers.” And that made us laugh even harder.

Happy Shunpiking!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Out With the Old

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

I hope everyone had a great time during the Christmas season. Now that the holidays are over, it’s time to get back to some serious blogging.

In May of 1993, I took a couple of pictures of an abandoned building that stood on Highway 60, southwest of Sauk City, Wisconsin. It was sitting close to the road, at the edge of a farm field, with the rolling hills of Sauk County as its backdrop. At the time, I thought it was an old country church.

In March 2000, the Sauk City Historic Preservation Committee moved the building to a small Historic Park on Water Street in downtown Sauk City. It was then that I learned that this building was actually an old one-room school called the Fair Valley School. After moving it there, the Preservation Committee restored the schoolhouse to its original glory.

The first Fair Valley School was built in 1861 and was a very simple building measuring 25’x18’x10’. In 1898, there were 44 children in Troy District No. 6, 33 of whom were enrolled in school. The school had 43 books in its library and daily attendance averaged 21 children. At that time, the teacher’s salary was $25 per month. In 1910, that original building was replaced by a bit more elaborate building with a large bell tower. The Fair Valley School operated until 1955, when it was consolidated with the Black Hawk School.

Prior to moving Fair Valley School to the Historic Park, the Historic Preservation Committee moved and restored another historic building. This building was built in 1892 and was rented by August Kirchstein for his boot and shoe repair business until he retired. The building then sat unnoticed for 90 years until it was moved in 1999 to the Historic Park.

The boot and shoe repair building was placed at the edge of the park right along Water Street. After restoration, it housed historic fire department artifacts, historical photographs, and old school memorabilia. The schoolhouse was placed behind this building, closer to the river. From this park, visitors could enjoy a beautiful view of the Wisconsin River.

In August 2001, prior to restoration of the schoolhouse, it suffered severe damage due to an arson fire. The roofing was burned off, the glass windows were shattered, and the outside was charred. The boot and shoe repair shop also suffered minor damage. Fortunately, the historical contents were not damaged by the arson. In spite of this setback, the Historic Preservation Committee persevered and began the historical restoration of the school. After being beautifully restored, the building served as a one-room schoolhouse museum, a classroom, and a meeting space for the community.

In mid-December 2014, I came through Sauk City at dusk and decided to drive along Water Street to see if there were any photo opportunities. As I approached the Historic Park, I saw a beautifully lit Christmas tree in front of the old schoolhouse. Unfortunately, there was no snow, but it was beautiful just the same. I decided to add this scene to the list of opportunities for Christmas 2015 (in hopes that there would be snow at that time).

As fate would have it, there was no snow in December 2015 until the 28th. My first chance to photograph after that came on New Year’s Eve. I bundled up, loaded up my camera equipment, and headed to Sauk City to capture a snowy Christmas scene at the Historic Park. I arrived at the park shortly before dusk. As I pulled up along Water Street, I was stunned to discover nothing but empty space where the A. Kirchstein Boots & Shoes building used to stand.

The pine tree in front of the school that had been lit so beautifully last December had no lights. As I reluctantly moved my eyes to look at the condition of the old schoolhouse, my heart sank. The front entryway and railing that were decorated last year with Christmas garland were both gone. The front steps and the wheelchair ramp had been torn away. As I sat there in disbelief, three people exited the school, heading toward the parking area. So I quickly drove over there to find out what had happened.

What I learned was that, in January 2015, the Village of Sauk City officials had given the Historic Preservation Committee 30 days to either find a buyer or figure out a way to move the buildings. The officials cited economic development reasons and said they didn’t want to own the buildings anymore. A private coalition was formed and fund-raising was begun. At first, the city was willing to give the coalition a lot on which to move the schoolhouse. However, after the coalition had raised the necessary funds to move the school, the city changed their mind about giving them the lot. So they put the buildings up for sale.

The boot and shoe repair building was sold to a private owner and moved somewhere outside of Sauk City. The schoolhouse was purchased for $1 by a young woman who plans to move it to the very same lot, which she also purchased from the city. Her plans are to keep the building’s outside appearance the same, but to move her photography studio to the inside. Her father asked if I had ever been inside the building. Unfortunately, I had never gotten around to visiting it when it was open. He said it was beautiful inside and they offered to show it to me. I, of course, took them up on their offer.

It was a bit tough getting up and inside the school due to the steps being gone, but I did manage to do it. The school has a beautiful wooden floor and blackboards on the walls. The antique desks had been removed, but the old upright piano was still there. As I stood inside the school, I could feel the energy of all the students and teachers who had passed through its doors over time. The new owner smiled when I told her the building had “good energy.”

I’m happy that the new owner plans to keep the outside of the schoolhouse in its current historical state after moving it. But the inside will no longer hold the historical significance it has had in the past. It makes me sad, but it is also a good reminder for me to keep pushing to capture these historical structures before they disappear forever.

Happy New Year and Happy Shunpiking!