By Joann M. Ringelstetter
In April 2011, I started a new job and became friends with a coworker who told me she was from Wittenberg, Wisconsin. I didn’t know anything about Wittenberg or even where it was, but when she told me the town was filled with murals, I knew I had to pay a visit to the town. This mural, entitled "ALL ABOARD! ALL ABOARD!", was painted in 2008 by Artist Andy Goretski of Tomahawk, Wisconsin. Unfortunately (for me, anyway), the railroad tracks and depot have been gone for a long time, but this mural portrays what it was like in the days when the Chicago & Northwestern steam trains passed through Wittenberg.
In September 2011, Ruth and I took a 3-day trip, photographing in nine counties in central and north central Wisconsin. It was an overcast and often rainy trip, but the rain came and went, and I managed to get some really good photos. If it isn’t pouring for hours, I’m okay with occasionally photographing underneath an umbrella. On the third day, as we began driving south toward home, we headed into Wittenberg to see and photograph the murals. But just as we pulled into town, it started raining hard, so we decided to have lunch while we waited for the rain to move through. Since our picnic lunch was a washout, we stopped at the local A&W Restaurant.
As soon as there was a break in the rain, we headed to our first mural, which was located on the side of the True Value Hardware store. This one, entitled "The Nuts & Bolts of It", is another mural by Artist Andy Goretski, and it was completed in 2010. It depicts the local hardware store around 1910 when the pioneer days were waning and the industrial revolution was taking off. Hardware stores served the needs of towns and villages in the same way as general stores. It was a place to get tools, equipment, and other household items, but it was also a gathering place where folks caught up on the local news (and gossip). Unfortunately, the brief break in the rain was already over and I had to photograph this mural in the rain.
Next, I photographed a turn-of-the-century saloon scene on the 1896 Village Inn Tavern. Saloons were also gathering places where people could see friends, have a drink, shoot a game of pool, or play cards. This mural, entitled "Wittenberg Welcomes You", was painted in 2007 by Artist Reynaldo Hernandez of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The rain had let up for a few seconds while I was standing in front of the saloon scene, but then some lightning streaked across the sky. Since it’s not a good idea to be standing with a metal tripod in a lightning storm, I jumped back into the car and we talked about what to do next. We decided to go and check out Nueske’s, internationally known for their applewood smoked meats. On the grounds of their company store is a vintage stone smokehouse.
We hung out in Nueske’s for a while and then I photographed the stone smokehouse in a light rain. Next to Nueske’s is the first schoolhouse of Wittenberg, a one-room schoolhouse built in 1882 and used as the village hall beginning around 1920 when a back room with a primitive jail cell was added. According to District No. 3 Antiques, which is now located in the schoolhouse, "The jail cell is still housed in the building today. The building was destined to be demolished, but instead was moved to its present location in 1992 and was extensively refurbished.” As it continued to rain and the skies continued to darken, we decided to head home and come back another time to photograph the murals.
It took another seven years before we returned to Wittenberg. In July 2018, we decided to head three hours north to visit the sunflower fields of Bergsbaken Farms. And, since Wittenberg is only about 45 minutes west of there, we could return to photograph the murals. We left home around 4:00 a.m. and photographed our way to the sunflower farm, arriving there in mid-afternoon.
The morning had been very sunny and then the afternoon was filled with filtered sunlight. After a couple hours at the farm, we headed to Wittenberg, arriving around 4:45 p.m. I set up my tripod to photograph "Help is on the Way", a Volunteer Firefighter & EMT Mural created in 2008 by Artist Alicia Rheal of Madison, Wisconsin. Before I could even take my first shot, a huge black cloud seemed to come out of nowhere and it rolled overhead. “Not again!” I said out loud, wishing we had come to town earlier in the day.
From there, we headed back to the saloon scene on the Village Inn because I couldn’t remember if I had gotten any good shots of this mural on the first trip. There, we met the nicest bartender who came out to see where we were from. We told her we had come to photograph the murals and then she told us that we should look carefully at each mural because there was something hidden in most of them. And then she pointed to a small circle on the barrels I was photographing. It might be hard to see it, but it looks almost like a knot hole in the middle of the front barrel.
She explained that each mural artist was asked to put a picture of the town’s founder, Reverend E. J. Homme, somewhere in the scene. That small circle contained his face. She told me to remember to look for his face in other murals. One of my favorite murals was just down the street from the tavern. It was a 4th of July fireworks mural on a former funeral home building, entitled, "Ka-Boom!!!". It was created in 2017 by Artist Carole Bersin of Sandstone, Minnesota, with flags by Andy Goretski.
After photographing the whole mural, I began to walk away and then realized that I had already forgotten to look for the reverend’s face. So, I turned around and saw what I hadn’t noticed before. Reverend Homme was watching the crowd of people who were watching the fireworks. Do you see his face in the window?
For the next hour, I worked quickly to photograph as many murals as I could in between rain showers (and a bit of lightning). We also went back to the hardware store mural (the third photo in this story) because I wanted to look at that extensive scene to see if I could find the reverend’s face. It took me a while, but I finally found him on the small shovel that hung on the back wall of the hardware store.
Reverend E.J. Homme founded Wittenberg (which now has a population of roughly 1,300) in 1879. He also established a home for the aged and an orphanage. According to the website for the Village of Wittenberg, “The Homme Home for the Aged and Homme Youth and Family Programs are still growing and thriving today in Wittenberg.” The Homme Home features a rare outdoor fresco on its north wall completed in 2006 by Artist Ram Rojas of Door County, Wisconsin. Part of this mural features the Reverend and Mrs. Homme.
Other parts of this outdoor fresco, entitled "Foundations of Faith", depict an angel more than two stories high on one panel and current and past churches of Wittenberg on another. There are hidden pictures of the birds and animals of the area throughout the fresco.
There were numerous other murals that we enjoyed as I worked to beat the storms. There was an elaborate multi-scene mural entitled, "A Tribute to Gus & Ann", completed in 2007 by Artist Ram Rojas. One of my favorite parts of it was this husky lounging on a stone bench.
There was a long, elaborate mural of a pastoral scene of the Wisconsin countryside surrounding Wittenberg. Here’s a small section of "Love Letter to Wittenberg", completed in 2018 by Artist Carole Bersin.
And it took us quite a while to find this one because it was on the back side of a warming house in the park. But it was worth the search because it reminds me so much of when we were kids and our small Catholic school of St. Joseph’s in East Bristol, Wisconsin, would flood the playground to make a skating pond for the kids. Note Reverend Homme’s face in the snow in the lower right corner of this mural entitled, "WHEEE!!!!", completed in 2012 by Artist Diane Haupt-Wilke of Gillett, Wisconsin.
As the sky turned darker and darker due to storm clouds looming overhead, we had one last mural we wanted to capture. It was a school mural called "Razed But Not Forgotten!!!", created in 2016 by Artists Brad and Kit Bandow of Elkhorn, Wisconsin. This mural was located on the side of the middle school, which was set back from the street we were on. As I got ready to grab my camera, the storm grew worse, so I ran with only my camera (no time for a tripod) and snapped one shot before returning to the safety of the car.
As soon as we hit the road, the storms grew fierce and the two-and-a-half-hour drive home turned into something more like 5 hours. It was raining and blowing so hard that I pulled off numerous times, but it never let up and we couldn’t seem to drive out of it. Needless to say, we were lucky to get home that night and I was absolutely exhausted from more than a full day of photography and then such a long, harrowing drive home. But at least we finally captured most of the “Walls of Wittenberg!” For a detailed list of all the Wittenberg murals and a downloadable tour map, visit the Walls of Wittenberg website.
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