The untrained eye married to the compulsion to create can produce the most strangely moving art. Fred Smith had worked as a lumberjack since his early teens, but retired due to arthritis in 1948. Perhaps because he needed a physical occupation, at the age of 62 he began making sculptures. He built them in his field out of concrete and adorned them with shards of beer bottle glass. Smith went on expanding his fantastical sculpture garden until 1964, at which point his land was populated by a whopping 237 sculptures.
The park’s subjects are figures from American folklore, tradition, historical events and nature, ranging from Native Americans to miners, and from soldiers to woodland creatures. It is an Americana paradise, where Sacajawea and Ben Hur look on as Mabel the Milker attends to her cow. Native Americans and lumberjacks stand about, while animals like elk, cows, ducks, and even a whole team of clydesdales round out the menagerie. In addition to the famous figures, the sculptor depicted scenes of life from around Phillips as he knew it: a man chugs beer, sweethearts sit together on a rock, a diminutive photographer known as “the little shrimp” lies in wait with his camera. Smith had no formal artistic training (he was also illiterate) so the sculptures are boxy and unrealistic, yet this only adds to their charm.
There was no meaning behind the sculpture garden aside from creation for creation’s sake. As Fred Smith himself said, “Them ideas is hard to explain, ya know… Nobody knows why I made ‘em, not even me.” After he suffered a stroke in ‘64, Smith announced that his park was “for all the American people everywhere. They need something like this.”
Following Smith’s death in 1976, the Kohler Foundation, Inc. purchased the sculpture park from the Smiths and restored it as a free county park. The Friends of Fred Smith organization collects donations to ensure the sculpture garden can be kept whimsical for folk art lovers for years to come.