By Paul & Jude Kuenn
After completing the refurbishment of the historical bread oven near site 7 at Tower Hill State Park in 2017 with my trusty sidekick, Jude (see the July 2016 issue of Voice of the River Valley), we set a new goal to clean up and reorganize the shot tower exhibit.
Cleaning the partially enclosed display in the past was hopeless: It was open to insects, Chimney Swift droppings and bat guano. The previous year, someone broke the Plexiglas and stole the old mining pick axe. I was able to replace that after watching Craigslist and eBay for similar period tools. We wanted the exhibit to be educational as well as cheery, bright and welcoming to visitors.
Since the shot tower was rebuilt in 1977, the display had become quite dirty and needed a facelift. We recruited local photographer and past resident of the park Ellis Pifer, who has always been willing to lend us a hand bringing life back to this significant site, once populated as the second site of Helena. With help and permission from Ranger Pat Kraska and Park Superintendent Kathy Gruentzel, we planned to start in early April 2018 before the park opened for the season. We also knew better than to wait until warm weather when mosquitoes can ruin every saw cut.
Our goal was not just to update the exhibit, but also make it informational. This included details about Civil War veteran and humanitarian Jenkin Lloyd Jones (Frank Lloyd Wright’s uncle), who purchased the land in the early 1890s and whose wife transferred it in 1922 to the state for preservation after his death in 1918. A historic plaque near site 10 references the dismantled town of Helena, the land used as a route to find Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak (Black Hawk), near where he had crossed the Wisconsin River. More needed to be said about this once bustling village and the Unitarian retreat Mr. Jones created on the park property, then known as the Tower Hill Pleasure Company.
We did not plan on an April 25-inch snowfall in Appleton, which only slightly delayed the project. I was still able to get some of the display wood cut in the garage. When we arrived April 20 there were still a few inches of snow in the woods. We had planned on backing up the steep paved path as far as the steps. After shoveling and removing frozen leaves, we could only drive it halfway, so much more time was spent carrying lumber and tools up the hill than working on the display the first day.
We removed six original paintings on the shot tower walls, depicting steps in the process of making lead shot. On the back of each painting the name “Amy Bakken ’94” was hand written. When we went into town for dinner that evening, we asked many locals in Spring Green if they remembered the name. Most only recalled Bakkens Pond State Natural Area nearby. A Google search brought up at least 10 people with the same name.
By day two the display with new lighting was in place, but with many extra hours yet to work, we gave up our tickets for a play in Madison to finish what we could in such perfect weather.
I returned the next sunny and warm weekend with Ellis. Electrical work was brought up to code. Mice had made the breaker box a cozy home packed with flammable dry grass. Dangling wires were secured and all breakers identified. We finished installing the walls with more history: the mine shaft, town of Helena and Unitarian retreat, bread oven, and Amy’s paintings. As with the previous weekend, many folks were walking the trails of the closed park and most stopped in to see what we were up to. We welcomed their questions and spent quite a bit of time with them. Returnees were glad to see the change and new visitors welcomed the history. All were grateful for our donated time and shared research filling in gaps on the life and usage of the land.
During the summer of 2018, a new video screen was installed. Viewers can watch the process of making lead shot at Tower Hill State Park when volunteers used to fire up and melt the lead, then drop it down the shaft into a large steel cauldron filled with water. In late October Superintendent Kathy and Ranger Pat asked to meet us at the Governor Dodge State Park office. We knew Kathy by email only, so meeting her was a highlight after a few years of correspondence. They presented Jude and me with a plaque of appreciation for the dedication and passion in preserving Tower Hill’s story.
But the story doesn’t end there: We did find the artist! Bridget Roberts at the Spring Green Community Library helped connect the dots between us.
Her name is Amy (Bakken) Thiede and she had just graduated high school in 1993 when, she shared, she “scored” a job as a survey specialist for the newly formed Lower Wisconsin Riverway to observe and record how people were using the Wisconsin River in the Sauk City area.
“That was the year of the massive flood,” Amy told me by e-mail. “Tower Hill and Devil’s Lake State Parks were closed to many users. Wayne Schutte was the park superintendent of Tower Hill (former Devil’s Lake superintendent) and probably the finest boss I ever had.
“I left for college in the fall of ’93 as an art major. Wayne knew of my art ability and aspirations, so he suggested I paint things for the LWR. I knew Wayne through the LWR crew” — Amy’s future husband, Scott Thiede, was the first conservation warden assigned to the LWR — “and he commissioned work from me. I made many maps and brochures for Tower Hill and the LWR.”
When in 1994 the LWR crew wasn’t needed for surveying the summer, Amy said she applied at Tower Hill and Wayne called to offer her a job doing: everything. “A small park meant that anything that came up, we did. We sold campsites, mowed, cleared trails, cleaned bathrooms and massive amounts of bat poo out of the shelter. We held special events like demonstrating shot dropping, and I redid the paintings in the shot tower.”
Amy says Wayne decided the old pencil line-drawings in the display could be redone. “I believe I painted over the line-drawings, so those boards were the boards before my version. The renderings were faint and simple. My task was to redo them in a way that improved them, but stayed true to the originals. The portrait I painted was an acrylic wash, and faces are a specialty of mine, so that is a pretty accurate rendering of what I had originally. The finished paintings were available for one of the open houses at which Wayne poured shot.”
Perhaps it was the echoed inspiration from Amy through the surrounding woods that Jude and I absorbed all these years later. We were so pleased to make contact with her. Twenty years-plus is a long time for a painting not to be cleaned. Had we not moved them as part of the shot tower exhibit renovation, the full story could not have been told. Cherish what we have!
Paul and Jude Kuenn live in Appleton and belong to Friends of Devil’s Lake, Rock Island, Point Beach, Potowatomi and Plum and Pilot Island state parks. They’d like to see a similar group for Tower Hill State Park.
Many thanks to Bridget Roberts for her contribution to this story.