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With a Little Help From Our Friends - Park Statuary Preservation Efforts by Citizen Groups

 

During this snowy start to our Wisconsin winter take a walk south from the Lake Park Bistro past the old Nike station to the equestrian statue standing on a little knoll.   Beside a beautiful walk in one of Milwaukee County Parks, you might be surprised to find a bronze monument of a Civil War General astride his favorite horse, Gunpowder.  You will be surprised because, thanks to a recent conservation effort by Lake Park Friends, the old bronze monument looks bright, clean, shiny and magnificent as it faces Lake Michigan

 

Who is this distinguished looking gentleman sitting on his horse?  He is Erastus B. Wolcott (1804-1880), a hero of frontier Milwaukee.  He came from a prominent Eastern family, and after attending two medical schools he joined the US Army, he received a posting as surgeon at Mackinac Island.   Because of his concern with the Army during its Trail of Tears campaign, and at the urging of Solomon Juneau, Wolcott left the Army to become Milwaukee’s first physician in 1839.  When Dr. Wolcott and his family arrived here there were only 700 residents.  By his death in 1880 Milwaukee had grown and Wolcott had built a large medical practice; performed ground breaking surgery; fought a local cholera epidemic; served as Surgeon General of Wisconsin during the Civil War.  Dr. Wolcott also led the drive to establish a Veterans Administration Medical Center for our community.  Besides his prominence in the medical field, he helped found Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, built the first flour mill in West Bend, stood firm on issues such as anti-slavery and women’s voting rights.  From these descriptions you can see why he can be described as a hero in our community.

 

The sculptor of this wonderful monument, Francis H. Packer, studied at the Cooper Union in New York City and in Europe.   Returning to America he worked in the studio of Daniel Chester French, a leading American sculptor of the 19th century.  After Packer established his own studio, he became an important sculptor of monuments and statues all over the United States.  His skill and determination for fine art is reflected in the conservation work done this summer on the equestrian monument.  When the conservators finished their work, they commented on the fine detail and strong bronze casting of the horse and rider.  When you examine the bronze be sure to look for the details on the body of the horse and the image of Dr. Wolcott.  Even the artist’s signature is carefully executed.

 

The pedestal with its engraved dedication may seem excessive:

“He lived a blameless life.
Eminent in his profession.
A lover of humanity,
Delighted to serve his fellow men, city, state and nation”

 

However, the profuse description makes the viewer realize Wolcott accomplishments are indeed special and deserve to be memorialized in a Milwaukee County Park.

 

How do monuments like this one get preserved when Milwaukee County continues to cut parks budgets?  All conservation work is accomplished because of volunteer groups like Lake Park Fiends.  Lake Park Friends raised the funds to preserve the Wolcott monument over several years, contracted with the conservator, and oversaw the work done this summer by the Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio, Inc.

 

Currently, the Polish Women’s Cultural Club, Polanki, have engaged a conservator to examine the General Thaddeus Kosciuszko equestrian monument in Kosciuszko Park for a possible conservation project.  This is another 100 year old bronze monument in great need of preservation.  Polanki is forming committees to look for funds or grants.

 

Unfortunately, volunteer groups like these cannot examine, maintain and preserve every part of Milwaukee County’s collection of monuments and statues.  There are dozens of these outdoor sculptures in Milwaukee County Parks.   Every one of them needs regular maintenance; a few monuments demand major conservation work. It is essential for Milwaukee to retain and preserve these works.  They represent the history and artistic efforts of our community and nation.

 

There is NO plan in Milwaukee to care for these important gems in Milwaukee County Parks.  The need for a Milwaukee County plan for maintenance and preservation of its collection is pressing.  The excuse of no budget just isn’t acceptable any more.  Other urban communities that struggle with budgets have maintenance plans.  Why not Milwaukee?

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