4 July 2017
I don’t want the tone of my surprise to come across as coastal arrogance…I assure you it’s not. I’ve been reminded many times that I have little to be arrogant about. But it was a surprise nonetheless. I just didn’t expect Tiffany-like opulence to pop up in the summer-lush farmland of central Wisconsin.
We were visiting friends in Appleton last week. And they took us an hour further into farmland America to meet a friend whose hobbies, they thought, we might find a bit intriguing. In the east I have passed any number of hardscrabble farms…weathered barns, rusting machinery as well as the sophisticated, far-as-the-eye-can-see farms with complex irrigation systems, shiny silos, etc. So we didn’t know what to expect.
What we got was a greeting by an updated Grant Wood farm couple in Vineyard Vines finery…but he, at 87, had the forearms of someone who knew farm work. The farm was as manicured as the outfield at Yankee Stadium, but with no outward signs that anything wondrous was near. Then we were ushered into their living room, a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled room that could have been home to a Steinway grand or two. But the centerpiece instead was an immaculately restored 1930s classic car…he’s a collector…in the midst of farm country in Wisconsin. But cars weren’t his only passion. Our now-gentleman farmer friend (his children run the farm) has an ear for early music-making machines, late 19th and early 20th century…bits of complexity and mechanical wizardry that are dotted around the living room…a violin-piano-playing machine, a Nickelodean piano that plays music rolls, a Wurlitzer jukebox, a Polyphon that plays large perforated metal discs, an early Victrola with a flower-bell speaker and more.
Across the road was another of their farm houses with a long low building next to it with a line of garage doors. The doors open up to a long room, housing, you guessed it, more elegant, classic cars…a collection cap-stoned by a breath-taking 1930 four-door Duesenberg convertible (from whence the expression, “it’s a Duesy” came). As it turns out, one of the largest classic car exhibitions in America takes place every July in Iola, Wisconsin, about 14 miles away. I felt like Charles Kuralt “On the Road” finding the stuff that happens outside the proverbial bubbles of the east and the west.
It no doubt is the lure of mechanical puzzles, trying to figure out how these machines work…farmers are undoubtedly tinkerers, keeping the John Deeres going. So cars and music makers…are probably an extension of that. There were several more music machines in the garage… a blaring organ-sounding carousel music-maker, an accordion-playing machine. When asked if all his “toys” work, he said, straight-ahead and mid-western, “now why would I buy something that doesn’t work”. He was on an existential journey, lucky enough to waken each morning, knowing where he wanted to go…and then pleased that he got there.
I didn’t mention that in his earlier years he was a flight instructor and that he ran a successful logging machinery business. And that at 87 he still plays tuba in a marching band. Maybe it’s not too late to catch up.