Thanks for taking the time to visit my blog. Here is where I put words to my photos, journaling my thoughts as I visit the places that have become sacred in our history, legendary in our lore, and somber in our remembrances. Along with my own meanderings regarding photography, I will routinely share information from others, offer tips and suggestions, and even share some behind the scenes moments from some of my shoots.
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I'm happy to announce, after taking about a month longer than first thought, the studio is now open and fully functional. There are still some cosmetic issues to deal with, but nothing to prohibit shooting.
Low key and Main backround shooting area
High key shooting area
Still some more pictures and mirrors to hang, nooks and crannys to tidy up, but for the most part this studio is ready to roll. (Special thanks to my dad for helping me out with so much of this!) Looking forward to creating some great work here.
As March is Women's History Month, I thought it fitting to research the very first woman ever written about in Wisconsin's recorded history.
Her name was Hopokoekau, or, "Glory of the Morning."
She is, to this day, the only known female chief of the Winnebago/Ho-Chunk Indian Tribe, and quite possibly the subject of Wisconsin's very first documented love story.
In an island village located near the northern base of Lake Winnebago, Glory of the Morning was born around the year 1711. Her father was the Ho-Chunk chief at the time. The island, formed by two branches of the Fox River flowing out from Lake Winnebago, today includes sections of the cities of Neenah and Menasha.
In her early years, Glory of the Morning made quite an impression on the tribe. Her wisdom, unusually superior, set her apart from others, including her brothers and the elders of the tribe. At age 18, her father became ill and passed away, leaving the Nation without a leader. In a stunning milestone event, Glory of the Morning was named to succeed her father as chief, causing a brief uproar by many in the tribe.
The French Come to WI
During Glory of the Morning's reign as chief, the French became involved in the Fox Wars throughout present day Michigan and Wisconsin. For the French to continue building it's empire in North America, the Fox River was vital to it's access to the Mississippi River and the western lands. The Fox River, however, was controlled by the Fox Indians, who resisted France's domination.
The Fox Indians were a deadly menace to the French. Surprise attacks and all-out slaughters were carried out by both sides, leaving a bloody, haunted history flowing through these waters.
Throughout the years of the Fox Wars, as well as the years of the fur trade, many French-Canadians passed through the region while serving their country's interests. One of these men was a French military officer named Joseph Sabrevoir Descaris. Descaris and his men established friendly relations with the Ho-Chunk on the island, ultimately culminating in Descaris' marriage to Glory of the Morning.
The officer was so enamored by the chieftess and the island village that he resigned his commission in the French military and became a fur trader, remaining on the island with Glory of the Morning and her people.
Breaking with much of the Greater Winnebago Nation at the time, Glory of the Morning aligned with the French against the Fox Indians in warfare throughout the 1730's and 1740's, though It was also largely through her efforts which led to peace finally being established between the two and ending the wars.
In time, Descaris grew restless. His home country was facing an ever growing threat to it's empire in North America from Great Britain. He could not simply stand by. He was still a Frenchman, and with his country on the verge of war with it's greatest European rival on another continent, he was again ready to be an officer.
After seven years of marriage to Glory of the Morning, and with her, fathering three children, Joseph Descaris left the island and returned to his French-Canadian roots to re-enlist in the military and fight for his country. Glory of the Morning was torn. She understood the obligations of duty he felt for his people, as she felt the same for hers. Because of this, she decided to let Desacris go on without her, citing her refusal to leave her people without a leader. She did, however, offer for him to take their youngest child, their daughter, Nqno'abewiga. One can only imagine the scene of their final goodbye.
She would never see either of them again.
Years later, when the British invasion of North America was in full force and the French and Indian War was raging, Glory of the Morning remained loyal to her French-Canadian husband, and ordered her braves on the warpath against his country's enemy tribes. Their eldest son joined his father at the Battle of Ste. Foy, a French victory reclaiming the city of Quebec from the British.
It would be the last French victory of the French and Indian War.
Among the 833 French casualties of that day, was one Joseph Sabrevoir Descaris. Wounded in the battle, he died several days later. His son survived and returned to his mother on the island. Their daughter remained in Canada, living out her days married to a French-Canadian trader in Montreal.
Today, the Descaris name is still prevalent in the Ho-Chunk/Winnebago tribe, the pronunciation evolving over time, and is now known as the famed "Decorah" family. The chieftess and the officer's offspring thrived in a very celebrated line of Ho-Chunk Chiefs, including Spoon Decorah, Old Decorah, One-Eyed Decorah, and Waukon Decorah. Their influence was instrumental in many of the treaties signed between various Native American tribes and the United States.
As for Glory of the Morning?
After 1766, she disappears from written history - and astonishingly re-appears in an account by famed 19th century author Juliette Kinzie, who visited the tribe on the island while her husband was an Indian Agent stationed at Ft. Winnebago, WI. Mrs. Kinzie describes the following encounter:
There was among their number, this year, one whom I had never before seen—the mother of the elder Day-kau-ray. No one could tell her age, but all agreed that she must have seen upwards of a hundred winters. Her eyes dimmed, and almost white with age—her face dark and withered, like a baked apple—her voice tremulous and feeble, except when raised in fury to reprove her graceless grandsons, who were fond of playing her all sorts of mischievous tricks, indicated the very great age she must have attained.
The astonishing aspect is that this account illustrates a visit Mrs Kinzie made to the island in 1832, when Glory of the Morning would have been approximately 121 years old! As there is no recorded date of her death, history can only believe what seems to be the unbelievable.
The Treaty of the Cedars
After the Treaty of the Cedars was concluded in 1836, the Ho-Chunk, along with thousands more Native Americans from over 4 million acres of land, were relocated west. This land included what is now the cities of Appleton, Neenah, Menasha, Oshkosh, and Stevens Point, among many others. The U.S. government took control of the land, and subsequently sold the island to James Duane Doty, who proceeded to name it after himself.
Today, when walking along the rows of giant oaks and willows abundant throughout Doty Island, it's easy for one's imagination to overflow among the serenity of the sound of water and light wind, among the modern streets, lined with mansions built by 19th century paper barons, and among the island's many parks which hold their scenic beauty throughout any season. It's easy to imagine why the Ho-Chunk chose this place as their home centuries ago. And it's easy to imagine the spirits of two long lost lovers, a Forest Queen and a military man, choosing to remain here together in death, which war deprived them of in life.
I am so proud of the work I was able to create while shooting at my studio in the Milwaukee area. I had wonderful opportunities to work with so many fantastic artists, including models, make-up artists, designers, bookers, art directors, creative directors, as well as other photographers.
The video below is just a small sample of the images they helped me create...and hopefully will continue to do so in the future.
Thanks to you all.
Tucked away among the undulating hills and abundant serenity of southwest WI, lies a plot of land which rests the remains of those who built a fascinating, though largely forgotten, Wisconsin community. A community, though no longer in existence, that still lends a legacy which epitomizes what is known as the American Dream.
Five miles west of Lancaster, in Grant County, a tranquil cemetery is all that remains of a place once known as Pleasant Ridge. A place unlike any other in Wisconsin, as it was settled and built by freed and escaped slaves from the Pre-Civil War South.
After being set free by his dying master, a man named Charles Shepard traveled with his family to the fertile lands of Wisconsin in 1848. After working in the Lancaster area for several years, Charles, along with his brother Isaac, had saved enough money to purchase 200 acres of their own. They called their land “Pleasant Ridge.”
Soon after, the national unrest leading up to the Civil War escalated and more former slaves from Missouri, Arkansas, Virginia, and Tennessee moved into the Pleasant Ridge community. Included in them was the Thomas Green family, who, after 2 failed attempts at escaping to freedom, was able to board a train in St Charles, MO and arrived in Pleasant Ridge 3 days later.
The Shepards and Greens were soon joined on Pleasant Ridge by the Grimes, the Craigs, the Lewis’, and other African-American families, peaking at about 100 people.
Isaac Shepard became the most prosperous farmer in the area and lived at Pleasant Ridge for the rest of his life. On land donated by him, the community built one of the first integrated schools in the nation, accepting black and white students, and employing black and white teachers.
Thomas Green, who lived well into his 90′s, was once asked why he risked his life to come to Pleasant Ridge. As quoted in a 1936 interview in the Platteville Journey, “I saw too many families broken up on the auction block.”
After the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Charles Shepard and his son John walked to Prairie du Chien to enlist in the Union Army to fight for the way of life they found at Pleasant Ridge.
They never saw it again.
Charles gave the ultimate sacrifice at Vicksburg. John, while traveling back to Pleasant Ridge after the war, fell ill with pneumonia and died in Illinois. Both men are listed on the Civil War Memorial in Lancaster.
To them, what they had at Pleasant Ridge was worth the sacrifice. To breathe free air. To live a life of their choosing. To provide for their own families. Splendors and luxuries of which it seems so easy for many of us to take for granted today.
As the century turned and the generations at Pleasant Ridge expanded, the community found it hard to keep their children at home. The younger generations gradually began to search for greater opportunities elsewhere and in bigger cities across the country. Finally, in 1959, the last black resident of Pleasant Ridge, the grand-daughter of Thomas Green, passed away. Today, thousands of Greens, Shepards, Grimes, etc are prospering throughout this country because of the plight of a few so long ago.
On a visit to the cemetery today, you can stand on that very hillside they called Pleasant Ridge. You can gaze upon the vistas of plush, abundant farmland, and visit the resting places of those who made that initial journey from slave to free man.
You can see why they came here.
You can see what they fought for.
And you can thank them for reminding you that the way of life we have here, is, indeed, worth dying for.
How do we as Wisconsinites preserve our heritage?
How do we best pay homage to those who built our cities and towns, passed down their values and virtues, and left this great state in our hands to leave for future generations?
Some of the most important tools to preserving our heritage are not in museums. They’re not in city squares, town halls, or downtowns as statues or monuments.
Rather, they’re actually in just about every home in America.
Our photo albums.
With the exception of the written journal, no other medium documents our history as accurately as the photograph. Photographs hold power. The have the ability to illuminate everything about us. Our prosperity and hardships. They document our evolution over time in every avenue, be it style, architecture, or fashion. They have become the archival illustration of our villages transforming into metropolises, of lone houses expanding into communities, and of our ancestors looking us right in the eye.
They have also become a record for much of what we have lost over time. A chronicle of countless structures, at one time the pride and joy of someone‘s blood, sweat, and tears, lost to the annals of time…and a need for parking space. They are excerpts from a person’s existence long ago. Small, visual clippings from lives departed, and often times, our only way to connect with those who lived them.
We’ve all had that nostalgic feeling browsing through old, black and white photos. That kind of dreamy, wistful remembrance, whether we are in the picture or if it was taken long before our time. Those photographs are truly a semblance of who we are.
That is why we get that feeling.
Recently, I have had the opportunity of working with the Landmarks Commission of Neenah on this very topic. A “Then and Now” rephotography project to visually document where Neenah has been in the past, how it reached the present, and how to preserve the best of Neenah for her future.
Neenah, WI is rich with fascinating history. Many of it’s streets are lined with homes built by paper and lumber barons. Here was the founding of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, the birthplace of Hollywood director Howard Hawks, and the hometown of the designer of the Pentagon, who’s family name, Bergstrom, still remains prominent today.
During this project, I have had the opportunity to sift through thousands of old photographs from museums, historical societies, and private citizens. When a certain photograph is chosen for inclusion, I then stand in the exact spot that a photographer stood decades ago, sometimes 100 years or more, and recreate the photo today.
The results are striking. Awe-inspiring.
Too often we don’t pay enough attention to our communities. It’s architecture. It’s layout. The people who left it for us.
They get thrown into the context of our world today and just simply don’t take priority over our jobs, kids, appointments, TV shows and everything else we need to get through the day.
However, when one looks at two photographs, side-by-side, taken from the exact same spot 100 years apart, it’s easy to pause for just a second.
Suddenly, that building with the “1889” carved in it you drive by everyday takes on a whole new meaning. The other smaller buildings around it today are not there in the first photo. You see it in the context in which it was intended. What you’ve always known as an apartment building is actually a hotel in the first photo. The people in the photo are dressed in nineteenth century fashion and seem proud to be in the photo, showing off for anyone who would view it.
You never really look at that building the same way again. You pay a bit more attention to it when you drive by. You smile. That nostalgic feeling comes back again.
That is the power of photographs as preservation.
Sadly, however, many photos show the mistakes we have made when open spaces have taken the places of once majestic buildings. Or when photos of modern buildings with “For Rent” signs are shown to take the place of turn of the century, state of the art architecture, with proud business owners standing outside their palaces, boasting with pride for what they had created.
The feeling of loss hits you…hard.
We owe it to those who came before us to remember them. To document the leftover parts of those who defined us. They are our heritage. They are our ancestors. We see evidence of their presence and existence all around us. Like ghosts, they struggle to call out for attention, but are powerless. All too often we fail to acknowledge them. We keep driving. We look away. We continue on with our lives, forgetting that they are the ones who gave it to us.
It is our duty to heed their call.
Still today I remember the legends.
Tales told between school kids of a mysterious people, an ancient people, very similar to those we saw pictures of when learning of the Aztecs in Mexico. Stories of a long lost civilization living in our state, only to disappear from the earth, leaving their village for us to discover a thousand years later. Stories of war, stockade walls with lookout towers rising twenty feet in the air, pyramids, and even, dare we say, cannibalism. All of this… right here in Wisconsin?
Growing up in the Fox Cities, I never did get to take a school trip to this mystical place. Students only heard passing references to it by our teachers, stimulating our imaginations to flow in absolute wonderment.
Aztalan, as it is named, is nestled on the banks of the Crawfish River in Jefferson County. It is truly a site needing to be seen to be believed. Could all these tales I heard of as a kid be true? Pyramids like the Aztecs? Lookout towers? Ancient temples?
This past fall, I grabbed my camera and went to find out for myself.
Located a bit further west than halfway between Milwaukee and Madison, a short distance off of Highway 94, lies the town of Aztalan, in which resides Aztalan State Park. The town is also home to the Lake Mills-Aztalan Historical Society Museum, which boasts several original structures dating back to the mid-1800s.
After browsing through several of the buildings, including several cabins, a school house and general store, I made the very short drive down Mound Rd. to visit the reason for my excursion.
Slowly coming up to Aztalan State Park I was in 6th grade again. That butterfly feeling you have as a child while quietly sneaking up to a house you heard was supposed to be haunted was running rampant in my gut. All the legends and stories I imagined as a curious but impressionable school kid were reverberating in my head.
Then, I started to see the mounds. A row of small, round, conical mounds could be seen rising up in the grass. The butterflies became more prevalent.
After pulling into the park entrance and following a winding road further in, the legends suddenly became real. Stockades were soaring into the sky! After parking the car and seizing my camera gear, I made my way towards those stockades, the late afternoon sun producing giant black shadows on the ground behind them, adding to the already imposing feel of the tall, timber-like structures. Once inside them, I saw what they were protecting…pyramids! Large, platform pyramids, much like what I used to see in history books about the Aztecs. One pyramid had steps leading to the top. I was paralyzed for a moment as I attempted to envision all that had occurred on top of that pyramid. Sacrifices? Religious ceremonies? Burials? I had no idea. I looked around in bewilderment as I remembered once again the horror stories I heard of war and cannibalism at this site, though I could only hear one thing - silence.
Only the occasional bird or wind gust could snap me out of the imaginative movie making going on in my mind.
But the temples were gone. The wood and clay round houses were gone. The plaza, once the hub of the village, silent.
Also gone was the larger-than -life, exaggerated version of this land and it’s people I knew as a kid.
Standing there, in the middle of the village, reality took hold and respect set in. It looked small. I felt ashamed. Standing there, on what once was the village plaza of a people I once looked at almost as a charachature, I gazed upon what used to be their burial mounds. I watched the grass bend in the wind on the pyramids on which most likely stood their sacred temples and houses. I listened to the current, so very slight, of the Crawfish River, where I knew they fished for food. I envisioned the stockades, now crude reconstructions, fully intact, three times as high as they stand now, and covered smooth with fired clay and painted ornamentations.
Approximately 900 AD was the first time this village was inhabited. Woodland people, those who built the effigy mounds so prevalent throughout the state, initially built a small settlement here. Some time later, around 1000 AD, the village was transformed by visitors from the Middle Mississippian culture who were from, or descendents of those from, the famous city of Cahokia, the Mecca of the Mississippian people. Cahokia was a monstrous ancient city of temples, plazas, and huge earthen mounds located along the banks of the Mississippi River close to present day East St Louis, IL. As Cahokia grew, it’s people expanded outward, establishing their own villages. Many moved north into northern Illinois and Wisconsin, and hence, into Aztalan. The small Woodland village morphed into a miniature Cahokia, boasting large earthen platform pyramids, stockades, and a plaza, which held community rituals, ceremonies, and gatherings.
Archeological evidence at Aztalan shows it thrived during a very violent time in our history. War with other tribes was frequent, as was human sacrifice and, in some cases, cannibalism. It was not uncommon throughout various tribes in the Americas during this time for war captives to be cannibalized. It was thought that this was how one could retain their enemies courage and valor. Human bones found in garbage pits with other discarded food sources demonstrates this activity likely occurred at Aztalan. There are some who use this to define those who lived at Aztalan as a sinister people. That is a travesty. They are mistaken.
As a photographer conducts their craft, they are forming for others a perception. Be it a portrait, a landscape, a household product, etc., they are shooting to portray a semblance made in their own vision. While driving to Aztalan, I envisioned shooting images of a very dark and mysterious nature. Images which would demonstrate the enigmatic yet ominous mood I remember feeling as a school kid talking about the secrets of this lost land.
I left without taking any of those photos.
Rather, the photos I wanted to take were the photos of how I felt the inhabitants would want us to know them today. Not as a black-hearted, war-happy people, but as a community of families, brethren, craftsmen, hunters, men, women, and children.
They lived in different times. We need to accept that.
Around 1200 AD, the inhabitants of Aztalan disappeared and the village was burned.
We don’t know why.
For centuries, it lay as it was left, untouched by human hands until American settlers accidentally walked upon it in the 1830s. The first accounts suggests some of the stockade walls were still standing - over 800 years after first being built! It instantly became a national headline. The finding was so extraordinary, some believed it must’ve been a hoax. Due to it’s visual similarities to the Aztecs, and even incorrectly linked to them by some, the site was named Aztalan.
Sadly, in 1838, an egregious error in judgment by then President Martin Van Buren resulted in the site being sold for $22. The land was plowed and priceless history was lost forever. Modern efforts to preserve the site began in 1919, archeological surveys were conducted, mounds and stockades were reconstructed, and finally, Aztalan was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 and lives again for us to learn from, and remember.
As this hidden jewel is largely maintained by donations, I strongly recommend a visit. Once there, you may realize much of the haunting and menacing narratives you may have heard or read in the past will be disproved, but believe me…
…the magic still remains.