More than 100 people attended the final 2013 meeting of the Baileys Harbor Historical Society on Sept. 12, and it’s unlikely that any of them will ever again pass the funny old blue-and-white house north of town without feeling closer to the German farmer who built it 89 years ago and named it Birds Park.
At the meeting, Albert Zahn, whose folk art made him famous after his death, was brought to life through stories told by his great-grandson Randy Zahn, who shares Albert’s talent for woodcarving. Slides of his great-grandfather’s family, his creations and a display of his and Randy’s art enhanced the program.
Albert was born in Natelfitz, Germany, in 1864. In 1879, his father, Carl, brought the family to America so that Albert and his older brother could avoid conscription into the German army. They settled in Forestville, where they had relatives, and Albert went to work for a well digger. In the fall of 1883, Carl set Albert up on land northeast of Baileys Harbor, paying $150 for the 80 acres. By his late 20s, Albert had established a dairy business on the farm he called Silver Dew. He bought an additional 40 acres of swampland and dug by hand a ditch around two sides to drain it, and built a 40’ x 80’ fieldstone barn, one of the largest in the area. There were two tiny doors, just the right size for his chickens and pigs to run in and out.
In 1891, Albert married 15-year-old Louise Strege, a Forestville girl. During the next 30 years they had 10 children, nine of whom lived to adulthood. In the early 1900s, Albert’s nephew, August, arrived from Germany, and Albert helped him build a blacksmith shop and the large home next door that is now the Blacksmith Inn.
Albert began carving as a boy in Germany, and it was a hobby during his 40 years on the farm. He carved a deer for the top of the house and little birds and other figures to decorate the porch. He also made furniture for the home, elaborately carved with animals.
At 60, Albert turned the farm over to his oldest son, Albert, Jr., who had returned from service in WWI. He went to war against the wishes of his father, who had never allowed his children to have birth certificates, thinking this would keep the boys out of military service.
Once retired, Albert set to work building a new house, mixing his own concrete, casting “logs” and stacking them two stories high. He used every bit of space, from the first floor that was partially underground to the “penthouse” on top that served as a base for the wind charger that Albert installed to avoid “renting” electrical power.
Albert was not one to sit idle once his house was built. He cut cedar posts in the swamp to sell to Brann’s Store and built cottages at Gordon Lodge, walking the six miles to and from work if Dr. Gordon wasn’t available to give him a ride. He loved to play the organ he bought for $27.15 from the J. C. Dana Agricultural Implements Company in Sister Bay, and he enjoyed having more time to carve. Louise painted the birds, angels, sea captains and ships and the Prussians Albert remembered from his childhood. When the house filled up with them, he displayed them outside. He gave many away to people who stopped to look, and started to charge a quarter for the small pieces only after being prodded by his daughter.
Albert’s children remembered him as a quiet, gentle man. He killed only one deer in his life and was so distressed afterward that he never hunted again. His father-in-law did the family’s butchering, and Albert made sure he was not around when it took place. He was a striking figure, with snow-white hair, mustache and a flowing beard. Townspeople thought he was a little strange. After his wife’s death in 1950, Albert lost the desire to carve. He moved in with his son, Elmer, in Sturgeon Bay, where he died in 1953 at the age of 89.
There had been a bit of publicity about his carvings in Milwaukee newspapers in the 1930s and ’40s, but it was not until after his death that his folk art began to be really appreciated. When the owner of the Benjamin Gallery in Chicago, contacted by one of Albert’s daughters, agreed to take some of his pieces, she was dumbfounded to see them delivered atop a truckload of cherries.
In 1998, the senior curator of exhibitions and collections at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan saw a display of Zahn’s work at the Peninsula School of Art and was “blown away” with its simple elegance and poetic force. In 2003, she assembled a major retrospective titled Albert Zahn: I’ll Fly Away with more than 200 pieces from family members, collectors and galleries in nine states and the District of Columbia. Today his small pieces sell for $1,000 (sometimes greater) and are displayed in the Smithsonian Institution, The Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
Randy Zahn never knew his great-grandfather, who died the year Randy was born, but he has inherited his talent and his love for simple subjects. None of Albert’s children became woodcarvers, but Randy is carrying on the tradition with similar pieces.
Birds Park is now owned by Robert McCullough of Portland, Oregon, whose parents bought it for $3,000 in 1954. Over a period of 15 years, he and his wife, Karen, oversaw a total restoration. Their will provides that the Kohler Arts Center will become responsible for maintaining the house, with financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wisconsin Arts Board. Albert would be humbled and thoroughly amazed.