Frank Engebretson

As published in the Spring, 2010 newsletter of the Brodhead Historical Society

International Attention

Back in March of this year, we received an e-mail inquiry from a gentleman in Oslo, Norway, who was doing research on Frank Engebretson and had found our website. He had recently read the book “Coast to Coast” by English travel writer, Jan Morris, originally published in 1956. The book is about a journey across 1950’s America, and contains an account of a chance meeting with Frank Engebretson of Brodhead, which is reproduced here.

It is astonishing how accurately the provincial America sometimes reflects the general character of his region. You may be able to tell a Manchester man by his accent, but deposit the chairman of that Cedar Rapids dinner in the heart of the Antarctic, and you would know him as a Midwesterner by the jib of his chin and the merest whiff of his climate of thought. I met two men in the Middle West whom I remember as especially representative of its livelier and more independent elements, and whom an enlightened selection committee might well choose to symbolize it (dressed in dungarees and rimless spectacles) in some patriotic holiday carnival.

I encountered the first of them fortuitously. One pleasant autumn morning I was driving through the countryside of southern Wisconsin, not far from the lovely little state capital of Madison. This is a gentle and unspoiled country for the most part, with German, Swiss, and Scandinavian overtones, its fields wide and well tended, its farmhouses clean and prosperous, its cattle fat, its milk appropriately creamy. If there is one state in the American interior that fulfills the requirements of the Promised Land it is Wisconsin; for here there are no deserts, no harsh mountains, and no hideous sprawling wens, but only lakes, woods, green fields, and the attractive lakeside city of Milwaukee. The farming people of Wisconsin are not, however, always expressive of their good fortune. They are a taciturn and unyielding lot, so that if you are rash enough to engage one in conversation over a glass of beer you may well extract only grunts and heavy breathing by your inquiries. With their caps and overalls, their countless tractors and machines, they sometimes seem less like farmers and than engine drivers on some remote and uneconomic branch line; though occasionally at a country market, where the women wear head scarves, the ducks have their legs tied up in sacking, and old men wander creakingly about poking cows with walking sticks, you might well be back in an antique and unprogressive Europe.

Many of the farms are notable for the magnificence of their barns, unique in America and apparently having both Swiss and Scandinavian architectural origins. The have huge solid walls, peaked roofs, attendant aluminum silos, and they often look much grander and more luxurious than their parent farmhouses. Often and again, as you travel along the country roads, one of these bulky structures rears itself over a distant horizon, apparently alone among the pastures; and as you drive by you can look through its open door and see, in the steamy comfort of its interior, cows idling in the hay and the long rows of mechanisms with which they are soon to be milked.

On this particular October day one of these barns caught my eye with a splash of color in the fields (there are relatively few trees in southern Wisconsin, and a vivid roof or bed of crimson flowers can often be seen from miles away). When I reached the structure I found it was remarkable even among Wisconsin barns; for across the whole of its side, painted in the boldest of colors and the finest of lines, was an enormous mural. It showed a conventional country scene, with hills, clumps of trees, cows, and a little stream, and so gay and guileless was it, and of such an infectious joie de vivre, that it dominated the countryside with its cheerfulness. I asked a passerby who had painted this picture, and he said a Mr. Engebretson did it, or some such name, lived over Brodhead way, a real nice guy, the same as did the picture on the Schmidt farm in Lafayette County.

So I drove to Brodhead to meet the artist. It is a village near the Illinois border, the very epitome of those small Midwestern towns so often portrayed in the movies, where the beautiful girl arrives off the “streamliner” with her bag, and is welcomed by the lovable old philosopher in the straw hat. Like most such villages, it is a place of white frame houses and unfenced gardens, shaded by groves of big and rather gloomy trees. The houses (or the “homes” as one must call them in the Middle West) are dotted haphazardly about the place, so that back doors open into front yards and there is a plethora of odd outhouses, potting sheds, and carpentry huts.

I would be able to recognize the Engebretson house, a man told me at the store, because outside of it there stood one such shed totally covered in one of his murals; and this was the kind of thing, he added reasonably, that one could not easily miss. Sure enough there it stood among the trees, blazing with color, and I very soon found myself sitting in Mr. Engebretson’s parlor eating cheese. The atmosphere was agreeably Scandinavian. Engebretson and his wife are both of Norwegian stock, and their house is full of wooden things and the savor of plain cooking. Mr. Engebretson is an elderly man with a wrinkled outdoor face, spectacles, and a lively and engaging air, and for fifty or more years his passion in life has been painting. The walls of his rooms are hung thickly with his oils; though his style is simple rather than fashionably primitive, these pictures are vivid and arresting. But it is as a painter of outdoor murals that he has achieved his local celebrity (“and they wrote me up in Life magazine too, here’s the clippings”).

He is a house painter by trade, and his first barn mural was an advertisement showing a group of Holstein cows; it was so much admired that soon, when farmers wanted their barns painted, they would simply ask him to do one of his murals, covering the whole of the barn wall and thus combining aesthetic stimulation with practical economy. These huge murals, sometimes ninety feet long, are as near to folk art as you can find in the modern Middle West; and luckily Wisconsin is one of few states in America where Mr. Engebretson would find a ready recognition. The state university at Madison is enlightened enough to employ a resident artist, supplying him with a studio, a salary, and materials, and helping him with liberal encouragement. John Stuart Curry was one holder of this happy office, and during his tenure he fostered a vigorous rural art movement in Wisconsin. Many are the farmers and housewives who now contribute every year to a rural art exhibition in Madison, and many are the amateur artist who (like Mr. Engebretson) have been helped and advised.

There are many places in the Middle West an artist-farmer would still be decidedly suspect: Curry himself, at his home in Kansas, used to be followed through the village streets by the cry of derision: “Sissy-pants Curry paints pictures! Sissy-pants Curry paints pictures!” Mr. Engebretson certainly suffers from no such stigma. Not only are his murals in constant local demand, but he is to Brodhead rather as Mr. Sinclair Lewis was to Sauk Center, to the north, or even as Mr. Faulkner is to aromatic Oxford, Mississippi. Every visitor to the town is taken to see Mr. Engebretson’s murals, and they have been described or pictured in many publications, from The Times of London to the Prairie Farmer. The artist is understandably pleased by this modest accumulation of fame, and readily shows you his cuttings, and discusses the value of his work. “Mind you, they won’t last,” he says cheerfully. “Some of them’s fading already. If you paint a house, you don’t expect it to last forever, do you? You’ve got to keep repainting it. Same with my murals. If they don’t get repainted, they’ll fade. Paint on a wall—that’s all they are!” What with painting the originals, making requested alterations, and repainting those whose owners are farsighted enough to commission him, Mr. Engebretson estimates he has executed two miles of murals—which is, as an admiring neighbor remarked to me, “a powerful lot of art.” I hope his big pictures are not allowed to fade, for they are the product of a true country craftsman, and bring the unsuspecting traveler close to those great days of the Middle West, when it was still a country of pioneer individualists.

—From “Coast to Coast” by Jan Morris, 1956