One Of A Kind

Today’s guest post comes from Steve Grooms.

My home is unusual in several ways, starting with the fireplace. It is so ugly that I have often thought about replacing or remodeling it. My home is feminine, with soft curves everywhere: in the roof, in the sidewalks, in the round-top front door, and elsewhere. But in a home where everything is Marilyn Monroe curvy, the fireplace is straight as a ruler. Most fireplaces are wide at the base and then they taper gracefully above the mantel. My fireplace is a straight column, like a big tombstone. Most fireplaces have some kind of mantel for visual relief, but not mine. It is just a big pile of bricks.

According to legend, the fireplace was designed by the architect of the home, Joe Lutz, a man who designed this house for his own family. Joe was a bricklayer as well as an architect, and very proud of it. I’ve been told that Joe sat cross-legged for almost a day on the living room floor, fiddling with bricks to design the fireplace. There are six ways bricks can be combined in construction—six and not five or seven. Joe Lutz finally created a design that would combine all six of those bricklaying techniques. So my fireplace isn’t just a fireplace; it is a showcase of the bricklayer’s art.

Because of its history, I’ll never change the fireplace. It meant a lot to the man who designed my home, and I’m compelled to respect his intentions. I am only the current custodian of this home, and the only appropriate program for me is to be humble about making big changes in the place. The fireplace has rights that are greater than my rights.

And it is one of a kind. I’ve got the only one like it in the world.

US Highway 2 cuts across northern Wisconsin, running east and west. It’s a famous road. Not famous is the tiny town of Oulu, which lies just north of US 2. If you want to go to Oulu, you drive a bit east of Brule to Oulu Rock and follow the big blue arrow on it to Oulu.
Oulu was created and is mostly inhabited by folks of Finnish ancestry. They have names like Aho, Lampinen, Kohlemeinen, Reinikainen and so forth. The town doesn’t have much going for it. Its one unusual feature is a glass-blowing gallery. Other than that, Oulu is another tiny unincorporated Wisconsin town just like a thousand other such tiny towns.

And yet there is one other distinctive thing, something in which Oulu’s residents take great pride: the Oulu Rock.
A very long time ago, people needed a way to spot that little road that runs north from Highway 2 to Oulu. Citizens of Oulu placed a large rock at the intersection and painted the rock white and blue, the colors of the Finnish flag. And they painted “Oulu” in large letters, with an arrow to point the way.

Not long ago, the Wisconsin Highway Department informed the folks of Oulu that their rock had to go. Highway design specifications require the erection of a standard highway sign to point the way to Oulu.
The highway bureaucrats were unprepared for the ferocity of Oulu’s response. They didn’t want no frickin’ highway sign and they didn’t need one because they already had a frickin’ rock. Almost nobody ever wants to go to Oulu, to tell the truth, and if they do want to go they probably know the way already! The Finns of Oulu told the highway department folks just where they could stick their standard highway sign.

The highway department countered with all the predictable arguments. They argued for the virtues of standardization. They said a reflective sign would be easier to read than a rock. They said they operated under mandates from the legislature and didn’t have the power to make an exception like this. They said The Law demanded that Oulu accept a highway sign. End of argument.
Cynics say you can’t beat city hall, but Oulu beat the Wisconsin Highway Department. Civic pride and Finnish obstinacy crushed the bureaucrats and their boring laws. When Highway 2 was widened recently, the Wisconsin Highway Department even helped move the rock a few feet north. And it is there today, proudly pointing the way to Oulu.

No other town in Wisconsin has what Oulu has. There are a thousand unincorporated villages in the state, but only Oulu has a highway rock. It is one of a kind.

What have you encountered that is absolutely original . . . one of a kind?

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61 thoughts on “One Of A Kind”

  1. Good morning. Very good post, Steve. When I hear the words “one of a kind” I think of some people I have known. Every person is different, but some are very different.

    The first “different” person that comes to mind is an old neighbor, Vern. There were many distinctive things that made Vern one of a kind. Perhaps the most unusual thing that he did might be the sign he put out a Christmas. It was a large plywood sign that was placed in the front yard with a person’s face painted on it in cartoon style. I think the person was Scrooge and there was a word balloon, as in a cartoon strip, which said “Bah Humbug”.

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    1. Unique people was the first thing that came to my mind, Steve. We also have some things in our house that are sort of one of a kind. The house was built in the early 50s and includes some plaster work that was done by a carpenter who I think was a hold over from a time when decorative plaster work was used inside houses back in the 30s and 40s. There are some plaster arches in the bathroom over the tub that we would not let a carpenter rip out when he updated this room for us. We worked with that carpenter to find a way to keep the old arches because they are sort one of a kind similar to your fireplace.

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  2. The first thing that comes to mind for me is what happens in the kitchen. I am by no means a great cook, but I do like to improvise (partly from necessity, partly choice-I have almost never been the sort of person who carefully plans out meals, then makes a grocery list and so on). I tend to look over the pantry, the freezer, the fridge and the yard and figure out what we CAN have.

    We’ve had some pretty wonderful stir-fries and soups that were the result of a never to be repeated clearing of the contents of the fridge.

    That spirit carries on when I can find hand-crafted kitchen tools. The morning oatmeal on cool days is measured out at our house with a hand-carved spoon. It is made of butternut wood and features a deep bowl and thick handle. The handle has the face of a bearded wizard-like character carved into it. Makes me smile every time I use it.

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    1. Ditto on “contents of the fridge” soup. I’ll bet most of the wonderful soups and casseroles in the recipe books started as someone emptied their ice box.

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      1. I made a last-minute soup for a “thank the teachers” dinner once – literally just started throwing in what I had on hand in the fridge and freezer because the dinner was in a few hours. I got TWO emails afterwards asking me for the recipe!

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        1. and in true one-of-a-kind fashion, I fear such a thing does not exist.

          Most of the great cooks will tell you that you always have to kind of taste as you go, even when following a recipe-that’s what makes home cooking so good-factory made is exactly the same every single time with no riff on the idea that today, that entree might be a bit better for a dash of Tabasco, while next week, atmospheric conditions demand a tilt toward more tarragon.

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  3. Rise and Shine Baboons!

    Snowflakes, snowdrifts, snowjobs–all one of a kind. Steve, I like the fireplace and do not find it ugly.
    People who are one of a kind: Molly Ivins–I miss her! Many of the singers posted yesterday–Eva Cassidy was/is a one-of-a-kind treasure. George W. Bush was one-of-a-kind awful as president in my lifetime. MB is one-of-a-kind embarrassing. My Uncle Bob was unique, as well–one-of-a-kind rellie and will appear as a blog post at some point.

    Back to lurkitude–business is again too good and it is not our busy season.

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    1. I agree with Jacque. I like the fireplace. It probably doesn’t fit in as well as it should with the rest of the house so I guess it is kind of out of place. I think the interesting brick work more than makes up for the poor fit.

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  4. Wisconsin seems to be especially rich in one-of-a-kind experiences. There are outsider art sites scattered all around the state, any one of which is well worth a field trip. The Kohler Foundation seems to have a special affinity for eccentric installations and maintains some of those sites of artists who are no longer with us. You can find a map and descriptions of their holdings at:

    http://www.kohlerfoundation.org/sites1.html

    Rianna DeRaad is a mosaic artist and gardener who lives on a small farm near Beldenville, Wisconsin, which is not far from River Falls. We’ve taken workshops from her. She’s a fun, dynamic woman and her sculpture garden is an idiosyncratic visual feast:

    http://www.concretemosaicsculpture.com/

    If you’re ever in the southwestern part of the state, don’t miss the Dickyville Grotto:

    http://dickeyvillegrotto.com/

    The Forevertron and Dr. Evermor have gotten a certain amount of press in the last year or two, but they’re still surprisingly little known:

    http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2239

    A couple of years ago, we made a pilgrimage to Ladysmith, Wisconsin to visit Chalice Stream, the dance studio and performance space of Barry Lynn and his partner Michael Doran. Barry at that time was in his mid-90s and still performing his distinctly one-of-a-kind style of dance. I don’t know if Barry is still performing. He would be about 98 now:

    https://sites.google.com/site/ruskareaartsalliance2/barrylynn

    The, of course, there’s The House on the Rock, to which I have not yet been, but it epitomizes the expression “one of a kind” and it, too, is in Wisconsin.

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  5. Many years ago we bought a hybrid tea rose named Harry Hastings. If my memory serves me correctly, he was named for a famous Georgia planstman and hybridizer It is a beautiful deep red, seems immune to pests and diseases, and blooms prolifically. I have looked around for another one, even on the internet, and I can’t find any references for Harry at all. I believe he is one of a kind, and it will be a sad day in our garden when he dies.

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        1. Grafting always sounds very iffy to me, but I imagine that is the main way with roses. I’d also give rooting some cuttings (while he is still happy and healthy and you have nothing to lose) a try.

          I confess, plant propagation fascinates me-I seem to always have some African violet leaves going-I think of them as the Friendship Bread of the plant world.

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        2. I have a rose that spreads by sending up more shoots and it is easy to propagate because you can just dig up some of the new shoots and plant them where ever you want. I think this might only work for certain kinds of roses. I wonder if roses can be divided in the way that some other perennials are divided? I have never tried that. I don’t very much about roses.

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        3. Learning how to propagate the rose you have definitely sounds like more fun, but I think this may be the connection to Harry Hastings:

          http://www.hastingsgardencenter.com/index.asp

          It seems the business is no longer run by the Hastings family and does not ship plants for retail sales. but it’s a contact if you wanted to pursue that.

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  6. I wrote a post earlier about the rich variety of outsider artists and art sites in Wisconsin. I included links to the sites mentioned and that may have been my downfall; WordPress has withheld my comment pending moderation. Since I don’t know if or when that will take place, and at the risk of redundancy, here’s my comment without links:
    One of our favorite destinations for a day trip is to one of the many outsider art locations of which Wisconsin is particularly abundant. The Kohler Foundation has preserved and maintains several in situ. You can find descriptions and maps at their website.
    Wouterina (Rianna) DeRaad is a mosaic artist and gardener who maintains a fantastic mosaic garden on her small farm near Beldenville, just outside of River Falls. We’ve taken workshops from her. She’s dynamic and definitely one of a kind.
    If you are ever in the Southwest part of the state, don’t miss the Dickeyville Grotto.
    Despite getting some press lately, it seems that Dr. Evermor and the Forevertron are still not as well known as they ought to be.
    A couple of years ago, we went to a dance performance at Chalice Stream in Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Chalice Stream is the studio and performance space of Barry Lynn and his partner, Michael Doran. At the time we went, Barry was in his mid-90s and still performing in his own unique way. I don’t know if Barry is still performing or even if he is still with us, but it was definitely worth the drive. Kind of like Amaragosa in Death Valley.
    Then there’s the House On The Rock. I confess I have not yet been there, but if you wanted an instance of one of a kind, I can think of no better example.

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    1. I think outsider art is great. I don’t recommend House on the Rock. I’m sure there are those who like gong there. I don’t. It is a very, very big collection of all kinds of dumb junk with some interesting things mixed in. I’m not the only one who has found that place disappointing.

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      1. My only encounter with House on the Rock is with a Neil Gaiman book, “American Gods.” He manages to weave it into the tale in a way that makes sense of why it is the way it is and how it could be secretly magical. Still haven’t been to the place, but the notion that Loki might be scuttling about where you can’t see him almost makes it worth a stop there sometime.

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      2. When I was much younger, the wasband and I ended up at The House on the Rock, mistakenly thinking we were going to the Frank Lloyd Wright house. Didn’t take long to realize we were wrong, but then took much longer to get out. I can still see the carousel w/ the mannequin angels in my mind’s eye. Ick.

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      3. I was involved in a strange romance once. One of our last “dates” was a visit to The House on the Rock, and somehow the mix of magic, beauty and over-the-top fraudulence seemed about right for our relationship. When we said goodbye I told her, “We’ll always have the House on the Rock.” There were about nine layers of irony in that.

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  7. The House on the Rock is a mind-numbing curiosity. And by god, it is one of a kind!

    I love your reference to folk art curiosities in Wisconsin. The northern town of Phillips has a concrete sculpture park done by a folk artist named Fred Smith, and it is an amusingly unique thing to behold.

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      1. My Grandparents lived in Phillips and I have seen the concrete sculpture park which is interesting and unusual.

        When my Grandmother was still alive you could see a lot of very strange and unusual things made from her large collection of buttons that were displayed in her sewing room.

        The Enchanted Highway in N. Dakota, not too far from where Renee lives, with it’s large unusual displays of metal sculptures, is very interesting.

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      1. My daughter visited the Concrete Park as part of the research for a paper she did on outsider art when she a student.

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  8. My grandparents had a bit of exercise equipment that I’m bet dated from the 50s – it was a simple little thing that you stood on and twisted back and forth. There was a low foot on it that was maybe 9″x9″ or maybe as small as 6″x6″ and a top piece maybe a foot square (big enough for an adult to stand on and for a kid to mostly sit on cross-legged, but not much bigger), with some pivoting/ball bearing/spinning hardware between the two. I think my grandpa actually used it to exercise – we grandkids would take turns sitting on it while one or more of the other kids would spin you around until you got totally dizzy or fell off, whichever came first. There would be stern words about the twisty-widget (I’m sure it had a brand name, I recall there being lettering on the platform face) not being a toy, but only when we got really wild did it get put away. For a couple of pieces of hardboard or masonite, it was a ton of fun. It moved with my grandparents from their house to a senior high rise (we cousins know because we played with it there), but by the time it came to clean out the apartment and storage 20+ years later, it was nowhere to be found. Each of the grandkids had a chosen a few things to keep from what was at the apartment (including each of us, without talking to each other, having chosen one piece of the wood furniture my grandfather so carefully blonded back in the 50s to match the woodwork he blonded throughout the house…), but clearing out every closet and digging through the storage unit in the basement, the twisty-widget was nowhere to be found. Oh the sorrow. All five of us wanted it – we even agreed, while we searched, on a rough time-sharing deal. It was a unique thingy. If you find one at a flea market someday, I would gladly reimburse you for it (and make you baked goods to cover shipping, handling, and the trauma of carrying the thing about). It was, so near as I can tell, the last of its tribe – not one of a kind, since it was clearly mass produced at one time or another – but an odd little outlier from another era that I still miss.

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  9. Husband builds things that are one of a kind, if only because of the “retired items” that he uses as components. The shed door was once a picnic table top, complete with umbrella hole in center, which is now how you open it. One of the sides is half of a warped ping pong table – you can still “open” one of the legs.

    The screen porch, besides using all that former garage lumber, has a header made from the sides of his old waterbed frame. Some of the 2x4s came from Joel’s old loft bed, and the threshold (top and bottom) were my mom’s broken down tea cart. :) There’s HISTORY in them thar places.

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  10. About 2 months back, a coworker brought in a funny looking pan into the office that she had unearthed at her grandmother’s house. I spent a morning trying to figure it out. Turns out that Sam Pandolfo, who got himself in trouble manufacturing cars in St. Cloud earlier in the 20th century, turned to health food after he got out of jail. He opened a few stores and started making greaseless chocolate, whole wheat raisin donuts in 1929. Then he started manufacturing pans to make these donuts in. This business only lasted about a year before he got himself in trouble again at which point he abandoned the donuts and moved to Denver.

    It was a lot of fun researching this and even more fun to tell my friend that she probably has a one-of-a-kind item!

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    1. I was wondering how accurate my memory of that story was, Barbara. Two weeks ago I told that story at breakfast in Brule to my host, Tom. A woman at the next table got up and walked to me, presenting her digital camera. On the LCD panel was a picture of the Oulu Rock! She’d overheard me and wanted to share. Her husband is from Oulu. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up on the way I remembered the story!

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    1. Was hoping to get to this, but I will be transporting Daughter to Girl Scout Camp and our carpool leaves smack in the middle of the concert. Ah well. Perhaps I can stand in my front yard next to my “Vote No” lawn sign and hum a bit instead…

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    2. wow, what a line-up! I would dearly love to hear Ruth MacKenzie sing again, but like Anna, I will be seeing off a child to camp.

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  11. Steve – was just looking at your fireplace again… how do you get that clock to stay up there without a mantel?

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