'Inside The Fence' Shows How A Site That Once Dealt In Death Is Being Resurrected By Nature


Used by permission The Capital Times :: LIFESTYLE :: 1D
Wednesday, July 24, 2002
By Jacob Stockinger The Capital Times


Don't let the abandoned farmsteads and industrial ruins deceive you. From the prairie it came, and to the prairie it will return.

But for the half-century in between, a veritable suburban city unto itself arose on the 7,354-acre site near Baraboo, right off Highway 12. It housed a huge chemical plant that produced explosive propellants for firearms and rockets that helped America wage World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War.

Yet unless you worked at that plant, which was farmland - once lived on by the Sauk and Ho-Chunk Indians - before it opened in 1942, probably the closest look you will ever get at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant (formerly called the Badger Ordnance Works) is a new exhibit of 71 photographs mounted on the fourth floor of the Wisconsin Society Historical Museum on the Capitol Square.

The exhibit, which runs through Oct. 12 and which premiered in a larger form in March during Photofest 2000 at the Rivers Arts Center in Sauk City, is called "Inside the Fence." The title is telling.

"Most people never get inside the fence," explains Madison photographer Zane Williams, who helped organize the four-year project and enlisted eight unpaid photographers, two historians and one curator. "People drive by on their way to the Wisconsin Dells or Devils Lake and wonder what is this strange place. I wanted to help them see inside the fence. Most people will not get inside the fence until several years from now, when most of the infrastructure will be gone."

"We wanted to produce a photographic record that will help future generations understand its historical significance and its beauty," adds Williams, who made some 20 trips and shot about 500 negatives at 100 sites. "It sounds funny to say about a munitions plant, but even in disrepair it is a setting of great beauty. We wanted to help the average citizen understand what this place was all about so that wiser decisions could be made about its future - although there are so many players, I doubt the photos alone will affect that decision."

Oral historian Michael Goc, who lives in Adams County and has just published a book about the plant's history, sees the meaning of the plant -- which produced a billion pounds of propellants over its lifetime before closing in 1997 and which is now reduced to abandoned buildings and partially dismantled hardware -- in a more symbolic, even moralistic context.

"I look at it and see the image of a ghost town," says Goc. "It's another example of the de-industrialization of the United States, like abandoned Rust Belt factories."

Goc describes a dual legacy.

"In one way, that fate is really appropriate because it was a factory of death. That's the dark side that you see in the black-and-white photos," Goc explains. "On the other hand, you also see life returning to the area. Especially in the color photographs, you see grass and trees overtaking the buildings. It's an organic process. Out of the decay, new life appears on the prairie."

"I like looking at it that way, but there are many ways to look at it," he adds. "It certainly wasn't evil for us to be victorious in World War II or the Cold War. So the exhibition illustrates the many meanings of the place. Life and death, life and death -- that's what Badger is all about."

Yet visitors can determine their own point of view. That's one of the things that Tom Garver, the former director of the Madison Art Center and independent consultant who curated the show, says he liked about the work he saw, as he went about selecting the photos that would go into the final display.

"I think one of the vices of contemporary photography is that you're often led to a particular point of view and then your nose is rubbed in it just in case you don't get it," Garver says. "In this case, the photographers have photographed this almost derelict space. The issues are all there, but you can draw your own conclusions. That's one of the things I like about it."

"You see the plant from varying points of view -- from the air, long telephoto shots and close-ups," adds Garver, who says that the landscapes and ruins will be a dramatic and emotional experience for many older viewers. "It reveals something few of us would have a chance to see otherwise."

Garver also says that despite its documentary roots, the show maintains a high artistic standard. "The photographers in the show were quite consistent and balanced in their capabilities and insights," Garver says. "There was no star with a lot of hangers on. Everyone was quite strong." Of course, interpreting the images is made more difficult by the fact a lot of historical photographs and other archival materials and artifacts from the heyday of the plant have been left out, largely because of limited space.

"I thought it was important that the old photographs were there," laments Garver, who installed the original, much larger display. "It was good for viewers to see the plant in use with people streaming in and out, and not simply as some technological ruin."

"It seems ironic that the Historical Society would take some of the historical components out of the exhibit," agrees historian Goc. "It's unfortunate. I don't see how you can understand the meaning today without that historical context." Nonetheless, Goc says "Inside the Fence" remains an important project.

"It's definitely successful," Goc says. "It conveys the power of the Badger plant to make us think about life and death. The impact of the plant is so large on Wisconsin and on the prairie and even internationally, and this exhibit evokes that. They've done some wonderful photography."

That wonderful photography faced obstacles, however.

Access, which was limited by the military and the Olin Chemical Corp., became even more restricted, even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Williams says. That, he adds, left all the participants with the feeling of regret that they never really got to finish the project.

The work also was physically dangerous. Some of the wooden buildings were so soaked with the fumes of volatile chemicals that the photographers were forbidden from smoking and were warned that any kind of spark could set off a potentially fatal explosion.

A book based on the show has been discussed, though funding has not yet been procured, and more access would be needed, says Williams, who would like to see the exhibition tour Wisconsin. "There's no question, the Badger plant has played a major role in the history of the entire state," Williams says.

It also played a major and unforgettable role in the lives of the people who participated in the project.

"I think all the photographers would say that being inside the plant was a unique and rewarding experience," says Williams, who adds he aimed for non-artsy photos and is very satisfied with the variety of styles and subject matter.

"All of us found a treasure chest that was historically, artistically and spiritually rewarding. I think the public will also find it fascinating."

The Wisconsin Historical Museum is located at 30 N. Carroll St., on the Capitol Square. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. The museum is closed on Sundays, Mondays and major holidays. Admission is free with a suggested donation of $3 for adults and $2 for children under 18. Tours are available. For information, call 264-6555 or visit ww.wisconsinhistory.org/museum.

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