Fog blankets the town of Theresa, Wisconsin, on a summer evening in 1969 WHI 88529
Jim Widmer's 'Spirit of Rural Wisconsin,' Part I
This is the first in a three-part series featuring the images of Jim Widmer of the tiny Dodge County town of Theresa. In the mid-20th century he deliberately set out to capture the spirit of rural Wisconsin with the best photographic equipment available. Future galleries of his work will feature local barns and Friday-night fish fries, two iconic aspects of Wisconsin rural culture.
Theresa Township Over Time
As a young man, Jim Widmer could see that Wisconsin's rural landscape of rolling hills dotted with family farms was under pressure from agricultural industrialization, automobiles, and suburbanization. Traditional rural culture was shifting as mass media broadcast urban ways into farmhouses and modern roads connected farmers, markets, tourists and the countryside.
Widmer decided to chronicle how such changes might affect his own home town of Theresa (population 461 in 1950). He used a Twin Lens Automatic Rolleiflex, considered by professional photographers to be one of the finest cameras ever made. He printed 11-by-14 enlargements on Agfa Brovira papers, and bound these into large sets of albums. In 2011 he donated a set of the albums containing more than 1,400 prints to the Wisconsin Historical Society, from which this online gallery is drawn.
Focus on Theresa, 1940s-1970s
Widmer gave this title to 216 images that mainly depict life in the vicinity of the Dodge County town of Theresa, especially townspeople at work. Some photographs also document unusual events such as train derailments or farm accidents. Widmer used portraiture to capture moments in the lives of individuals and families, and occasionally experimented with novel camera studies, such as this 1949 image of Lucky Strike cigarettes. The photographer himself even makes an appearance in this romantic landscape made with the aid of a timer.
A Month in the Life of Theresa, 1978
Rural mail carrier, February 3, 1978 WHI 87389
Inspired by Life magazine's 1974 special issue, "One Day in the Life of America," Widmer tried to create a photographic portrait of a typical day in the life of Theresa Township. He captured more than 80 images of during February of 1978, to which he added two pictures taken in late January. Widmer photographed residents both at work and at play in an attempt to document most of the public locations in the town during its 130th anniversary.
The images reveal the people of Theresa going about daily activities: men and women managing the family business, children going to class or enjoying a snow day, and the community joining together for church services and meetings.
Although the series celebrates the successes of business professionals in their offices and the owners of small bars and inns, Widmer silently acknowledges the existence of hard times through images of going-out-of-business auctions and other markers of the economic conditions.
A Theresa Documentary
Les Beck displays a 1930s photograh of the garage
being replaced by the present-day Theresa Cwik Mart
This large series of more than 600 photographs captures the small town of Theresa in great detail. The images depict everyday activities as well as events that added excitement to the lives of the residents. From unusual encounters with nature and unexpected agricultural disasters to people reaching lifetime milestones, the images strive to document the social life of Theresa during the second half of the 20th century.
About the Widmer Collection
The Widmer family emigrated from Switzerland in 1906, and in 1922 Jim's father, John O. Widmer, made the down payment on his own cheese factory in Theresa in Dodge County. Though the area was already well-known for its cheese making, the Widmer operation was unique. Most local cheese factories made only cheddar or Muenster, but Widmer's could switch between cheddar and brick cheese. After John retired, the family business passed down to his three sons, John, Ralph and Jim.
The photographic collection of Jim Widmer and his wife Shirley embodies the spirit of rural Wisconsin. His photographs capture the lives of the people of Theresa, a small town whose population totaled only 611 as late as 1978.
The collection includes hundreds of carefully crafted photographs of local life, of Widmer's cheese factory, of Friday-night fish fries and of family owned barns in Theresa Township. Jim and Shirley Widmer performed all of the photographic processing themselves and assembled hundreds of printed images in bound volumes. The Widmers donated one complete set of these to the Theresa Public Library and a second to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Widmer used a Twin Lens Automatic Rolleiflex, considered by professional photographers to be one of the finest cameras ever made. He used Kodak Super XX film at 100 speed, developed in a fine-grain developer, Kodak Microdol-X. At times he also used 35mm cameras and a variety of lenses ranging from 20mm to 300mm. Widmer developed the Kodak Tri-X black and white film in Kodak D-76 and printed the 11-by-14 enlargements on Agfa Brovira papers. With the exception of one photograph, all the images used available light.
View the Gallery
Subscribe to Wisconsin Historical Images Email Updates
To learn more about the Society's online image collections, subscribe to our monthly email newsletter. You'll never miss a featured gallery again.