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The Hilgendorfs farm 300 acres with 55 milking cows and 45 heifers and calves. May 14, 1999 (WHI Image ID 80675)
The Hilgendorfs farm 300 acres with 55 milking cows and 45 heifers and calves. WHI 78406

Jim Widmer's 'Spirit of Rural Wisconsin,' Part III

This is the third in a three-part series featuring the images of Jim Widmer. Widmer grew up in the Dodge County town of Theresa, population 611 in 1978. His photographs capture everyday life in a small town and embody the spirit of rural Wisconsin. Part Three of Widmer's "Spirit of Rural Wisconsin" focuses on barns in Theresa Township. More about Widmer's career and image collection is available in the first part of the series.

Barns and Their Owners in Theresa, Dodge County

The Todd Bodden family poses by this wonderful fieldstone silo, built in 1910.
The Todd Bodden family poses by this
wonderful fieldstone silo, built in 1910.

This gallery consists of more than 300 black-and-white images of barns and their owners selected from 1,191 photographs in Widmer's "Barns in Theresa Township" collection. Widmer photographed owners with their barns, taking two photographs of each structure, and often including entire farm families. Shirley Widmer took notes on addresses and history given to her by the owners. At the end of the project, Jim commented that the owners had become more interesting subjects than the barns because the stories they told or their peronsalities illustrated the self-sufficiency, creative invention and thrift that characterize Wisconsin rural residents.

Theresa Township is home to several notable barn types, including the Wisconsin porch barn and the Wisconsin dairy barn. The first consists of an overhanging upper floor supported by wooden posts and is related to the German bank barn. The second type is certainly a familiar sight around the state, with its gambrel or round roofs. Some barns consist of both types, having added sections and silos over the years. There are also several examples of rare Pomeranian-style barns in the township of Theresa.

Jim and Shirley Widmer photographed the barns during a deliberate documentation project between April and September 2004. They maintained a single photographic method throughout the project. In the first image, the owners stood five to 10 feet away; the second image consisted of the exterior taken from a different angle or of the interior.

Images of barn interiors have a magical quality to Widmer, who said stepping into the barns is like "stepping into another era." In the notes associated with the photo albums, he nostalgically recalled the smell of hay and the shafts of light coming through the wooden slats of the walls.

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. 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.

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

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