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Theresa Township Over Time | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Theresa Township Over Time - Image Gallery Essay

Jim Widmer's "Spirit of Rural Wisconsin," Part I

Theresa Township Over Time | Wisconsin Historical Society
Theresa town at night with lights shining through the fog.

Fog on a Summer Evening, 1969

Theresa, Wisconsin. Fog blankets the town on a summer evening. View the original source document: WHI 88529

This is the first article 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 articles will feature Widmer's photographs of local barns and Friday fish fry events, 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" x 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.

Wedding Pictures of the 1950s

The Widmers have compiled two albums from several weddings that give an iconic look at weddings during the 1950s in Theresa. The images were chosen from several weddings over the decade and give a glimpse of the best images taken of the formal and informal events that constitute a wedding. This set of wedding pictures contains 78 images.

"Focus on Theresa," 1940s-1970s

"Bartender Rita Koecher serves patrons: Russ Bandlow, Les Beck, & an unidentified person."."

Bartender Serving Patrons, 1949 Enlarge

Theresa, Wisconsin. Bartender Rita Koecher serves patrons Russ Bandlow, Les Beck, and (unknown). View the original source document: WHI 88269

Widmer gave this title to 216 images that mainly depict life in the vicinity of the Dodge County town of Theresa, especially of townspeople at work. Some photographs also document 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.

Remember When, 1975-2000

This is a continuation of the 'Focus on Theresa' series, concentrating on events in the town that occurred between 1975 and 2000. There are 224 images in this Focus on Theresa set.

"A Month of in the Life of Theresa," 1978

EnlargeA mail carrier reaches over and almost through a snow bank to put mail into a rural mailbox.

Rural Mail Carrier, 1978Theresa, Wisconsin.

Theresa, Wisconsin. Somewhere in this monstrous snow drift is Helen Moldenhauer's mail box. Ralph Koll delivers to one of 264 boxes on his 63.6-mile route. View the original source document: 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 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"

Enlarge"Les Beck displays a 1930s photograph of the garage that is being displaced by the present-day Theresa Cwik Mart."

Theresa Cwik Mart, 1994 Theresa, Wisconsin.

Theresa, Wisconsin. Les Beck displays a 1930s photograph of the garage that is being displaced by the construction of a Cwik Mart. View the original source document: WHI 95206

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.

The Widmer Family — A Brief Biography

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 the Dodge County town of 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 was passed down to his three sons, John, Ralph and Jim.

About the Widmer Collection

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 in 1978.

The collection includes hundreds of carefully crafted photographs of local life, of Widmer's cheese factory, of Friday-night fish fry events 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

Learn More

Explore Jim Widmer's photographs of the Friday fish fry dinner tradition in Wisconsin.

Explore Jim Widmer's photographs of barns and their owners in Theresa Township.