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The Widmer fish-fry crew and their server, Amy at far right, seated inside the Jail House Restaurant in West Bend, May 14, 1999 (WHI Image ID 80675)
The Widmer fish-fry crew inside the Jail House Restaurant in West Bend, 1999 WHI 80675

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

This is the second 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 I of Widmer's "Spirit of Rural Wisconsin," focuses on Theresa Township over time, and part III features barns in Theresa Township.

Fish Fry Fridays, 1997-2010

The Widmer crew outside Timmer's on Big Cedar Lake in Washington County
The Widmer crew outside Timmer's on
Big Cedar Lake in Washington County

In Wisconsin, Friday fish fry dinners are a ubiquitous tradition. Aficionados are always looking for new venues. Why are Wisconsin fish fry dinners emblematic? Many Wisconsin early settlers were German Catholics who were prohibited from eating meat on Fridays, and there were lots of lakes containing an abundance of fish. Over the decades, all around the state local cooks experimented with making a simple menu uniquely their own.

Today a typical fish fry menu consists of beer-battered fried perch, bluegill, walleye or catfish, or cod brought in from the East Coast. The fish is served with tartar sauce, French fries or German-style potato pancakes, coleslaw, and rye bread.

Jim and Shirley Widmer once traveled 235 miles to go to a fish fry. Their journeys have led them to diners, bars, country clubs, veterans’ organizations and churches all over Wisconsin. During the course of their 13-year adventure, the Widmers tasted more than 450 unique fish fry dinners in Wisconsin and compiled 16 albums of photographs.

About The Photographs

In 1997 Jim and Shirley Widmer began weekly road trips to restaurants featuring Wisconsin fish fry dinners. For 14 years they searched newspaper ads, phone books and the Internet to find new leads. Each Friday, the retired couple gathered a group of family, friends and neighbors to enjoy this Wisconsin ritual.

In August 1997 Widmer began taking two black-and-white photographs of each restaurant they visited. One was of the restaurant exterior featuring the attendees and an identifying sign in the background. The other image was an interior shot with everyone seated. If the servers agreed, they would appear in the photographs as well.

Since he was the photographer, Jim Widmer does not appear in the series. However, in one photograph, Widmer makes an appearance in the reflection of a mirror. In another, Andy Kraushaar, Visual Materials Curator at the Wisconsin Historical Society, has photographed Jim in the act of photographing the exterior of one of the fish fry locations.

In Search of the Best Wisconsin Fish Fry

Over the years, the Widmers and their friends developed a refined palate for fish. They even invented a rating system to measure the quality of each restaurant they visited. The family members devised ballots numbered from one to five, with five being the best. Each member submitted a rating, and the group used the scores to generate an average. They discarded the system when they noticed that one member gave every establishment a perfect rating regardless of the quality. Ralph Widmer, Jim Widmer's brother and weekly attendee, did not have the heart to rate any establishment lower than a five.

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 frys 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.

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