|Antigo’s rich railroading and agricultural history blend in a new exhibit, “The Fictional Refrigerator Cars of Langlade County,” that will be unveiled Wednesday at the Historical Society Museum.|
The exhibit is the work of railroad aficionado Dick Strasser and Tim Wooldridge, a member of the Wisconsin Valley Model Railroad Club and a skilled modeler and Kevin Bula, a collector of agricultural artifacts.
“This exhibit brings back the era when potatoes were shipped by rail in and out of Antigo,” Historical Society President Joe Hermolin said. “We can well imagine trains leaving the Chicago and Northwestern Depot pulling refrigerator cars carrying the logos of Zeloskis, Jones, Wolter, Morrissey, Matteks and more.”
The display will open, appropriately enough, at the Society’s annual railroad picnic slated for 5 p.m. It will remain at the museum through the end of the month.
Strasser became interested in the project in 2006 when he saw a framed photo of a private refrigerator car, known as a “reefer” used by the Zeloski family to transport potatoes to market from their farms in Antigo, Eagle River and Lake Mills.
Strasser said he was fascinated by the photo and soon acquired a set of Zeloski decals, which he applied to a scale model of a 40-foot refrigerator car.
Zeloski was the only grower with a private car, but Strasser decided to expand the project in a “what if” direction, creating scale model reefers to celebrate the myriad of other growers who produced spuds under their own labels, which were printed on 100-pound burlap bags.
He hit a mother lode of information with the help of Bula, a potato inspector with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, who has amassed a collection of over two dozen burlap bags with the logos/brands beautifully preserved.
“Now having found the bags, I had to figure a way to get the logos and related information onto the model railroad cars,” Strasser said.
Wooldridge was the key, having the technical knowledge and skills to do the necessary computer applications.
Wooldridge photographed 11 of the bags with a digital camera, did some compute manipulation and created the artwork needed to make the decals.
The project required some manipulation of the logos.
“That was acceptable as long as the appearance of the car was true to the logo,” he said. “After all, these cars never existed, so who can say they are wrong.”
The logos were sized to fit the HO scale model cars, which were stripped of their original paint and repainted before the decals were applied.
The series soon grew to include two Jones cars, Herb Wolter, Leonard Wild, Morrissey Farms, Jim Spychalla, Lucky Devil Farms and a second Zeloski car.
They were followed by those for Tom O’Brien, B.H. Diercks, Ted Baginski, J.W. Mattek and Tony Spychalla and later, Thomas Gallenberg, Don Wirz, Hartman Farms, Certified Seed Farm, which is the Wisconsin State Seed Farm Badger State brand, Kapusta’s L’il Bear and the Royal Ace.
Cars under consideration for the future include Powell Farms, Railview, Zalewski Bros., Guenthner’s Lake of the Woods, Schroeder Bros., Antigo Royals, Jackson Farms at Lily, and Prosser Bros.
True to history, the exhibit includes two types of refrigerator cars—those that might have been owned by the growers and those that would have been leased, Strasser said.
Bula’s collection forms the linchpin of the display, Strasser said, but some detective work was required for others. The Railview bag was discovered in conversations with Caroline (Wolter) Wild, who told Strasser that when the Wild Farm purchased the Railview Farm, they also acquired some of the bags. That logo contained a diesel locomotive, which was not placed into service until long after private reefers were banned in 1934.
“We decided that inasmuch as this was a railroad project and we wanted to use the logo as it was, we would let anyone challenge its authenticity if they wished,” Strasser said
Some gentle persuasion also came into play.
Originally, the J.W. Mattek logo was not included, since Bula didn’t have a bag in his collection.
“When I called the farm, I met Mr. Mattek’s granddaughter, Beth,” Strasser said. “Yes they had a bag with the logo. In fact, they had saved two but only one was left and she said ‘we don’t let it out of our sight.’ It was a challenge but eventually Beth let me have one bag for 24 hours to do the photography and begin the artwork.”
Strasser said that 24 cars have been completed and he’d like to do a few more.
“We are not without omissions,” he said. “We continue to look for the original Prosser Bros. brand, Diercks and Son at Bryant and the Luther Farms logo in Elcho as well as others that have disappeared from the potato growing scene.”
The reefer era was short, caused in part by obstruction on the part of the railroads, which disliked hauling the private cars and claimed that the bawdy billboards that decorated the sides of the cars were unfair competition.
In 1934 the Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed advertisements of shippers or products in newly constructed or repainted reefer cars. By 1938, no refrigerator cars bearing advertisements of any shipper, consignee or product were accepted in interchange or handled locally on any railroad.
It was a hollow victory for the railroads.
“Without the economic incentives of car leasing, arrangements and the free advertising the cars allowed, many shippers stopped using the railroads and turned to trucks to transport their products,” Strasser said. “The era of the colorful billboard reefers came quickly to a close.”
Kevin Bula, left, and Dick Strasser with several of the bags, reefer cars and photographs that will be included in the new exhibit.