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Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua Oral-History Project

Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin, 2010
by Rick Olivo, The Daily Press Staff Writer

Published: Friday, August 20, 2010 9:26 AM CDT 

Oral history project highlights 25 years of Big Top Chautauqua
Material gathered also to be used for anniversary exhibit at Visitor Center

BAYFIELD — In the nearly quarter century since its founding, Big Top Chautauqua has done far more than just bring a host of acts to its blue-and-white-striped tent at the foot of Mount Ashwabay, south of Bayfield.

Big Top Chautauqua has been an economic boon for the area, influenced the way tourism works along the south shore of Lake Superior, and has brought about a lasting cultural change to the region.

Foremost perhaps, the Big Top is thought of as the organization that has brought the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and Garrison Keillor to town. It's also the venue where the creative team of Warren Nelson and Betty Ferris created shows about local history that continue to captivate audiences year after year.

It is two and a half decades of Chequamegon Bay regional history — memories of triumphs and disasters, both large and small. Memorable performances and the unseen day-to-day work that makes the magic possible. Memories that won't be lost to posterity thanks to a Wisconsin Historical Society project to record and archive the oral history of Big Top Chautauqua.

"It's the most exciting oral history project I have ever worked on, and I have worked on quite a few," said Mary Rehwald of Ashland, who is serving as lead oral historian for the project.

Rehwald, who has been an oral historian since the early 1970s, gave credit for the project to Linda Mittlestadt of the Wisconsin Historical Society's History Center and Archives at the Northern Great Lake Visitor Center near Ashland, and Susan Nelson of the U.S. Forest Service, who also works out of the visitor center.

(Photo: The project to obtain the oral history of Big Top Chautauqua was a collaboration of, from left, Linda Mittlestadt, of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Center and archives at the Northern Great Lake Visitor Center, Susan Nelson of the U.S. Forest Service, and Mary Rehwald, who acted as lead oral historian. The project sought to capture firsthand the stories that expressed the creative energies that made Big Top an enduring success. Photo Submitted)

"We have been talking for a couple of years about doing a major oral history project about Big Top Chautauqua," said Rehwald.

Rehwald said because of the scope of the project, it has brought in about a dozen "Passport In Time" volunteers from all over the country to carry out a majority of the interviews. The volunteers are part of a program sponsored by the Forest Service which recruits volunteers to work for five days on an archaeological or historical program in the field at a location of their choosing in the United States.

It is a task that the volunteers have taken to with alacrity.

"It's been so much fun," said Jean Timpel of Campbellsport, who came up to Big Top with her husband, Don.

"We had two days of training and they gave us six or seven interviews to conduct, and it's been a lot of fun.”

Jean said she had been fascinated with the Chautauqua in general, and the ambiance of the Bayfield area.

"It's fun to travel and then get to be part of the fabric of the place you are going to," she said.

"From what we have been gathering, this is something that is unique and special," said Don Timpel. "The people, the community involvement with the show, it's a real combination of people working together.

"The community support is amazing. It's 'our' Chautauqua. It's neat to hear it said that way," said Jean "It's theirs, they really want it to succeed. They see economic hard times, they see changes, but the Chautauqua has to keep going."

Rehwald said because of the various impacts Big Top has had on the area, it is an excellent choice for an oral history project.

"They are going to be celebrating their 25th anniversary next summer, and they are one of the main tourist draws in our area,” she noted. “They pay out $1.4 million a year for their programs and are completely unique in the United States because of the local musical histories that Warren Nelson and Betty Ferris have put together since they first started in 1976 in Fairmont, Minn.

“They came to Washburn in 1983 and did ‘Souvenir Views.’ They did ‘Take it to the Lake’ in 1985 and put up a tent in 1986. They have not only transformed the face of entertainment for the people who go there, but also changed the lives of the people who perform there. They have attracted major talent."

Rehwald said many of those talented people have chosen to make their homes in the bay area and have enriched the region.

"There are a lot of stories that are pretty amazing," said Rehwald.

One of them concerns Stevie Matier of Ireland who originally came with "Differnt Drums of Ireland" to perform.

"They had a gig in Milwaukee and somebody told them 'You have to go and sign up to perform at Big Top Chautauqua.' He said they didn't know it was a tent, when they drove up the road through the trees, to the Chautauqua grounds, they absolutely could not believe it," Rehwald said.

Matier has since moved to the Bayfield area and is now married to Big Top Executive Director Terry Mayer-Matier.

It is to uncover gems of personal history like Matier's story that the oral history project was organized. The interviews include performers, composers, technicians, funders, operations people, volunteers, volunteer The compilers of the history are dedicated to the task, said Rehwald.

"These are wonderful students, who are very interested in history and they were great interviewers," he said.

The volunteers set up a total of 42 interviews and by the end of the week, they had actually recorded 45 interviews.

(Photo: Big Top Chautauqua lighting designer Rebecca Franklin, left, is interviewed by lead oral historian Mary Rehwald, who is heading up a project to gather verbal histories relating to the 25 years of Big Top Chautauqua's history. The project, which gathered well over 40 interviews over the course of a week, utilized the talents of volunteer "Passport In Time" members through the U.S. Forest Service and with the assistance of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The material gathered will be transcribed and made available to the public and will also be used to help create an exhibit next summer at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center. Photo courtesy of Rick Olivo)

"It was more successful than I had even dreamed," Rehwald said. "Phil Anich, the operations manager there, was so excited about our group that he asked if he could sing for them, so he gave a two-hour concert. It was a thrill for everybody because he sang a lot of the original songs from the musical histories."

The volunteers also had the opportunity to take in a Big Top show, watching the group "Great Big Sea" from Newfoundland.

"It was an amazing week," said Rehwald.

The project had people so excited that there were people seeking to be interviewed even after the volunteers have gone home.

"Forty-two interviews doesn't cover the waterfront where the people involved are concerned," she said. "I have a list of them to take care of. One of the volunteers said she would come back in early September to take care of them, and I have two I'm going to do next week."coordinators, tent-raisers, board members and others involved in the quarter-century long story of the Big Top.

The interviews are all deposited in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, Rehwald said.

Part of the funding for the project includes the preparation of an exhibit at the visitor center in conjunction with Big Top's 25th anniversary.

"We've already started transcribing these interviews. The goal is to transcribe them all, and they will be available for anybody in the public to view," Rehwald said. "It's primary research and it has never been done before."

Rehwald said the effort was important for understanding the history and culture of the area.

"This project focused on storytelling, and storytelling is the main thread of people's authentic lives, and it's what builds our culture. This tells the story of a vision put together by Warren Nelson and Betty Ferris, something that came true and has had a major impact on the area."
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