There’s a wonderful, little heralded landmark in the rapidly changing surroundings of downtown Grafton, Wisconsin. It’s unobtrusive, yet it is quite impressive, once you know it’s there. Look at it closely enough to stop taking it for granted. It’s a beautiful old Victorian house (correct me if I’ve mischaracterized it) impeccably and solidly built well over a hundred years ago, with an esthetic sense appreciated both by our ancestors, when Grafton was first taking shape, and now, by us, in the dawn of a new-breaking century. The house is graced with stained glass that attracts the admiration of passers-by, and must have provided beautiful interior light to generations who grew up and grew old there, at sunrise and in the glow of a full moon.
This sound and graceful, time-tested home is honored and accompanied on its lot by a truly magnificent tree. There may be no one left who can say for sure, but my strong guess is that tree was grown tall, stately, and proud, long before the newly-arrived European immigrants began settling here and laying out streets. It’s a finely proportioned black walnut tree bearing genes selected by and for the ages.
One evening, my wife and I, en-route to a rendezvous with pizza, marveled at it. I couldn’t resist seeing if we could encircle its girth. It’s a really big, perfectly balanced tree. I think the two of us could barely touch fingers, reaching around it. How old is it? Maybe older than the Republic. How would I know?
Perhaps you know the house and the tree. They’re pretty close to the spanking new Paramount Plaza with the piano keys sidewalk and the inexplicably smaller-than-life-size sculpted figures placed in a fountain. They are there to herald and exploit a page from our past, unappreciated until several generations had slipped by, and the outside world discovered for us our forgotten legacy. A legacy forever connecting the Village of Grafton with the world of creative art in the form of the quintessentially American creations known as blues, jazz, and gospel music.
That diminutive trio of castings is meant to represent the famous and great Ma Rainey, Son House, and Louis Armstrong, who were among the many originators of jazz and blues who gave it up for Paramount Records in Grafton’s Wisconsin Chair Factory. Regardless of whether each of these particular three artists ever actually recorded in Grafton, we can be assured that none of those visiting musicians would have announced their presence here with an outdoor Grafton Paramount Blues Festival or even an impromptu cut-loose performance anywhere in the county.
So the sculpture, portraying the three great musicians, formally entertaining and expansively projecting in all directions, right in front of the Union Hotel, is more an evocation of what might have been, than of what actually took place here. All those progenitors of a uniquely made-in-America musical art form slipped quietly in and out of Grafton, avoiding notice and never feeling free enough, or encouraged to let their unfamiliar sounds resonate through our streets and parks and reach our tuned-out ears. What was missed and lost then is a metaphor for much of what is sadly missed in life.
When a unique creativity occurs right among us, and is close enough to touch, do we react as if it’s not worthy of our notice? If something is “different” from our limited experience, are we reluctant to get to know it, much less embrace it? A sculpture depicting the actual historical Paramount Blues Records experience in Grafton might be one anonymous (life-size, please) blues musician, sitting alone on a bench outside the train depot, waiting for hours with his encased instrument, as others at the station assiduously avoid his proximity or eye contact. Art sometimes does us the favor of representing possibilities, in contrast to the true past.
I’m no architecture critic, but the Grafton downtown looks pretty good, compared to what was there just a few years ago. The new construction and renovations on 12th Avenue itself, and the new buildings on three corners of the Hwy 60 intersection with 12th Ave. are, by and large, real improvements and look like a credit to the village, the residents, the designers and builders, and the property owners.
But sometimes the past is also worth remembering, valuing, honoring, and protecting. That’s why I wanted to tell you about that beautiful piece of preserved artistry and workmanship in the striking Victorian house, and it’s irreplaceable companion, the great old walnut tree, that grace the downtown Grafton lot on the northwest corner of Beech Street and 11th Avenue. You may have noticed them. You can’t miss them. The massive thriving gentle giant walnut stands right near the very corner of that lot, at that intersection. The beautiful old Victorian home faces Beech Street, just west of where the tree stands.
Take a look while there’s yet time. Such a grand work of nature and a superlative example of human ingenuity and craftsmanship can disappear overnight when the opportunity for profit rules the judgments of men. I can imagine both my ancestors and those musicians admiring that grand old black walnut. I hope this article does not reach you too late for you to see and appreciate them, too. May that fine native walnut tree continue to grace Grafton for another century.
The last surviving blues musician among all those who recorded in Grafton was convinced, at age 96, to come to Grafton to perform at the 1st Annual Paramount Blues Festival in 2006. He died here during the Festival, and the hat was passed to come up with money to ship his body home. Grafton may be able to cash in on the international interest in Blues, Jazz and Gospel – the “race music” that was never appreciated here. (If not, it won’t be for lack of entrepreneurial effort.) But most of the artists who created the music itself never realized a slim living, much less financial rewards, for their creation and its progeny.