HAZELHURST – A little spray paint and an old steel railroad bridge may not sound sentimental, but their planned removal has created an uproar in the North Woods.
If you’ve ever used Highway 51 to drive north to Minocqua, Mercer, Manitowish Waters and scores of other lake-filled destinations in this part of the state, you’ve driven under the bridge and consciously or subconsciously realized you’re Up North.
The bridge also reminds travelers that they’ve entered T-Bird Country.
Four-foot letters spray painted in white have spelled it out for years on the south face of the 88-ton structure. But come late summer, the 60-foot bridge, along with the nod to Minocqua’s Lakeland Union High School mascot, will be removed and replaced with a larger, more modern concrete version sans graffiti.
“I think there’s mixed emotions,” said Kieth Bullion, who has lived just over a mile from the bridge since 1971 and graduated from the high school in 1967. “This bridge has been a burden but it’s been a part of this town for a long time. It’s personal to a lot of people.”
There are classic northern Wisconsin getaways south of here, but for thousands of people the bridge has served as a signal that it wouldn’t be long before the boat is launched, the bikes taken off the roof rack, or the snowmobiles fired up for a weekend trek.
Bullion was perched at the end of the bar at the Hazelhurst Pub where talk of the bridge’s demise has been commonplace. Stories have been broadcast on television news stations around the state, while the Lakeland Times filled its masthead with a photo of the bridge in its Feb. 16 issue and asked readers to weigh in on its Facebook page. Three days later, a front-page headline above the fold read “Community upset about loss of iconic bridge.”
The newspaper’s Facebook page has logged over 200 comments about the aging bridge and the article has been shared over 360 times.
“How will I know when I’m there,” wrote Debbie Kessel of Elkhorn. “Will miss it,” Wendy McClure of Stoughton posted. “No, no, no, that’s my landmark going to the cabin,” Claudia Fields of Alma Center, told the Facebook audience.
Others suggested the bridge be moved to the side of the road and turned into a billboard, while some advocated for “T-Bird Country” to be incorporated into the design. Others predicted that it likely won’t take long for the new bridge to be tagged with the familiar slogan.
Susan Hurthle Banks of Lake Bluff, Illinois, wrote: Somebody better keep it ‘graffitied’ with “T-Bird Country” so we know we’re headed in the right direction.
Mike Wendt, project supervisor for the state Department of Transportation, said the replacement bridge will be more than four times longer and is designed to improve site lines for motorists on Highway 51 and nearby intersections. The bridge will also provide a 20-foot, 3-inch clearance, 6 feet higher than the bridge that was built in 1938. The new height will prevent hits and allow trucks with large loads to no longer be forced to find alternate routes.
The bridge is used by bicyclists, hikers and those on snowmobiles on what is now the Bearskin Trail. The new span will increase the width of the bridge’s deck from 10 feet to 14 feet and provide more room for snow grooming machines and other traffic, Wendt said.
Bids on the project, expected to cost between $1 million and $2 million, will be let in a few weeks. Incorporating “T-Bird Country” into the design of the bridge is not an option because it would require a costly redesign and delay the project, Wendt said. The issue was “not identified early in our public involvement process” when the DOT held public information meetings on the plan, he said.
The old bridge, owned by the Department of Natural Resources, will become the property of the construction company that wins the bid but Wendt said the bridge could be sold and displayed along the road or moved somewhere else in the community. The DOT could also work with the community on placing a “T-Bird Country” sign near the bridge.
“We’d be more than willing to work with them on that,” Wendt said. “We’d definitely be open to some things.”
One of those against the removal of the bridge is Don Scharbarth, the athletic director at Lakeland Union High School that draws from a large area surrounding Minocqua. He grew up in Merrill and had fond memories of the bridge as a child on family trips Up North before he came here to teach and coach football 26 years ago.
“I don’t know how in the world they’re going to keep ‘T-Bird Country’ off of that bridge,” Scharbarth said.
In 2008 or 2009, the bridge had been cleaned of graffiti and sat for a year or two with nothing on it. In 2010, Scharbarth’s son, Tyler, now 23 and in college at Viterbo University in La Crosse, along with other members of the football team, used harnesses and ropes to maneuver around protective fencing and return “T-Bird Country” to the bridge. They even had lookouts stationed north and south of the bridge.
“For those of us that live here it means we’re home and we’re in T-Bird Country,” Scharbarth said. “In our community, it’s an icon.”
But whether the beloved graffiti-filled bridge is preserved or not, a Minocqua-based wildlife artist has ensured that the bridge will never be forgotten.
Bob Metropulos makes a living at painting spectacular images of pileated woodpeckers, eagles, loons, fox, wolves and other critters but his bridge painting may end up being the biggest seller of his 35-year career. He has made 200 limited edition prints on canvas but also has less expensive paper prints and coffee mugs with images of the bridge at his Parkside Gallery.
Scharbarth, the athletic director, has a canvas print in his office.
In 2014, at the urging of a friend, Metropulos took detailed pictures of the bridge, roadway and its surroundings and began painting in his Front Street studio. His work has been for sale for about 18 months but as news of the bridge’s fate began to spread, his phone more recently has begun to steadily ring with orders from all over the country.
“We’ve been averaging three or four a day,” said Metropulos, 58. “It’s been unbelievable. It is crazy the passion people have for this bridge.”
Metropulos grew up in Cedarburg, where his mother was an artist, and after high school attended UW-Oshkosh before dropping out and pursuing his art career. He began in 1979 in Lake Tomahawk and in 1981 moved his business to Minocqua.
One of the front windows of his art studio and gallery, just a few doors down from Alexander’s Pizza, is filled with paintings of the bridge. Metropulos, who also makes children’s books, would love to see the real bridge preserved and possibly moved to the high school.
“The kids could come out and cross over the bridge when they graduate as a symbolic gesture,” Metropulos said. “Do I have the money to do this? No. But I’d like to be a catalyst.”
The bridge, just south of Highway D, will remain in place for about another six months. Come summer it will get just as much attention as sunsets, 45-inch muskie and one-pound cones from Briq’s Soft Serve.
Mike Bewick, 59, of Fitchburg, bought land in 1988 on nearby Bear Lake, located southwest of the bridge but accessed by taking Cedar Lake Road just to the north. Beaver, otter and eagles are frequent visitors to Bewick’s 312-acre spring-fed lake.
But after this weekend, following what is likely the last snowmobile trip of the season and a visit to Metropulos’ gallery, a painting of the bridge will hang in the electrical engineer’s office at L.W. Allen on Madison’s East Side.
“It reminds me of Up North,” Bewick said. “It’s a great place to be. I love it up there.”