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BRF man builds what he believes is Wisconsin's largest snowman

As Jack Taylor saw the record-setting snow pile up outside, only one response seemed appropriate: Build a record-setting snowman.

So he did — with a little help from friends and family.

Taylor, 28, of Black River Falls, put the finishing touches Tuesday morning on what he believes is the largest snowman ever built in Wisconsin.

The 40-foot-tall colossus — with car tires for buttons, 5-gallon bucket lids for eyes and an orange construction cone for a nose — stands proudly at the farm owned by Taylor’s parents, Elizabeth and Jack Taylor Sr., at N3260 E. Pine Hill Road, about eight miles south of Black River Falls in Jackson County.

“You know how the old saying goes, ‘When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade,’ so I figured when God gives you record snowfall, you make a record snowman,” Taylor said, noting that he came up with the idea last winter but didn’t believe there was enough snow to pursue the project.

That’s not a problem this year, when communities throughout west-central Wisconsin set a monthly snowfall record in February and are nearing or have broken all-time winter records. Black River Falls has received 71.7 inches of snow so far this winter, setting an unofficial new season high since record-keeping began in 1893, said Logan Lee, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in La Crosse.

Five people worked on the snowman for about five days, Taylor reported. In addition to shovels, hands and feet, the crew resorted to heavy equipment, including a Bobcat, skid steer and snowplow, to move snow into position. To get snow to the top of the gargantuan creation, they employed a corn elevator — the kind normally used to put hay in the upper level of a barn.

“Then we had somebody up there packing it down with shovels and feet so it doesn’t just blow away,” said Taylor, an independent filmmaker who owns his own company, Taylor Media.

He applied the final decorations Tuesday, wrapping an entire roll of red felt around the snowman’s neck for a scarf, hanging the tires from the snow sculpture’s belly on fence posts and concocting a black top hat out of metal framing and plastic.

The giant snowman already has been creating a stir in the community as word spreads and gawkers drive by. The Black River Area Chamber of Commerce reported receiving quite a few phone calls Tuesday morning from people wondering how to get to the site.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Amanda Gunn, the chamber’s executive director. “Jack does a really good job of bringing the community together with his videos, and this is another good example of that.”

The biggest motivation for Taylor was to give people a reason to smile in a winter that has brought more grimaces than grins.

“A big part of it is to bring the town together and make people proud of where they come from, and I thought this snowman could be a means to that end,” he said, adding that he hopes it will bring attention to his hometown as the “home of the state’s largest snowman ever.”

Taylor is no stranger to setting records. As a college basketball player at Grinnell College in Iowa, he set the National Collegiate Athletic Association record for most points scored in a game when he piled up 138 points on Nov. 20, 2012, against Faith Baptist Bible College. The feat attracted national news.

His latest attempt at a record came about after Taylor searched the internet for reports of the biggest snowmen built in Wisconsin and couldn’t find anything taller than 20 or 30 feet.

“I just built it bigger than any stories I saw, and then I claimed the record,” he said, acknowledging that his project doesn’t threaten the Guinness World Records-sanctioned snowman measuring 122 feet, 1 inch tall that was built over a month in 2008 in Bethel, Maine.

Still, several observers have indicated the Jackson County snowman looks even bigger than they expected, and Taylor said such comments have him feeling like all the hard work was worthwhile.

One of Taylor’s assistant snow sculptors, retired Black River Falls elementary school teacher Tom Epps, said he took part because he wanted to be part of state history — and thought the project sounded like fun.

Epps said the crew used fencing to hold sections of the snowman in place until they could pack it down and then kept repeating that technique until the snowman was complete.

“We’d fill it up, and up we went,” Epps said. “It was quite a process.”

With a forecast calling for rain and high temperatures in the upper 40s and 50s the next two days, the question of how long the snowman will remain standing is up in the air.

“I don’t know when this thing is going to melt,” Taylor said. “It could be May. Who knows? It could be June.”

Chippewa Valley Museum receives $20,000 grant

When the Chippewa Valley Museum first opened its doors more than five decades ago, its mission was to connect with the community and preserve the region’s history.

As what many are calling a community “musical renaissance” continues to flourish, the museum just got one step closer to documenting that aspect of the Chippewa Valley. On Tuesday, the museum announced it has received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that will help fund a $275,000 collaborative community project, “Musical Identities.”

The project will be a multi-year initiative to expand and deepen access to Eau Claire’s culture by way of music and music history, said Chippewa Valley Museum director Carrie Ronnander.

“We’re always thinking about different things that the community is interested in and try to add it to our museum as a way to represent it,” Ronnander said. “There’s always been this interest in local music, and we’ve done a lot of work over the years collecting classic and traditional folk music and, if not collecting it, talking to folk artists. All of that has kind of bubbled up and now we’re working to capture it.”

The idea for the project, Ronnander said, originated with the “Sounds of Eau Claire” podcast that was launched at UW-Eau Claire in 2016.

Greg Kocken, university archivist, said “Sounds of Eau Claire” was born from a realization that the community’s understanding of local music was “kind of shallow.”

“We talk about Eaux Claires (Music & Arts Festival), we talk about indie rock and Bon Iver, we talk about the nationally-recognized jazz program at UW-Eau Claire,” Kocken said, “but the roots of music in our community are so much deeper than people realize.”

Kocken said he’s excited to see how their work can be continued at the Chippewa Valley Museum.

“What we see now is that we understand the deep roots of this current musical moment in Eau Claire, and we see an opportunity where the Chippewa Valley Museum can build upon what’s been achieved and tell this story now that we know more about it.”

“Musical Identities” includes plans for a new exhibit at the museum, which will work to document often forgotten about aspects of the community’s musical heritage, Ronnander said. That will include explorations into music brought to and born in lumbering camps throughout the Chippewa Valley, the classical music created within the walls of Eau Claire’s opera house in the late 1800s, as well as the music of Hmong and Native American cultures.

Viewpoints and content for the project will not only come from museum staff, but also from “Sounds of Eau Claire” and other community members who brought in instruments and music at the museum’s History Harvest last March.

“It’s a cooperative venture,” Ronnander said.

Though plans for the exhibit are still in preliminary stages as it will not open until next spring, Ronnander said she envisions listening stations so visitors can hear musical samplings of all genres and all time periods.

North Carolina professional folklorist and musician Joseph O’Connell will come to Eau Claire in April to begin documenting the role of traditional and community-based music in the Chippewa Valley by interviewing artists for podcasts, which will be released in the fall.

The project, Ronnander said, also includes plans to renovate the museum’s theater and create a new show to go with it. Because the theater’s technology hasn’t been updated since 1998, that is the highest expense of the project.

In addition, a music history walking tour mobile app is in the works with support and assistance from Visit Eau Claire.

“The idea is to take our music history and make it more democratic and more accessible,” Ronnander said. “You don’t have to come here to the museum to find out about history and music, you can be out in the community and participate.”

As fundraising efforts continue for “Musical Identities,” Ronnander said she’s thankful for the opportunity to collaborate with so many community partners.

“One of the goals and one of the needs of the museum is to make sure we have as many partners as possible to get things done, because we alone as an institution will not be able to do it,” she said. “And it’s fun, because people bring all kinds of ideas.”

State Street reconstruction project to move forward

Construction on the city’s biggest road project of the year is expected to start in late May at the earliest.

The Eau Claire City Council Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the reconstruction of State Street from Garfield Avenue to the south city limits.

The project, which stretches almost a mile, includes the construction of roundabouts at Hamilton Avenue, MacArthur Avenue and Lexington Boulevard.

And it could include building a fourth at Roosevelt Avenue. The council, adopting an amendment offered by Councilman Jeremy Gragert, directed city staff to explore building a larger roundabout at the intersection.

That action means the project will be completed in two years, with the stretch from Bartlett Court south being built this year and the piece from Bartlett Court north to Garfield Avenue being completed in 2020, city engineer David Solberg said.

He estimated building a roundabout at Roosevelt to cost about $70,000 in materials and acquiring the necessary property to construct it at $200,000 to $1 million.

Going into Tuesday’s meeting, the estimated total price tag for the project, which includes replacing aging water and sewer utilities, rebuilding State Street and making safety improvements along the corridor, at $2.57 million. The state Department of Transportation is expected to chip in about $170,600.

“Obviously, there are additional costs for this, and there’s additional work for our city staff … ,” Gragert said. But both are worth the effort to improve safety at the crossing, he said.

“To me, it’s worth doing it right,” said acting council President Andrew Werthmann, noting people have died trying to cross other city streets.

The Roosevelt Avenue-State Street intersection was studied extensively during the lengthy public involvement process, according to a memo from the city’s Engineering Department to the City Council.

“Roosevelt Avenue experiences significant delay and congestion during peak traffic hours while Street Street traffic flows freely,” the memo reads. “Turning from Roosevelt Avenue onto State Street during peak hours currently results in a two-minute delay to make turns.”

In addition, it can be difficult for pedestrians to cross State Street.

Engineers looked at building a roundabout at Roosevelt, but one that would fit into the “existing right-of-way limits would not accommodate the traffic using the intersection without potentially causing southbound traffic to back up 500 feet causing safety concerns for the traffic signals at Garfield Avenue during evening peak hour,” the memo reads. “During the morning peak, a similar length queue is estimated to develop for northbound traffic.

“To accommodate the traffic using the intersection, a roundabout capable of safely handling traffic would need to be larger than what would fit in the right-of-way and would require purchasing right-of-way from adjacent properties.”