NEILLSVILLE – History, cheese, rock ‘n’ roll and the world’s largest talking cow.
There’s a lot going on near the Neillsville Country Club and across Highway 10 from the Clark County Fairgrounds.
But it’s the stewardship of the property and dedication to a business model that has allowed the Wisconsin Pavilion to remain relevant 50 years after its debut at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York.
Peggy and Kevin Grap, owners of the 12-sided, star-shaped building, admit it would be a lot easier and less expensive to operate their trio of radio stations and cheese shop in a more conventional space.
Heat and air conditioning gets lost in the upper reaches of the building’s 60-foot peak. The metal roof needs painting every five years, and the rock garden, fountains and massive lawn need constant care. The light at the top of the building’s “Wisconsin” spire burned out years ago. To replace the bulb would require a crane.
Besides, few properties could accommodate Chatty Belle, a 16-foot-tall, 20-foot-long, fiberglass talking Holstein cow.
“You can operate a radio station a lot more efficiently,” said Kevin Grap, 57, who bought the businesses from his father, Wayne Grap, in 1987 and has been mowing the lawn here since he was 10 years old. “It’s a challenge but it makes you proud you kept it.”
“Especially when people come in, they walk in the door and they look up and they’re in awe of the building,” Peggy Grap, 55, added. “There’s excitement.”
The Graps have not only cared for the building but are almost an anomaly in the radio industry. They have three local radio stations and a roster of long-time employees, many with more than 20 years under their belt.
WCCN-AM went on the air in 1957 and plays big band music and, on weekends, polkas. WCCN-FM debuted in 1964 and is now a 100,000-watt regional hard-rock station, while WPKG-FM, launched in 1995, is adult contemporary and carries high school football, girls’ and boys’ basketball and other local happenings.
No dark studios here. The unique design of the building with its large triangular bay windows floods the studios with natural light.
“You get some nice sunrises,” said Larry Hoeser, 48, an announcer and sports director who has worked for the Graps for 25 years. “A normal studio is usually in a box.”
The building, referred to as the Rotunda during the World’s Fair, served as the entryway to a much larger exhibit building at the fair.
It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012 thanks to the exhaustive research by local chicken farmer Pat Lacey, who submitted the application to the U.S. Department of Interior.
Lacey compared the Pavilion, designed by Monticello native John Steinmann, to other Steinmann buildings like the Karakauhl Country Inn and Gonstead Clinic in Mount Horeb, and to other notable state structures such as the Mitchell Park Domes in Milwaukee and the former Gobbler restaurant building in Johnson Creek.
“Few mid-century modern buildings in Wisconsin are comparable to the Wisconsin Pavilion,” Lacey wrote. “While the Wisconsin Pavilion has lost its integrity of original location, it retains those elements that clearly identify it as the building erected for the fair.”
The pavilion almost wasn’t built, but Clark Prudhon, president of Pruden Products in Evansville, made sure the project would be completed.
The state’s World’s Fair Commission had been working on plans for a building at the fair but by late 1963 was short on money. Disappointed that the state would be absent at the two-year event, Prudhon recruited Steinmann and convinced other businesses around the state to contribute.
The Pavilion included exhibits on state culture, history, our universities, natural resources and the state’s agricultural industries. One of the big draws was a 17-ton block of cheese housed in a refrigerated semi-trailer with glass sides.
The cheddar was made at Steve’s Cheese near Denmark for the Wisconsin Cheese Foundation and required 367,000 pounds of milk, nearly 700 pounds of salt and 92 pounds of rennet. The end product was a rectangular block of cheese more than 6 feet wide, 5 feet tall and 14 feet long, according to a historical brochure from the fair.
An estimated 13 million people passed through the Pavilion over the two-year run of the fair, including Ivan Wilcox of Boscobel.
The Pavilion was destined to become scrap, but Wilcox offered the state $5,000 for the Rotunda. He spent another $7,000 dismantling the building and shipping it back to Wisconsin in three trucks, according to Bill Young, a World’s Fair historian.
When plans to rebuild the Pavilion in Boscobel for use as a dance hall fell through, Wilcox put the building up for sale.
In 1966, Central Wisconsin Broadcasting, where Wayne Grap was a partner, purchased the structure and had it rebuilt in Neillsville for the radio station.
“We have the building so we’ve decided to take care of it the best we can,” Kevin Grap said. “It’s part of history.”
The Pavilion has been a news star this year. Newspapers and travel guides in this region have featured its story, and it was the subject of a 10-page spread in the summer edition of the Wisconsin Magazine of History.
“We all take it for granted, but it’s a big deal,” said Janel Thur, 48, who grew up in Neillsville and has worked at the Pavilion for 23 years. Thur answers the phone, does paperwork for the radio stations and slices and sells aged cheddar and smoked Gouda.
“I can’t imagine having another job,” she said.
Thur is also the voice of Chatty Belle, who consumes quarters and in return tells the history of the property.
Chatty Belle arrived in 1967 after being built by Sculptured Advertising in Sparta. The cow’s name came from a radio contest in which listeners were asked for submissions. The winner, Jody Hartl of Loyal, won 100 pounds of Grassland Butter.
“She’s an iconic figure in our community,” Thur said of Chatty Belle. “She’s been here forever.”
Chatty Belle and the Pavilion will likely be around for decades to come.
Two of the Graps’ three children are involved with the radio stations and cheese shop. Kaleb, 23, is more music oriented while Logan, 22, is in charge of technical aspects and social media. They say they plan to continue the stewardship of their grandfather and parents.
“Everyone recognizes the building as being part of the radio stations,” Kaleb said.
Added Logan: “It’s a landmark and it has historic value. We grew up playing around here and so it has sentimental value.”