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Arts & Culture

Efforts Begin To Enshrine ‘T-Bird Country’ Bridge Panel

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A Minocqua businessman is leading efforts to preserve and enshrine a panel from the iconic “T-Bird Country” railroad bridge that spans U.S. Highway 51 in Hazelhurst.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) will replace the 88-ton steel structure near Highway D with a new bridge in a few months as part of the U.S. Highway 51 reconstruction project underway. The Bearskin State Recreation Trail runs across the current 58-foot bridge, built in 1938.

The new bridge will have a higher height clearance of 16 feet, 3 inches, about 6 feet higher than the “T-Bird” bridge. The new bridge deck will be wider, too, allowing snowmobile trail groomers easier passage.

Flanked by supporters at Monday’s Lakeland Union High School Board, Minocqua artist and Parkside Gallery owner Bob Metropulos, Jr., laid out a proposal to have the bridge panel with the “T-Bird Country” lettering refurbished and placed on pillars at the high school’s north entrance. “I think that this is a good thing for the community,” Metropulos told the board. “I think we can use this bridge as a way to bridge the community and education together. I think it’s something that’s going to be there that no other school has.”

The bridge and its spray-painted “T-Bird Country” graffiti have welcomed tourists for decades as the gateway to the Northwoods -- as many have characterized it -- while warning visiting athletic teams of Lakeland Union High School’s reputation for winning. Many have fond memories of the “T-Bird” bridge, and in no small way, are dismayed to see its pending demise. Metropulos noted the growing voices of concern when he painted the bridge three years ago and started selling prints of it titled, “Gateway to the Northwoods.” “A lot of people coming into the gallery . . . (are) in tears because this bridge is coming down, believe it or not,” he said. Affected were not just the alumni of Lakeland, but also tourists and anyone who frequented the area, he explained. “My daughter actually painted on this (bridge) in 1999,” he said. Energized by the response, he approached Pheifer Brothers Construction Company, the bridge contractors, asking to buy the bridge. He explaining he wanted to have a fundraiser and donate it to the school. Others, he was told, had made similar requests. Sometime later he was asked to meet company representative Scott Pheifer at the bridge site. “Well, we’re not selling it you,’” Metropoulos said he was told. Taken aback, Metropulus said he replied, “What do you mean, you’re not selling it to me?” “‘No,” said Pheifer, “we’re going to donate it.’” “I told him that ‘If we were not on the side of the road with traffic going by, I would give you a big hug!’”

A groundswell of support has followed. Firms have offered the use of a crane and truck to move the structure to the school. Local businesses have offered to donate the granite for a marker along with patio materials and landscaping. Metropulos said he has had “nothing but support” from town of Minocqua and Oneida County officials. With the offer of services and materials, he doesn’t believe the cost to relocate the bridge panel will be that much. Any money over the cost of the project would go to the school in some form or fashion. The DOT will remove the bridge at night when there is the least amount of traffic, Metropulos said. It would then be taken to Arnott's Enterprise, town of Nokomis, to be sandblasted, repainted (ironically, with graffiti-proof paint) and “TBird Country” lettering reapplied by the artist. Once it’s completed, he hopes to organize a ceremonial procession through town to the school where the bridge panel would be placed on the pillars. Liability concerns Metropolus acknowledged concerns about the district’s liability if the panel were to fall and injure or kill someone. “That’s why we got the top people working on this. They are bridge builders. Anything we put up there is going to be sound and built properly,” he said.

As to fundraising, he’s enlisted Lakeland Proud, a school support group, to raise funds for the project. He will also donate a $200 print to anyone who raises $200 toward the effort. Each $200 would get another print. He asked that $25 go back to him to cover printing and the mailing tube. He also asked that the fundraisers support an annual $1,000 scholarship for a Lakeland student with an individual education plan or IEP. Noting he has dyslexia, “I want to see some of these other kids who have worked very hard from freshman to senior year to get a scholarship.”

Board President Tom Gabert said the board could not act on the request that night, but did extend the board’s appreciation for the proposal. The buildings and grounds committee will take up the proposal with a recommendation to the full board.

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