Whirligig man in perpetual motion: Wind powers Waupun man’s artworks
WAUPUN — Ken Gedamke, who will be 88 this fall, can’t sit still.
Long after his retirement, he has crafted dozens of clocks, made dozens of improvements around the house on Rock Avenue, and has crafted a scattering of unique whirligigs mounted on poles in the yard and on the railing of the back deck and the front porch.
He had lots of training.
Mr. Fix-It would be an apropos nickname, although he has never claimed it. As a youngster, he recalls taking the wood of old fruit crates and carving animals to mount on the fence around his family’s yard. He also mastered the skill of walking on stilts, which he claims he can still do.
“Bum leg and all!” he said.
When it came time to attend high school, his choice was an easy one.
“I went to Milwaukee Boys Tech starting in 1947 or ’48 and took up cabinet making as a trade,” Gedamke said. “It was a trade high school and they had everything. One floor had plumbing and one had electric. Each one had a particular trade.”
Being naturally mechanical, it seems like Gedamke stopped on every floor. After Milwaukee Tech, he served a four-year apprenticeship, took jobs at several carpenter shops, and spent a couple years in the Army. At that time, the U.S. military was setting up an early warning system to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War, and provide early warning of any sea-and-land invasion. One of Gedamke’s first tasks was building shelves in the station buildings.
“They hired a carpenter, but he didn’t know which end of a hammer to grab hold of,” Gedamke said. “I built all the shelves they needed for every purpose they could think of.”
All of his many skills were demonstrated when he built a home for himself and wife Loretta near Lake Emily, close to Fox Lake Correctional Institution, where he worked until his retirement a quarter-century ago.
“I was the carpenter/maintenance man for 28 years and I’ve been retired for 25,” Gedamke said. “Really, I was a jack of all trades. I was a roofer, a glazier, a sod man, a cement man and a locksmith, in addition to anything else they needed. I have an analytical mind. I can look at a project and know in a couple minutes what to do. Whenever something needed to be fixed, they’d call me, and I’d make it work.”
Not to be slowed down after his job ended, he started building clocks, creating a grandfather clock for Loretta and smaller grandmother clocks for each of his children. He also created dozens of fretwork and other clocks. He stopped after he realized that the cost of the clock movements, some at hundreds of dollars, were more than he could sell them for — not that he was really interested in selling them.
He also collected trains and has a large model train setup in the basement, although he has a hard time getting down there with his “bum leg” that he has broken three times. Now one leg is shorter than the other and he gets around using a motorized scooter.
His whirligigs are wind-powered contraptions that illustrate everything from a man catching a fish to a Green Bay Packers player kicking a football; from a railroad worker halting a train headed toward a boulder to an owl pointing at a business directory; from a woodpecker pecking a tree to a woman churning butter.
Some are copied from patterns and some he devises himself. Gedamke enjoys engineering them, carving and painting the figures and making the props and tails that keep the contraptions facing into the wind. He carves the figures while watching trains on area tracks (he keeps a detailed log of them), and at home sitting in his recliner.
When he is not puttering with a project, he is working in the garden, with the whirligigs clattering all around him.
“I’ve got to have something to do,” he said, gesturing to the duck-in-flight whirligig awaiting completion. “The next one will be a farmer who gets kicked by a mule and falls into a barn and comes back. I’ve got to keep myself amused. We have three cats here, but they’re not good conversationalists.”
“Really I was a jack of all trades (at Fox Lake Correctional Institution). I was a roofer, a glazier, a sod man, a cement man and a locksmith, in addition to anything else they needed. I have an analytical mind. I can look at a project and know in a couple minutes what to do. Whenever something needed to be fixed they’d call me, and I’d make it work.” Ken Gedamke, whirligig maker and handyman