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"Designing the Wisconsin Quarter"

by Leon A. Saryan

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Central States Numismatic Society

On October 25, 2004, the Wisconsin commemorative quarter, featuring a cow, a wheel of cheese, and an ear of corn, was introduced and released to the American public.  The 30th state quarter in the nation’s ongoing commemorative quarter series, Wisconsin is the first to feature agriculture as its principal theme.  As an appointee and active participant in the work of the Wisconsin Commemorative Quarter Council, I have more than an average interest in this topic.  I offer below some personal perspectives on the final product and the process by which it was selected.

The story of how this quarter came to be should be of interest to collectors both in Wisconsin and the country at large.   It is hardly a surprise that several articles about the Wisconsin quarter have appeared in the press.  The design process was covered by numismatic publications, newspapers and television, the internet, and elsewhere.  Among these, two articles stand out: Arlyn Sieber’s “Cheese Biz” in the October 2004 issue of Numismatist, and Lawrence Barish’s “Coining Wisconsin,” which appeared in the Autumn 2004 issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History.  Both accounts offer interesting information for numismatic specialists.

Sieber, an editor and executive at Krause Publications in Iola, covered the state quarter from his perspective as a Wisconsin native whose career has been devoted to numismatic publishing.  Barish, who served on the Wisconsin Commemorative Quarter Council, works for the Legislative Reference Bureau in Madison and is editor of the Wisconsin Blue Book.

Sieber’s article in the Numismatist immediately caught my attention, and I devoured it as I stood in line at the post office waiting for a package.  Except for a small sidebar, his article offered precious little information about how the agricultural design was selected.   Rather, the piece read like a catalog of all of the things that we could have (and should have) put on the quarter, and most assuredly, as a committee member, I can affirm that we would have done so had there only been space enough!

Arlyn was not a member of the Council and did not have the benefit of attending the Council’s deliberations.  But Cliff Mishler, his associate at KP, was an active participant and had some strong opinions about what should and what should not appear on our quarter.   Arlyn’s writing does not reflect the give and take that ensued in the deliberations, nor did I detect therein much input from Cliff, and his article is less interesting for this.

Barish, on the other hand, offers a generally fair and balanced account of the process and deliberations that led to the selection of the quarter.  I think, however, that Larry’s article tends to downplay the controversies that inevitably arose as the process unfolded.  These controversies, which reflected differences in political philosophy and perceived constituencies, helped to make the process interesting and at least for a couple of days made good copy for newspapers around the state.

The Wisconsin Commemorative Quarter Council consisted of 23 appointees from various walks of life and all regions of the state.  At the beginning of our deliberations, it was apparent that a number of the members were at least casual coin collectors.  Some were much more than that: Cliff Mishler, an executive and close associate of Chet Krause (founder of Krause Publications, the leading numismatic publisher in the country), has been professionally involved in the hobby for more than four decades.  Justin Perrault, a college student at the time of the committee’s deliberations, is active in the Milwaukee Numismatic Society as well as regional and national numismatic organizations.  Modestly, I think the three of us could be considered “numismatists” in the sense that our interests go beyond collecting to reflect the research and study of coins that constitutes numismatic science. 

I was appointed to the Quarter Council by then Governor Scott McCallum in late 2001.  Well beforehand, I had made several inquiries as to how member selection would occur.  I finally decided to write a letter to the Governor, stressing my numismatic credentials, my professional career as a scientist, and my involvement in community affairs.  Some suggested that I must have had some inside connection, but I really don’t think that the $10 donation I made to the Wisconsin Republican Party played any role in the Governor’s choice.  I had little idea what to expect, but I was anxious to participate, and I believed that as a scientist and a numismatic researcher I could bring a fairly unique perspective to the process.

To create a new quarter, we needed design ideas.  To fill this need, Governor McCallum had appealed to citizens across the state for ideas and drawings.  The response was overwhelming.  About 10,000 designs and suggestions, mostly from schoolchildren, were submitted and awaiting us when we arrived for the first meeting.  Our committee was charged with sifting through the entries and selecting a few to submit to the Governor who would make the final decision.

Having had some time to reflect, I can say that, essentially, the selection process was flawed from the beginning.  There is an inherent conflict between, on the one hand, a written design idea (for example, put a cow on the coin), and on the other hand an actual professionally-created piece of artwork (a clear drawing showing how a cow would actually look on a coin).  The latter will win every time, because our product, in the final analysis, is not a written dissertation on the glories of this state, but a simple picture, severely limited in size and scope, not more than an inch in diameter.   It was inevitable that, as a group, we would give the aesthetic aspect as much or more weight than the thematic.  The drawings received from schoolchildren were mostly not technically good enough to present unless someone with artistic ability reworked them.  To have had artists at the ready available to translate a concept into a design would have required a budget.  Ours was zero--we didn’t have money to cover car expenses, and we were told that we were even lucky to get refreshments.  

Right from the start, the Council was confronted by the fact that the most popular theme of the received submissions, more than 40%, was agriculture.  There is no question that the dairy industry is central to the state’s economy, although many hastened to remind us that California now surpasses Wisconsin in some aspects of dairy production.  In the final internet voting, agriculture remained the most popular choice.

I believe that the wealth of this state in particular and the nation more generally, is derived from the richness of our soil and our (once ascendant) manufacturing and industrial prowess.  Wisconsin has a strong claim in both arenas.  My first choice for a quarter, therefore, was a design that would combine agriculture with manufacturing.  Our state, of course, is widely recognized as “America’s Dairyland.”  But there is more.  We have a huge timber and paper industry, mining, and manufacturing.  Milwaukee (along with nearby West Allis, South Milwaukee, and Racine) was once considered the machine shop of America, a city of huge mills and factories, powered by immigrant labor.  Milwaukee’s industries produced heavy equipment designed to tame nature, to harvest crops, to fight wars, and to extract valuable resources.  Wisconsin’s products are shipped to every state and to the far corners of the world.  But the Council had hardly any designs reflecting the state’s manufacturing prowess.  One of the few I can recall was a combined design showing a small part of a toothed gear along with a historical or agricultural vignette.

Cliff urged us to avoid using a map of the state, which I frankly disagreed with.  I thought an outline map of the state would be fine if tastefully integrated with other symbols (such as South Carolina and Louisiana had achieved).  He was much more interested, for example, in using thirty stars to symbolize Wisconsin’s rank as the thirtieth state to enter the Union.  I think the Council listened respectfully to his views; in the end, neither the state outline nor thirty stars were used. 

Many councilors were in favor of a design reflecting history.  I endorsed this, but in my estimation we could not come up with any great Wisconsin historical events that could be reduced to a picture.  One of the best submissions in this genre was the Old Abe eagle drawn by a talented out-of-state artist who had already submitted winning designs for other states.  The drawing was submitted via a state resident who was a friend of the artist.  It was a very professional presentation, a stunningly beautiful numismatic eagle that outclassed almost every other eagle in two centuries of United States coinage.  

Eagles are no stranger to American coinage.  They have appeared on the reverse of most of our country’s coins since the late 18th century.  Many of these eagles are rather lifeless (consider the one which appears on the Washington quarter between 1932 and 1998).  This Old Abe eagle, however, was special.  I was immediately attracted to the design, but was a little put off by the fact that it originated from outside the state, since this was against the spirit (if not the ground rules) of the process.  There were other Old Abe submissions as well.  But I don’t think we (I may be speaking mostly for myself here) were ultimately that impressed with the importance, significance, or symbolism of Old Abe.  Also, I despaired of the possibility of educating non-Wisconsinites about the story of this bird.

It was difficult to come up with a compelling historical design.  After all, Wisconsin has given the nation no presidents, no Civil War or Revolutionary War battles were fought on its soil, it has no overpowering or distinctive monuments (such as Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota) or really striking buildings; very little of truly pan-national significance has happened here.  This is not a fault, it’s just a fact.   Designs reflecting cultural contact between early explorers and the native inhabitants appeared to offer the best options in this category.

When I was appointed to the Council, my first thought was to combine beer, cheese, and motorcycles, three of our best known products, possibly superimposed on an outline map.  A motorcycle was pretty much out of the question since it could be seen as endorsing a particular brand (Harley-Davidson, the only one we make).  A generic tractor would have been another option (J. I. Case, Allis-Chalmers), despite the demise of this industry in recent decades.  But neither motorcycles nor tractors were the subject of many design submissions.

The great outdoors and scenic Wisconsin themes were popular.  Designs combining deer and fish were submitted in great numbers.  We had badgers galore (animals, miners, and mascots), violets, birds, elk, muskies, you name it.  In the end, the designs submitted in these categories seemed too generic to set our state apart from the others, which of course, also have fish, birds, flowers, animals, etc.   

Some advocated placing a design of the state capitol building in Madison on the quarter, on the grounds that ours is the most beautiful capitol in the nation.  Unquestionably, we have a beautiful capitol, but the arrogance and rampant provincialism of this rationale (from people who in many cases had never ventured beyond the state’s borders) was too much for me to stomach.  This proposal was finally shelved when one of the Council members, a teacher, reported that his students had panned the capitol concept as a manifestation of the narcissistic bent of public officials.

The erudite state historian, Michael Stevens, wanted to put “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, a turn-of-the-century progressive politician whose views were far to the left of the American mainstream, on the coin.  A regular portrait would have been inappropriate, but a full-length image of Lincoln was planned for the Illinois quarter, so this seemed a possibility.  However, we had no workable design concept.  Stevens also pushed to have the state motto, “Forward,” placed on the final product, and got his way on that.  

I can’t resist making a few more comments about the PC (political correctness) aspect of the design selection process.  Some of the councilors were appointed, very obviously but never overtly stated, because they represented various special interest constituencies.  One, who claimed he was a collector, turned out to be a thief.  Another appointee was a Native American who, if I am not mistaken, missed all but the introductory meeting and thus had virtually no input in the design selection process.  Nevertheless, at the very end, she sent e-mails to the other committee members complaining bitterly that the design depicting the Indian should have been chosen.  Yet another councilor, from Milwaukee, was unhappy that the artistic submissions did not seem to reflect Wisconsin’s “urban community,” and he too was minimally involved in the deliberations after the first meeting.  And there was a member of the public who attended one of our meetings to lobby in favor of depicting the polka, the state dance, on the new quarter.  

The numismatists cautioned against overcrowding the planchet field, and we tried hard to work in concepts of strikeability and metal flow.  As it turned out, we hardly needed worry about such things, since the Mint basically covered the technical aspects for us.  With the indispensable help of a single dedicated state employee (Rebecca Hogan) who devoted nearly full time to this effort for nearly six months, our group spent three long days winnowing the thousands of design submissions to a manageable number.  We voted and made final recommendations to Gov. McCallum, who (I thought) would select no more than a few designs and forward them to the Mint. 

It was my impression that the final decision would be made by the Governor and the mint staff based on technical feasibility.  What I didn’t clearly appreciate was that all sorts of other agencies would also intervene in the process.  Not only the Mint, but also the Citizens Commemorative Coin Advisory Committee and the Commission on Fine Arts each insisted on having their own say about the designs.  Towards the end of the process, we learned that none of these agencies were particularly excited by any of our submissions.  

While we were working, I was often asked to give summary updates on the progress of the Quarter Council to local coin clubs.  One evening, after I had given a short recap on the Council’s work to the South Shore Coin Club, Ken Bressett (a former ANA president and a member of the CCCAC who happened to be visiting Milwaukee that night) insisted that his group had veto power over anything our Council came up with.  Until that point, I thought that the states were basically in control of the process.

Another issue concerns the authorship of the design which was selected.  The final design was modified somewhat from a drawing submitted by Rose Marty of Monticello, Wisconsin, in conjunction with the Historic Cheesemaking Center, Inc.  The Mint assigned one of its engravers to rework the cow design to their specifications, who then placed his initials on what was, in essence, the work of Rose Marty.  I believe this has happened in other states as well, and this is unfortunate because it deprives original designers of credit for their contribution.

Before the process was over, Republican Scott McCallum had lost his reelection bid to Democrat Jim Doyle.  Governor Doyle, to my surprise, retained the Council intact.  He submitted three final designs (reflecting agriculture, history, and scenic themes) for an internet vote, in which hundreds of thousands of citizens participated.  The agriculture theme was the clear favorite; despite this, a majority of the councilors advocated in favor of the historical design.

In the end, Governor Doyle made the final design selection against the Council’s advice (which was his prerogative), and the Milwaukee newspaper chastised him fairly severely for allegedly “flipping” the Council choice.  Nevertheless, Doyle was on firm ground.  The various renditions of Wisconsin agriculture reflected the most popular single theme among the designs we received, and the “Cow” design was clearly the preference of those who voted on-line.  In the final vote I went with the Cow design, because I felt that it, more than the Indian/trapper design, better reflected the heritage of Wisconsin and the majority of its people. 

Some of the councilors felt that the Governor should have respected the advice of the majority of the Council.  From the beginning, however, it was my understanding that we were serving in an advisory capacity at the pleasure of the Governor, and that the final decision rested with him.  Cynics commented that agriculture was chosen because farmers have more votes than Indians and fur traders combined.  Others quipped that the explorer-Indian design was rejected because it reminded people too closely of the controversy surrounding preferential gaming contacts signed with native tribes.

When considering the merits and drawbacks of the various designs, it pays to keep in mind the limitations faced by our committee.  We only had a one-inch space on which to work.  Design ideas, though plentiful and enthusiastic, were often lacking in technical ability.  And, we had no artists under contract (and no funds) to improve a design concept that was otherwise deemed worthy.  

On the eve of the quarter release, numismatists representing clubs around the state gathered at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a Mint Forum hosted by Henrietta Holsman Fore, the Mint Director.  The program was mostly about mint products, but at the end Director Fore was asked to render her opinion on the final Wisconsin design.  She said she was pleased with the design and noted that Wisconsin has a coin of which it can be proud.  The design conveys the “bounty of the land” and the fact that Wisconsin is the “dairyland of the nation”. 

I agree.  Despite technical and procedural limitations, the newly-released Wisconsin state quarter fairly reflects the economy and heritage of Wisconsin, its people and wealth, and its contribution to the nation.   One of the greatest successes of the program is that we were able to engage thousands of Wisconsin schoolchildren and citizens in an exercise focusing on the contributions and significance of this state to our nation.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add here that serving on the Wisconsin Quarter Council was a great experience and I feel honored to have been able to play a role in the selection.  I met some remarkable people and had a chance to become acquainted with two governors. There were dozens of really excellent ideas, and it was a shame that we could not do something with some of the designs that didn’t make the final cut.  I am still haunted by that rendition of Old Abe..."

Sources and/or recommended reading:
"Designing the Wisconsin Quarter" by Leon A. Saryan, THE CENTINEL, Volume 52, Number 4 (Winter 2004-05), pages 20-21, 23-24, 26-28