Ethel Nott, Reedsburg's "Swamp Angel"
by Bill Schuette
When the new Reedsburg Library opened in 1998, many visitors were intrigued by the chalk drawings on display around the periphery of its interior.
These 4' 4" long by 8" wide renditions of scenes in nature were originally commissioned to hang above the fireplace in the old Carnegie Library across the street. Executed by Ethel Nott during the first half of the 20th century, they depict the changing seasons and were designed to be rotated during the year.
The collection consists of approximately 24 pastel drawings which have retained their muted colors through the past half century.
Ethel Allis Nott was born on a farm in Columbia County on June 19, 1890, and spent her childhood in Lodi. She was a student of commercial illustration at the Chicago Academy of Art and taught perspective and free hand drawing in Battle Creek, Michigan. She later took a course in photographic retouching in Chicago and worked in that trade in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and finally in Reedsburg at the Gregory Photography Studios.
Miss Nott was also keenly interested in the beauty of nature and its feathered inhabitants that surrounded her. She served for many years as a voluntary observer for bird migration for the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, now known as the Fish & Wildlife Service. She was elected associate member of the American Ornithological Union and a member of the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology.
Ethel is remembered as a diminutive lady—a spinster who lived with her old maid sister. She was a common, ordinary person who dressed several decades behind the styles of her day. Sporting a large flower-covered hat, she could often be seen around the city, sometimes carrying a pink frilly parasol, pursuing her passion with easel, chalk or watercolors.
"My father always called [Ethel] the 'Swamp Angel'," recalled Margaret Schierholtz in an interview several years ago. "She would be down in South Park [near the river] painting birds and studying nature."
Gertrude Harper also recalled seeing the sisters walking the streets of Reedsburg in their long skirts. "They did their own sewing. I remember her sister [Jessie] had a little round hole in her front tooth. I think it came from all the sewing she did when she bit off the thread. I remember that used to fascinate me."
"Ethel was a nice appearing lady," recalled Hazel Struebing a neighbor of hers on Pine Street, "[She was] very neat and always wore a hat while walking wherever it was necessary to go." Hazel also remembered that Miss Nott wore her hair in large puffs over her ears, as was the style during the early part of the 20thcentury.
When Reedsburg celebrated the 75th anniversary of its founding in 1923, Miss Nott was asked to paint the scenery for pageants put on by the citizens and churches of the city. Rev. T.S. Beavins, pastor of the Methodist Church, wrote and conducted the programs. There was a different pageant each night for a week. "It was difficult for Ethel to get the [stage settings] finished in time," recalled Mrs. Struebing, "but she did."
Many of Ethel's pastels were done during the WPA years and were also for sale in the area during the 1920s. Emilia Huebing recalled that during the depression, Ethel also re-bound old books.
Ethel Nott was dedicated to her church, the First United Methodist, and taught Sunday school there for 27 years. She would often reward her students' accomplishments with small drawings she had created for the occasion. A large watercolor painting done by her, entitled "Brown Thrasher," hangs in the parlor of the church.
Mrs. Struebing lamented that it was too bad that Ethel "didn't live to see how much enjoyment her artistic ability brought to the community."
Ethel Nott died August 10, 1952 and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Reedsburg.