A snapshot of a pretty special guy

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Widmer Cheese employees step outside for a picture in front of the cheese factory in 1979. Jim Widmer (far right) is pictured with his nephew Joe Widmer (center) current owner, and brothers John Widmer (third from right) and Ralph Widmer (second from right).

Jim Widmer was a pretty special guy. Not only was he a craftsman when it came to cheesemaking, he had a knack for capturing the ordinary and extraordinary through the lens of his Twin Lens Automatic Rolleiflex camera.

Born the son of Swiss immigrants, Jim followed his father John O. into the family cheesemaking business, Widmer's Cheese Cellars, along with his brothers John and Ralph.

After graduating from Mayville High School, he served overseas in Japan during World War II and returned home to marry his sweetheart, Shirley Borgman, who was a constant fixture at his side. 

I met Jim at a Byron Historical Society meeting years ago and asked if he would mind sharing his photos with our Wisconsin State Farmer readers. Sure, he replied, and was eager to share some of the stories behind the photos, including the time he scaled the water tower in Theresa to capture a photo of the small village below.

He was also very interested in the agricultural community surrounding his hometown, often photographing his neighbors performing everyday life events: picking corn by hand, building silos, tending bees, or gathering in a farmyard for a neighbor's auction. His daughters Brenda and Kay became familiar subjects, often seen cuddling farm animals or kittens.

Theresa native and photographer Jim Widmer was always willing to share images that he captured over the years of people and places in his hometown of Theresa. The former cheesemaker passed away at the age of 93 on Christmas Day 2019.

While many photographers are content to shoot photos of inanimate objects, Jim aimed to feature the men and women who worked the land, delivered milk, or ran the businesses up and down the streets of Theresa. This was evident during his "Barns of Theresa Township" project.

"I decided that the people were just as interesting as the barns because of the stories they told or just the people that they were illustrated the 'self-sufficiency, creative invention and thrift that characterize Wisconsin rural residents'," he told the Wisconsin Historical Society.

He was also keen to photograph historical events, including a photo he titled 'The Funeral Train'. Jim positioned himself near the tracks of the Soo Line and captured the end of an era as the somber train comprised of old steam engines strung together, slowly passed making the final journey to the the scrapyard.

Jim and Shirley did a remarkable job of cataloging these amazing photos which are archived in the Theresa Library, Lomira Quad Graphics Library, and many online at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Jim was always quick to say hello and was often seen out and about, many times on his bicycle. There's not a lot of folks who can say they logged 16-mile treks on the rural backroads of Dodge County, especially someone in their 80s. 

Heaven gained a pretty special gift on Christmas day, and Jim will be missed by many, but his photos capturing the day to day life will live on.

Colleen Kottke

Colleen Kottke is the editor of the Wisconsin State Farmer