Friday, August 17, 2012





 My wife Carla and I took a step back in time to the 1880s at Old World Wisconsin a living museum at Eagle, Wisconsin with costumed interpreters doing the tasks of people who settled in the area.  The 1800s were a time of immigration to Wisconsin from northern Europe and the Wisconsin Historical Society has collected over fifty buildings from around the state built by different immigrant groups in that period and distributed them in naturalistic settings in a square mile site.  Some like the crossroads village area and the German farming area have many buildings and others like the African American area and Polish area have only a building or two.

 Crops of the period were growing in the fields when we were there and the animals the settlers would have used were in the fields and barns. Behind one of the barns were two large black oxen who at times are used to pull equipment, but on our visit were just trying to find enough shade to cover themselves from the sun.  At thrashing time horses are used to walk on a treadmill to run the thrashing machine. 

 The powerful impression a tour of the area leaves is because of the costumed interpreters spread throughout the area who not only demonstrate skills of the period but know and relate the history of the people who owned the buildings in which they are working.  It was these stories of struggle for survival in what was basically a wilderness that was so impactful. 

 At 576 acres the area is so large trams passing every fifteen minutes are needed to move visitors around the area.  The tram drivers are also guides who give explanations of what we were seeing.  When we were there several bus loads of forth and fifth grade children were also making the rounds and several smaller groups of middle school children were taking part in some of the activities to learn what life in the nineteenth century was like.  We heard the children’s leaders explaining such things to them as how to use the pit toilets (outhouses).

 The first home we visited was the Sanford Farm, the richest home we would visit.  A Yankee, he could afford servants and a large piano for his wife.  It was in the Crossroads Village area and next door servants were working in the vegetable garden. We stopped at the blacksmith shop for a demonstration of making hangers for the wall and the Thomas General Store where the manager explained what was needed by farmers when they grew most of their own food and groceries were not something in demand.  The original immigrants were into wheat and wool and the dairy products for which the state became famous came later.  We also stopped at St. Peter’s Catholic Church where a costumed woman gave us a history of the Church and background on the religious objects in the room.

The blacksmith gave us a lesson in hanger production

 We learned early that the interpreters was so knowledgeable and entertaining that if we were to see the area in a day we needed to skip some of the attractions such as the Four Mile Inn, the Peterson Wagon Shop and the Sisel Shoe Shop. 

 The bright eyed lady at the Kristen Pedersen Farm in the Danish Area related Kristen’s hard luck story.  He took a homestead in the Northern part of the state where weather conditions gave him a short growing season and he had many trees to cut down before he had land to grow winter wheat and flax.  He had lost two wives and was responsible for taking care of his elderly father and three daughters.  His goal was do what was not possible in Europe at that time, own land.  Both wives had died in childbirth and it was left to his oldest daughter to do much of the house keeping and care of the old father and the other two daughters. 

 While we were at the Danish homestead the Wisconsin Historical Society had brought in a group of young teenagers to experience cooking on the frontier.  They had picked the vegetables from the garden, gathered eggs from the area, and were cooking over a black coal stove using cast iron pans.  I noticed the cake was burned on one side, but they seemed to be doing well with the other foods they were preparing.

 The largest neighborhood was the German Area with three farms ranging from poor to more upscale.  Here we became aware of how the houses in each area were build using the materials and methods the people brought with them from the old country.  In the Schyottler farm the young woman re-enactor was baking rye bread in the Bake House that was separate from the main house.  The bread was rising covered with cloth to protect it from the many flies in the room.   She had constructed a fly catcher of the period: a bowl with sticky stuff in it covered with a cloth with a hole in it so the flies could get in but not get out. She admitted that she got rid of the bread she baked by feeding to the pig out back who really enjoyed it.

 The bread is rising under the towel and flies are being caught in the cloth covered pot

 In one area a demonstration of how flax was spun into thread and then made into cloth on a loom.  In another area wool was being processed and visitors could take part in turning it into thread.  A special feature in the Schulz home was a “Black Kitchen” an all purpose room with a pit in the floor that gave heat for baking oven and for heating a kettle with the smoke being used for curing meat.  It was fuel efficient but not safe since house fires were evidently common.

 The Koepsell farm was the biggest and had the most going on and the children visiting there were the most excited.  For example there were several dozen leghorn chickens who seemed to lay their eggs randomly around the grounds and children were allowed to find one and bring it to the kitchen.  It looked to me they were finding more eggs than there were chickens.  The tools for splitting wood also seemed to be attractive to them and several were taking lessons from an interpreter.. 

 At the Norwegian Area we first went to the one room school to watch the teacher give a lesson to a group of the visiting students using the forth grade reader of the time.  The level of vocabulary in the book was quite high and evidently a lot was expected of the children who mostly would end their educations at the eighth grade.  Norwegians were noted for starting schools as soon as possible for their communities and publishing Norwegian Newspapers as soon as a critical mass of readers was available.

 Visiting fifth graders get a taste of one room school

 The two farms in the area were a study in contrasts and showed the differences that arriving with little or no money and arriving with some financial backing could make in the life style of the immigrant.   At the Knud Fossebrekke Farm our first contact was a big boar pig.  The interpreter said that this was first animal most farmers got because pigs could scavenge off the land and gave birth to many offspring.  He said the Norwegians came as fish eaters who had no experience with pork and had trouble adjusting to the new foods available, but hunger helped them adjust. 

 Our Norwegian guide took us into the small cabin made of rough hewn logs where over a fire in small black stove he was frying a squirrel for lunch that the he skinned and gutted.  This was a demonstration of the kind of food settlers would have eaten.  He also had a garden when he gathered potatoes, corn, cabbage, beets and pumpkins.  Outdoors was an open fireplace with a large kettle for cooking large pieces and a flat steel pan where lefse could be fried.   He said that as small as the cabin was at one time as many as 16 bachelors wintered there and small pigs had been kept in a pen inside the house to protect them from predictors.  Along the back wall were the skins of seven or eight animals including one of a black bear.   Our guide said the furs were often used as trading goods.

 At one time as many as 16 Norwegian bachelors winters here

 The other farm was owned by Anders Kvaale who came to America with a thousand dollars that allowed him to buy outright 160 acres of land, hire a carpenter to build him a proper house with a barn and other outbuildings, and buy all the animals he needed to stock a farm.  The interpreter there was demonstrating spinning and working with wool and had visiting teen agers getting wool ready for the spinning wheel. 

 In one day we didn’t have time to visit the Polish or Finnish Areas.  Each of the areas had it own garden area that grows plants and flowers of that particular ethnic group.  As usual at these living history sites I found my self enchanted by the opportunity to drop back for a few hours to the life of my immigrant ancestors.  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Cherokee story recounted onstage

On a pleasant evening in Cherokee, N.C., I scrambled up a quarter-mile mountainside staircase to an open-air amphitheater to watch "Unto These Hills," a historical drama that traces the Cherokee from their years as a great American Indian culture in the early 1800s through the tragic Trail of Tears in 1838 to the present day.

With the Smoky Mountains, huge trees and a rock ledge in the background, this theater, which seats 2,800, is impressive. The Cherokee story has been dramatized here since 1950 by the descendants of the Cherokees who avoided the Trail of Tears by hiding in the mountains. The actors do double duty by becoming re-enactors during the day at Oconaluftee, the nearby Cherokee village.

The first act moved somewhat slowly, probably because I was familiar with much of the early history, but there were some interesting twists. For example, during the War of 1812 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the Cherokee leader Junaluska saved Col. Andrew Jackson's life, and Jackson gave the Cherokees credit for the victory. Later in the play, we learn that when the Cherokee pleaded with Jackson not to force them to the reservation in Oklahoma, he rejected them brusquely. I hadn't previously been aware of the impact of the discovery of gold in Georgia hastening the increase of white settlers in the area.

After the Cherokee were herded into stockades, they soon began the 1,200-mile march, which resulted in much suffering and death. Some of them escaped into the mountains, among them the leader Tsali. When he and his family were captured and mistreated, he killed two soldiers and escaped.

Col. William Stanhope Foster, the U.S. military leader, made a deal with the Cherokee that if Tsali was captured and executed, the Cherokees who escaped into the hills would be allowed to stay in the area. Tsali gave himself up, but he insisted that he and his sons be killed by his own men. The rifle that killed him is part of the artifacts in the museum I had visited earlier.

Besides the military action, the play features many songs, such as the one performed by an American Indian woman describing an awareness that danger is coming. Along with the war dances, which look authentic, are some fun-filled dances, one of which looked like it was straight out of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and another similar to something from "West Side Story." Still, I found the play an educational and worthwhile experience. It runs through Aug. 18.

"Unto These Hills" is the premier show, having been viewed by more than 6 million people. However, other shows by American Indians also are produced. This summer, "Unto these Hills" alternates with a new production, "Cherokee Family Reunion." There also is a pre-show of singers playing both country and Cherokee music.

The outdoor stage on which Unto These Hills is performed

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Museum of the Cherokee Indian

Museum offers view of Cherokee history

Our visit to Cherokee, N.C., was prefaced by our drive through the very beautiful Cherokee National Forest. Much of the way, we were running alongside fast-flowing rapids filled with rocks and vacationers in rubber rafts. Later, on our way to Cherokee, we passed an area indicating 10 miles of slow rapids, and this was even more crowded with rafts. Many places along the way offer raft services. The great forest and mountains made me feel peaceful and relaxed, almost as if the surroundings were cuddling me.

Cherokee is a small town and makes a big deal of its casino, which we did not visit. We bought a combined ticket for the three main American Indian attractions in the area. Our first visit was to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, a large museum that claims to be the most complete collection of Cherokee artifacts anywhere. We were surprised when we entered that we were met by an older Cherokee man who offered to sign our museum guide. It turns out he was the sculptor, Jerry Wolfe, who made the life-size statue of a Cherokee medicine man in the museum.

 Cherokee Medicine Man by Jerry Wolfe

 The museum is state-of-the-art, with a variety of methods of presenting its material. It opens with a five-minute film telling the Cherokee story of the creation of the earth. From the theater, we stepped into a series of artifact rooms, with some dating as far back as 13,000 years. Each of the periods is carefully explained.

In some of the rooms, we were given information about the different historical periods: the Paleo-Indians; Archaic Indians; Woodland Indians; Mississippian Indians; and Hopewell Indians, when the tribes around the continent had a high degree of product exchange.

The most innovative displays were two holograms. One was of a medicine man who explained the Cherokee story of how animals held a meeting and decided humans were getting too dangerous and each was to give humans an illness. The plants, however, liked men and gave them a plant to cure each illness if only they could find it.

In some rooms, large paintings cover the walls with life size manikins in front of them tell the story of their history.

A display with life sized manikins tells of some of the problems in the Trail of Tears

Another section tells of Sequoia's invention of an alphabet and gives examples of a printing press and books produced.

The Museum tells the story of Cherokee leaders visit to Europe

An unusual feature was detailed newspaper stories about American Indian visits to London and visits of white men, such as Henry Timberlake with the Cherokees. Among the exhibits was the rifle that executed Stale in 1838. We were to learn more about his death at the outdoor play "Unto These Hills."

There also other displays of costumed mannequins at critical points in history. As I have a small collection of masks from around the world, I enjoyed the collection of masks carved from buckeye and basswood that were used in dances and ceremonies to frighten away evil sprits. It amused me that masks have been invented throughout the world independently for similar reasons.

Cherokee ceremonial masks

Across the street from the museum is the Qualla Arts and Crafts cooperative, made up of 300 artisans. We found displays of modern stone and wood sculptures and a wide variety of baskets and pottery.