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.  

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