Old World Wisconsin looks to the future after a year of rebuilding
It's been almost a year since the tornado that tore through Eagle and Palmyra hit Old World Wisconsin, the state's historic outdoor farm and village museum.
The damage that occurred on June 21, 2010 caused the site to close for more than a month, and has resulted in a still-ongoing process of painstaking reconstruction.
"We were lucky because no historic buildings were destroyed in the tornado, but it took down almost 3,000 trees on the Visitor Mall," said Lisa McGovern, Old World Wisconsin's communication director. "Depending upon when you were last there, you will be surprised as you make the drive in."
Clearing the downed trees took a combination of insurance and emergency Division of State Facilities funding, as well as generous donations from members of the Old World Wisconsin Foundation.
"Originally the DNR managed much of the tree removal," said Old World Wisconsin Site Director Dawn St. George. "The DNR is really quite capable of timbering operations and tree removal, so we worked very closely with them to remove the trees."
The tree loss may be the most noticeable result of the tornado's impact, but for a historical site like Old World Wisconsin, the smaller repairs proved to be the most elaborate and time-consuming.
"We had 15 buildings damaged. The only one that is still left to be repaired is Caldwell Farmers' Hall," said St. George. "There was extensive damage to the interior wallpaper, and it's wallpaper that needs to be carefully hand-done. The rest of them were all exteriors, and each one of them received a little bit different kind of damage across the site."
Despite the damage, Old World Wisconsin has soldiered on in true frontier spirit, recovering quickly in an effort to welcome their visitors back to the site following their closure last June and July.
"August was a lighter visitation than most Augusts for us, but by the time that word got out in September and October we finished very well," said St. George. "I think that our visitors have returned and are having a great time out there."
To ensure both are the case, Old World Wisconsin has planned a special commemorative celebration to mark the anniversary of the tornado and celebrate the site's reconstruction. "Old World Wisconsin: One Year Later" is set to take place June 11, just 10 days before the official one-year mark of the tornado touching down on the site and neighboring towns.
"The big thing is to have a recognition of what we collectively went through," said McGovern. "It wasn't just Old World Wisconsin, it was the residents of Eagle and Palmyra as well. So, we're offering free admission for those residents."
Most of the day's events will take place on the Visitor Mall and in the upper loft of the Clausing Barn Restaurant. The One Year Later celebration includes a brief opening address by Ellsworth Brown, the head of the Wisconsin Historical Society, and appearances by a number of state and local representatives.
Cake and refreshments, a performance by the Palmyra-Eagle Community Band, the Eagle Diamonds vintage base ball team's season home opener and the book launch of "Putting Down Roots: Gardening Insights from Wisconsin's Early Settlers," written by Old World Wisconsin's historical gardener, Marcia Carmichael, are just some of the activities planned for the day.
For everyone involved in Old World Wisconsin's recovery, the One Year Later event is as much about moving the site forward as it is about remembering the past.
"I don't know that the parking lot will ever look like it looked, and I think that's for the right reasons," said St. George, who hopes to take the opportunity to give the landscape a more complementary look in the near future. "So much of the damage was not-native red pine trees that the DNR had previously planted in the '50s and '60s. We want to make it a beautiful, native planting, perhaps more prairie and brush than trees."
Visitors can also anticipate a richer offering of events as the site aims to complete its reconstruction from what, in the scheme of things, has become more of a transition than a setback.
"It's really kind of a look forward, is how we're seeing it. It's a work in progress," said McGovern. "Part of the rebuilding process is coming up with new events and having that kind of enthusiasm as we move forward. It's not just replanting the trees, but it's looking forward to other things that we can do to expand and to create this kind of experience for our visitors."
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