Old World Wisconsin brings history to life for kids and families
Gallery: Old World Wisconsin's World of Little House
If the backyard has lost its luster and you've visited every Milwaukee attraction at least once already this summer, then you're ready for a quick and easy nearby family getaway. It's Family Vacation Week here at OnMilwaukee and we'll bring you suggestions every day for great jaunts perfect for a day, weekend or week-long getaway. Bon voyage, Milwaukee!
Most of us have been to Old World Wisconsin at one point or another in our lives. Whether it was a first-grade school trip or a crisp autumn weekend with the family, for many Wisconsinites, this 600-acre open-air museum in Eagle is a cherished childhood memory.
My parents began taking my brother and sister and I to Old World Wisconsin when we were small. My own earliest memory there is from my fifth birthday, when I discovered where ham came from (compliments to the dead, trussed pig strung up at the Schottler Farm in the German section).
Pioneer livin' wasn't always sunshine and roses, kids.
My sympathy for the pig didn't hinder my enjoyment of the day, however, and since then my family and I have made many pilgrimages back to Old World Wisconsin, even now that we children are all grown and out of the house. It's not only a great way to experience the history of our state and its different immigrant groups, but it's also an amazing opportunity to learn about the enchanting and oftentimes wilderness from which sprang the Wisconsin we know today.
Simply put, visiting Old World Wisconsin is like taking a vacation to the 19th century – only better, because there's plumbing and a gift shop.
Some people have reservations about the fact that "living history" museums like Old World Wisconsin relocate historic structures from their original location, claiming that context is key in historic preservation and architecture. Others consider these museums guilty of "commercializing" history or "glossing over" the reality of pioneer life.
At the founding of Colonial Williamsburg in 1928, many Virginians had misgivings about freezing their town in a specific time and place. One resident, Major S.D. Freeman, reportedly said that this level of preservation was unnatural and would put the city "in the position of a butterfly pinned to a card in a glass cabinet."
But many people, myself included, feel that it is a very small price to pay for the immense educational and societal benefits of a place like Old World Wisconsin – especially for children. On paper, history can seem awfully dry to a child. But when they come to a place where the past is literally alive all around them, their imaginations become animated. Not only do they learn the nuts and bolts of American history, but they get a whole new perspective on their own lives, their own world and their own experiences.
This summer, there will be plenty of opportunities for kids to connect with the past at Old World Wisconsin. Family-friendly activities on the agenda include day camps, vintage baseball matches, a "rousing with the roosters" breakfast and a month-long look into Civil War life in Wisconsin.
And this month, it's all about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wisconsin's pioneer poster girl herself inspired the popular annual "World of Little House" weekend, which this year has been expanded to include every weekend in July.
My parents, husband and I visited Old World Wisconsin last week to experience the first World of Little House weekend of 2013. Every weekday features a different lineup of Laura-themed, kid-friendly (and adult-friendly) activities or presentations, and each weekend is packed with different Little House programming.
This coming weekend (July 20-21), you can enter a "Laura & Friends" lookalike contest, take a wagon ride and watch cheesemaking demonstrations. The day camp "Hooked on Laura" takes place this Tuesday, July 16 and next Wednesday, July 24.
Our first stop was at the German area, where we got to barn dance at the Schulz farm. Side note: my favorite book when I was small was "Dance At Grandpa's," a short, abridged story book for younger kids. While not technically part of the Little House canon, it's inspired by actual events in the novels and a great introduction to the series for little ones. I was sure to stop at the gift shop to pick up a copy for my favorite three-year-old.
Costumed historical interpreters led the dances and played the fiddle, while everyone from the smallest, bonnet-clad girl and oldest grandpa learned to swing their partners. Everyone was a little shy at first, but when the fiddle music started to waft from the hay-filled barn it wasn't long until everyone in the vicinity had come to see what was going on, and most joined in.
While we were in the area, we took a peek inside the Schulz farmhouse, depicted in the year 1860. Chickens ran wild around the grounds and pies cooled in the kitchen (unfortunately, you cannot eat the food on display, no matter how delicious it looks – but it's all real and authentically baked according to the time period). The front yard boasts a plentiful garden yielding produce and plants both, and the front porch was a great place to sit in the shade and rest.
We also looked in on the Schottler farm, a subsistence farm depicted in the year 1875 when the Schottler family lived there with their 11 children. It was bread-baking day in the summer kitchen, and I was impressed by the ability of Old World Wisconsin female staffers to tend an open flame while wearing leather boots, petticoats and full-length sleeves, as I sweltered in my 21st-century tank top.
From there we visited the Raspberry Schoolhouse in the Norwegian area, which was hugely popular with the kids. We had our very own schoolteacher give us some real 19th-century lessons in reading, history, penmanship and mathematics, and we learned that the original Pledge of Allegiance contained the phrase "I pledge allegiance to my flag" instead of "the flag" to inspire a sense of patriotism and ownership in immigrant students.
Luckily, no one had to sit in the corner or stand against the blackboard with their nose pressed against a chalk circle, although we were told that both were common disciplinary practices for the time.
Old World Wisconsin's St. Peter's Church will be of special interest to Milwaukeeans (and families can help whitewash the fence on the weekend of July 27-28). This 1839 structure was the first Catholic Church in our city and formerly sat on the northwest corner of Jackson and State Streets before the parish outgrew the small building.
The subsequent construction of both the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and Old St. Mary's resulted in the relocation of St. Peter's to the grounds of St. Francis Seminary, where it was used as a prayer chapel before finally being moved to Old World Wisconsin in 1975.
The simple, one-room white clapboard building would look out of place in the contemporary metropolis of Milwaukee, but serves as a fascinating reminder of our city's roots.
St. Peter's is in the Crossroads Village section, across the field from the charming "retirement house" of Irish immigrant Mary Hafford. Hafford lived in Hubbleton in central Wisconsin; widowed at age 35, this mother of three took in wash to make ends meet and finally saved enough money to retire in this modest home.
This is one of my favorite buildings at the museum (since I, too, am descended from hardy Irish washerwomen deserted by their men), and it's a sweet and picturesque example of the "lace-curtain" Irish immigrant culture.
I wanted to go to the Sanford Farm in the Crossroads Village, where visitors were encouraged to try on period clothing from the dress-up box, but we weren't able to get there. If there's anything I love more than living history museums, it's living history museums and playing dress-up.
Maybe next time?
To find out more about Old World Wisconsin and the Laura Ingalls Wilder weekends, visit oldworldwisconsin.wisconsinhistory.org.
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