Fresh air and fun
We left Milwaukee this morning and headed west.
We had a fairly short day’s drive and had earmarked one potentially interesting spot along the way. Old World Wisconsin is an open air museum; a collection of reconstructed buildings from all corners of the state. It all sounded pretty interesting except for one aspect.
The costumed interpreters/re-enactors.
I know, they are there to enhance the experience, to add authenticity and to add some historical perspective to the exhibits. But they are frequently prissy, precious and frankly, we are inclined to find them embarrassing, especially if they insist on staying in character.
As we left the car and walked over to the entrance, a uniformed chap greeted us enthusiastically, handed over a map and then explained what was what. Just when we thought he’d finished, he thought of some other helpful information to share and some ten minutes later, we escaped to go and get our tickets.
They talk a lot in Wisconsin.
Everyone we’ve met has been super-friendly, super-helpful and this chap was typical of others we’d come across – he was simply doing his job and doing it very well, of course.
His recommendation was that we should go straight to the German farm area, where there were some tiny piglets to see and a couple of interesting houses. We took the shuttle service and rode past some really lovely buildings, very attractively presented with beautiful gardens around them. This blue lupins look stunning in front of the grey wooden farmhouse, don’t you agree?
The collection of German farm buildings were set around a field of barley, waving beautifully in the breeze. I can’t recall the last time I walked through a barley field – I’d forgotten how lovely it is!
A warm welcome awaited us as we approached the house and several interpreters were busy in the garden and the house. We were so thrilled when they spoke normally – none of the precious re-enactment stuff here! Our fears were gone – we really enjoyed chatting to these intelligent, incredibly knowledgeable people and learned so much about the lives of the early settlers as we did.
We all admired the beautiful fencing around the property – authenticity and impeccable maintenance extended to every corner.
We also loved that in every house, there was some activity. Here, in the first German home, a loom was set up and as it was cranked into action, we chatted about the meagre possessions of the family. In every case, the house was rebuilt as the original owners had left it and staged for a specific year. Here, the owners had emigrated from Pomerania bringing only the minimum of “stuff” with them. All the the wooden parts had been replaced upon arrival and in the case of things such as this loom, built from scratch. The fibre was linen, processed from flax grown in the fields and spun into thread, ready for weaving.
But much as we were interested to hear about the linen, the family and their home, we really wanted to see the piglets!
So, off we went, over to the other German buildings – built by another family from Pomerania – and onwards.
Everywhere we looked, there was another lovely vignette, a photo opportunity and a scene worthy of a magazine spread.
The second German home had been built as a kind of showhouse, a fine example of what the master carpenter owner could create for his customers. As a result, it was rather more elaborate than the first and clearly, the family owning it were far more prosperous.
The log cabin quilt was lovely and clearly, the lady of the house was a skilled needlewoman.
Evidence was in another room, alongside a treadle operated sewing machine and a collection of notions on the table nearby. The quotation on the paper there was taken from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The House on Plum Creek” and the scene was indeed resonant of some of the stories in that book.
Across the way was the master carpenter’s workshop, where a craftsman was demonstrating the manufacture of wooden pegs for use in construction. Yes, of course we accepted his invitation to have a go ourselves.
Next stop was the Danish farm, where a woman had cooked a few rather strange looking recipes in a simple kitchen. Buttermilk soup looked horrible with lumps of fat (?butter) floating in a grey liquid. No thanks!
The Raspberry School was another great experience – named after the location it had originally stood, in Raspberry Bay. The schoolmistress was delightful and explained sweetly how life would have been for both children and teacher. Mary took her punishment well – a couple of minutes standing with her nose to the blackboard!
And so we went. To the Norwegian home, where wool was being spun, dyed and knitted and where pancakes were being prepared.
Everywhere we went, we stopped to take another photo, to admire the flowers set alongside the grey planked walls and to reflect on the stories we’d just been told.
Oh, and if it looks as if we were the only ones there – it’s true! Well, at least until lunchtime, the only other folks we came across was one family with a few young children who were enjoying the freedom as much as we were. So, we felt we had the whole place to ourselves – wonderful.
After a bite to eat in the cafe, we settled ourselves in the theatre for a performance of Caroline Ingall’s memoir – a one-hander lasting about half an hour, telling the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother’s experiences. Very clever, professionally acted and of course, to the fangirls among us, incredibly interesting.
There remained just one or two buildings to see, including the blacksmiths, the shoemakers and the general store. Here was a remarkable selection of dress fabric which drew my eye so that I didn’t notice the hairpieces at first.
A short, sharp shower sent people scurrying indoors and we were glad we’d left the collection of buildings closest to the car park till last.
Thankfully, the sun came out again as we made our way over to the shuttle stop to return to the car park.
Our final interaction was as charming as the first – whether we were chatting about the amazing woodburning stoves in each house or the joy of wearing a corset (!) the enthusiasm and genuine delight shared by every single member of the staff here made our visit one to remember.
If ever you find yourself in Wisconsin, this is the place to visit. Oh, and don’t come on a weekend with everyone else, will you? Wait until Monday and have the place to yourself!
Tonight, we’re in Madison, the vibrant and rather attractive state capital of Wisconsin. As I sit and type, the sky is lit by flashes of lightning, there are loud claps of thunder and it’s pouring with rain outside. The weather seems to move through quickly here, so here’s hoping it will have gone by the morning.