Old World Wisconsin
And the Joys and Challenges of Open Air Museums (There's almost certainly one near you)
I’m a total sucker for open-air museums (you know, like Colonial Williamsburg or, for my UK readers, Beamish). Yes, despite being a historian. I love ‘em, warts and all. Sometimes, I love those that are heavy in living history where I can have a lovely chat with someone who is speaking in mock-17th century English, like Plimoth-Patuxet Museums in Massachusetts. Mostly, though, I just like to be left alone to wander about and think among the old buildings, especially when I am imagining settings for my fiction.
My love of open air museums is so great, it even survived ten weeks in Colonial Williamsburg in 1993, a story I will tell you some other time in juicy detail. Honestly, I got to know far too much about Williamsburg: The petty politics, the low morale, the underfunding, the awful orientation film from 1957 (no joke, it’s gone now, but it was still there when I came back around 2007). Oh, and being stuck in an 18th century theme park without a car for three months? Yes, I did start to long for a return to modern life, not that I had ever left it.
But, upside, it was in those ten weeks that I became fascinated by living history, and that I also learned, from watching tourists in action, how hard it is to communicate with a public that has come to worship its preconceptions, with minimal knowledge, but maximum confidence in whatever they learned in school.
“Old timey,” the interpreter at Conner Prairie, an open air museum outside Indianapolis, once said to me with a grimace. “The olden days”, I replied in sympathy. That’s how the American public often understands social history, as a non-changing, generic time of horses, buggies, wood fires, quaintness, and mostly white people.
The America that open air museums in the US portray is almost always rural.
Meanwhile, In the UK
In Britain, open air museums typically indulge in the same kind of nostalgia, for a time nobody now remembers, but it’s more likely to be urban and industrial than rural and agricultural. Brits love to hear how their ancestors suffered. Not that most people recall going down t’pit. I swear some of the roleplayed banter I witnessed among characters at one museum was lifted from Coronation Street.
Still. Open air museums in the UK do include the grittier aspects of social history: factories, public baths, kids in coal mines, dangerous work involving boiling metal, that sort of thing. The misery of past lives is an easier sell in the UK, because Brits aren’t quite as positive as Americans, shall we say? Yes. Let’s just put it like that.
Third Time’s A Charm! My Track Record This Year
As you already know, my last couple of visits to Wisconsin history museums were very expensive and seriously disappointing:
But now, finally, Wisconsin’s museum community can exhale! Let’s talk about the fun visit I took last weekend to Old World Wisconsin, with my congenial and long-suffering spouse, He Who Shall Not Be Named On The Internets (HWSNBNOTI, pronounced Hoosen Benoti).
This isn’t a review, because most of my readers aren’t in Wisconsin, or likely to visit soon, and also because Hoosen and I got round less than half of this unexpectedly huge campus/property/museum thingiewhatsit.
It’s big. Like very, very big, especially if, like Hoosen and me, you decide to walk rather than take the handy and efficient trams (although we wimped out at the end, when the weather was hot, and hopped the tram back). You get your money’s worth.
Disclosure: Neither Hoosen nor I knows squat about Wisconsin history! So that made us slightly more typical as visitors. At the entrance, we were handed a map/schedule, which didn’t mention any orientation film. Nope, I confirmed, there isn’t one.
Annette Will Now Rant About Being Disoriented/Disorientated at Old World Wisconsin: Feel Free to Skip This Bit
That’s a real shame about the lack of an orientation film. I love orientation films. No matter how old or bad they may be, they give you a chance to get a clue and meditate about what you’re going to see. Also, without a good orientation film telling you what they’re trying to show you, there’s a big danger that an outdoor museum becomes one damn “old timey” thing after another.
So, with no orientation film (or guide book, or app, or a clue, for that matter), we only had the map to go on. I looked at the map, and tried to get my bearings.
The map is attractive. There, laid out in orange, blue and red pools dotted with lots and lots of little drawings of buildings, are the lands of Old World Wisconsin. Just like Disney!
Starting from the entrance area, the areas of Old World Wisconsin are:
Catch Wheel Fever: I have no idea what this means. It does sound fun though, and since it’s the first area we come to after the visitor center, I figure I’ll find out soon enough!
Crossroads Village: I glance at the building listing on the map. Shops, houses, a church. Mostly 1880s. Got it. A tiny bit like Main Street USA at Disney, only twenty or thirty years earlier, actual historically-themed stuff to buy instead of plush toys, and a lot less kitschy.
Scandinavian Homesteads: Okay then! Farms owned by Scandinavian immigrants! Ranging from the 1860s to the 1910s, so historical period isn’t the main organizing principle. This area won’t be interpreted as “Here we are in the 1880s”. No, the theme is let’s find out about different kinds of Scandinavians: Norwegians! Finns! Danes! Raspberries! Okay, that’s not right. The only building listed on the map that isn’t given a specific Scandinavian identity is the Raspberry School, which presumably is pan-Scandinavian, plus fruit-related. No matter. I will find out.
Life on the Farms: Oh, great! Farms! Hang on . . . I’m confused. What was the Scandinavian Homesteads area, then? Not farms? Didn’t they have life on Scandinavian farms? Why are all the farms in Life on the Farms built by non-Scandinavian Europeans? Pomerania (a bit of Germany) has two farms. There’s a Hessian (German again) farm, and a Polish farm. Plus a church and cemetery from Pleasant Ridge (wherever that is). What did the Scandinavians do wrong? Why have they been exiled to their own presumably activity-less land? Never mind! We didn’t know it yet, but we wouldn’t have time that day to get to Life on the Farms land, so these questions remain mostly unanswered.
Mostly, but not entirely. I have just opened up the piece of copy paper that came with my map that day. It was an effort to provide more orientation, but it was a bit random, and yet another bit of paper to fiddle with, which is why, on the day, I glanced over it, and then folded it away. It mostly tells you brief and slightly repetitive details about houses and shops. However, here’s the intro, which really was way too taxing for the brain on a hot summer day:
Yeah, I have no idea right now what it means to call a place home, and that’s especially not something I wanted to ponder as a tourist on a day out. Maybe better to emphasize that you’re interpreting the museum mostly as the experience of rural Wisconsinites, mostly immigrants, over several decades?
And then there was this, at the end, on the back, after all the tedious one-line descriptions:
Yeah, might want to get rid of that “Towns begin, grow, and sometimes dissolve”, and get straight to the real news: You’re interpreting a Black town! That’s cool! Hoping this is all made crystal clear at the Pleasant Ridge church site, though, because most people didn’t read this bit of paper. Including me. And I didn’t make it there.
Okay, before I go any further, let’s stop, be fair, and get real. Open air museums are expensive, and run on a shoestring. Except for those that are purpose-built reproductions (think Jamestown Settlement here) most open air museums have added original buildings as they were donated, until they suddenly wake up and go, “Oh, no! This is a bit random”. So I’m going to take a wild guess that’s what happened here, and that OWW, along the way, decided to make a plan. They went with ethnicity, rather than chronology. So you get to see how a Danish farm differed from a Pomeranian farm (or didn’t?). Unfortunately, add to that a lack of an orientation video, plus most visitors’ lousy history education (only a murky understanding of how things have changed, reducing all historical periods to “back then”), and it’s pretty hard to do more than present it all as, er, back then.
And will visitors understand that Wisconsin also has an urban history (hint: Milwaukee)? Nope. Or that Indians are also a continuing part of Wisconsin’s story? Ah, no. I’m betting the, um, farm that Old World Wisconsin knows all this. But they can’t afford to fix it. If you’re Mrs. Formerly Bezos or Mrs. Formerly Gates, please send them a big fat check, and tell them that rude British woman sent you.
Oh, come on, Laing, you’re thinking! You’re overthinking this! Yes, indeedy, I am. That’s why I don’t get invited to parties.
Everything is Awesome!
But there is another way to look at this, and it’s much kinder. Is Old World Wisconsin fun? YES! Will kids love and learn from it? YES! And will adult visitors get something out of it? YES! So let me give you all the good news!
On with the show! Finally!
Catch Wheel Fever!
Honestly, I had hoped this was a Victorian gambling craze I could try. As we walked uphill, a staff member passed us, and I mentioned that I was intrigued by the name of this area. Turns out, it refers to the museum’s 2014 reproduction of an 1890s bicycling club. But, she said, the interpreter who does demonstrations (rides the bikes?) was already done for the day, and the building was closed. It was noon, so I felt a little cheated. But in COVID times, there’s no whining. So I thanked the very cheerful Chelsea, who set the right tone for our day, and we took a peek in the Farmers’ Club, the only other building in Catch Wheel Fever land:
Okay, I’m not done grumbling. I do get all the reasons why open air museums don’t want info panels all over the place. But this atypical tourist could really have used a guidebook about now. I stretched my brain back to the second half of the US survey as I was taught it in college, to the bits I skipped when I taught it myself because I didn’t much care. Farmers fighting railroads, forming associations called The Grange (or Granges? Can’t remember). Was this hall connected to those political movements?
But never mind that: I loved the notice board, which pretty much told you how this hall was used:
Still, no wheels. But right outside, we found one way in which we could, indeed, catch wheel fever at Old World Wisconsin: Wooden hoops and a box of sticks, and a nice big field in which to play with them! It was just Hoosen and me, so we had a go. Despite many years of practice demonstrating a hoop and stick to elementary school kids on school library floors, I discovered that I am totally useless on grass. Hoosen won. Or so he claimed.
At the Crossroads Village, I spotted (aha!) a tavern. I love a good tavern! This is not just for the obvious reasons. I spoke once at Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts on 18th century travel, and taverns in American history fascinate me. If you have read my descriptions of taverns in my novels, you have seen this in action. In early America, taverns were much more than places for boozing. They were hotels as well as pubs, restaurants, dance halls, and banquet facilities. And they were ghastly! They came with bedbugs, appalling food, and rude service. Just like today! Plus you shared beds with strangers!
According to Karis, the cheery young interpreter inside, this place started out as a stagecoach inn. But when trains killed the stagecoach trade, the owners quickly changed their business plan, and it became a boardinghouse, while a function space upstairs was rented out for dances, oyster dinners, and the like.
But as you can see below, the Tavern also functioned as a Temperance inn, serving sodas! This is SHOCKING. Because we’re in Wisconsin. And the words Wisconsin and Temperance do not go together. Does not compute. On the other hand, joking aside, communities soaked in alcohol were also most likely to embrace temperance: Women got tired of the violence, neglect, and money-wasting that went with their husbands’ alcoholism. How did temperance differ from prohibition? Simple: Temperance was voluntary.
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Finishing with the Finnish Farmhouse
Over in the Scandinavian Homesteads area, we caught up with a friendly interpreter in the Finnish Farmhouse, which is portrayed during the First World War. She was preparing Victory Cabbage, she said. Okay, sauerkraut, which like everything else during World War I was renamed so it wasn’t German: Frankfurters (hot dogs), German shepherds (these became Alsatians in the UK), and the British Royal family (Windsor instead of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and Mountbatten instead of Battenberg) She showed me the vicious mandolin cutter, used to slice cabbage, that was about two feet long . That made me cringe: Even the modern ones terrify me. She had also made a wonderfully dubious dish called white potato custard. Yum. Try it at home, folks!
But what made this farmhouse Finnish? I was going to ask, but another couple had walked in, and the wife was now pushing aside the chairs and other obstacles that formed an obvious barrier to try to touch the hot stove.
No wonder the interpreter begged Hoosen and me to come back and see her very soon.
But I am happy to report that this WAS a Finnish farmhouse. How do I know? Check this out:
So those are just a few highlights. We saw many more. And we never even made it to more than half of Old World Wisconsin. Just like the former governor of California, though, we’ll be back!
There will now be a short pause while my Wisconsinite readers report in their adorable accents on how they have never been there, and how about that? Fess up in the comments, folks. And everyone else? Have you been to your nearest open air museum, or one further afield? What did you think?