Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women… these were the stories that captured my imagination as a child. I would daydream of life in the country; my face stained with blackberry jam, wearing gingham, and running barefoot through the tall grass. So it was with great enthusiasm that I took my family for a trip across the border and back into time at Old World Wisconsin.
This living history museum, located in Eagle, Wisconsin, lets you experience firsthand the rural past of America’s heartland. You won’t find sterile hallways with artifacts encased in glass here. Instead you will find authentic buildings from actual farms of the 1800’s. These buildings have been painstakingly reconstructed into the ethnic homesteads and villages that comprise Old World Wisconsin.
What truly makes history come alive are the costumed interpreters. These are not hokey character actors. The interpreters are docents who each day relive and share the day-to-day activities of Wisconsin’s early settlers. On any given day you may see them driving a team of oxen in the fields, cooking over a wood fire, spinning wool or even heating iron at a blacksmith forge.
What’s even better, is that you and your children can engage in these activities yourselves. On our visit my children fetched fresh eggs from the chicken coop, swept the farmhouse porch, carried chopped wood to the wood pile, made wooden shingles, washed laundry by hand, ground grain into flour, mowed grass, and helped process flax into fiber. I can barely get them to pick up their underwear at home!
If your children are school-age and have studied the early settlers, then a visit to Old World Wisconsin will hold a lot more meaning for them. However, don’t discount the appeal for younger children. Before our trip we made a trip to the library to pick up some books about farming and pioneers to give them some idea of what to expect. But even without this context, the farm animals and costumes would have been enough to intrigue my 4-year old and 2-year old. The fact that we snuck some education in with their fun was a plus.
Upon entering Old World Wisconsin, you will receive a map that also lists the daily highlights. For a visit with children of any age, I recommend going straight to the areas offering hands-on activities for that day. The museum is made up of 8 different historic areas (Norwegian, Polish, German, African-American, Crossroads Village, Yankee, Finnish, and Danish) which are connected by miles of wooded, gravel trails. You can hike them yourself or ride a tram between the areas. If you’re a history nerd like I am, try and restrain yourself from engaging in lengthy Q & A’s with the interpreters while your little ones tug at your shirt. Keep them happy and stick to the areas offering hands-on activities or demonstrations that day and save the other areas for when they are older. There’s plenty to come back and see. Our visit lasted 5 hours and we only managed to visit the German Area and Crossroads Village (both must-do’s for children.) Despite this, everyone left satisfied and eager to return.
Here are a few things to keep in mind before you go: The 1800’s did not have air conditioning. If you plan to visit on a hot day, carry water with you, and utilize the tram to prevent exhaustion. Trams accommodate strollers, but 19th century farmhouses don’t. Park your strollers outside buildings and keep the curious hands of toddlers from reaching out for a hot cast iron stove. Thankfully, restroom facilities are fully modern, so if you were looking forward to using an outhouse you are out of luck. However, when you find out what they used old corn cobs for, I am sure you will be grateful for porcelain. Finally, farm animals are cute and chickens will roam freely, but these are working farm animals and this is not a petting zoo. Animal interaction is best left to observation.
When hunger sets in, an idyllic country picnic can be hand on grounds if you bring your own food. We opted to eat at the Clausing Barn Cafe onsite. The Cafe is located on the lower level of the Clausing Barn, an impressive, bright red, octagonal barn that also hosts private events. (It’s a charming space that was actually hosting a wedding reception the day of our visit and also hosts a Breakfast with Father Christmas during the holidays.) You’re not going to eat authentic 19th century pioneer food here, but that will probably be a relief to most 21st century children. What you will find is a selection of hot and cold sandwiches and salads in the $5-$7 range. Simple fare that will keep your family happy.
The allure of Old World Wisconsin extends beyond history buffs. While the life of early settlers could be harsh, there is merit to be found in hard work and living off the land. In our world of smart phones, video games, and online delivery, we’ve forgotten about a time when poking a friend was done with your finger, no one needed a gym membership, and eating local and organic meant getting your hands dirty. It’s the kind of life our very own Hyacynth fantasizes about, and maybe we all need a reminder that its virtues are not too far out of reach.