Old World Wisconsin still brings history to life after 40 years

Old World Wisconsin still brings history to life after 40 years
The new feature at Old World Wisconsin lets visitors try out a 19th century tricycle. 

   As an almost lifelong Madison resident, holding a history degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I’d never visited Old World Wisconsin until now.

But the family recently made the hourlong drive to the Kettle Moraine State Forest to visit the nation’s largest living museum and I was most impressed.

The wonderful hiking trails and wooded setting alone are worth the visit for those looking to mix some exercise into their history. You can even work in a spin on a 19th-century tricycle.

For those not familiar with the park, Old World Wisconsin is a publicly-owned 600-acre regional attraction that features interactive exhibits and restored buildings frozen in time from the 19th- and early 20th-century.

Somewhat akin to other sites like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and Greenfield Village in Michigan, Old World Wisconsin seeks to recreate what things were like for early settlers in this country—with all due respect to the native people already here for centuries. It is designed to showcase Midwestern immigrant farm and rural life with real life characters in period costume.

Located on Wisconsin Highway 67 east of Whitewater, the museum features 67 faithfully recreated buildings, 10 working farmsteads and a dozen charming heirloom gardens. Visitors will find heritage livestock breeds and get to try historic crafts or take a lesson in a one-room schoolhouse from a stern-minded teacher.

One of 12 sites operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society, Old World Wisconsin is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year without too much fanfare. A few special events are planned, but nothing overly elaborate. That would be out of character.

Founded in 1846, the Wisconsin Historical Society still ranks as one of the largest and most diversified organizations of its kind. As both a state agency that receives taxpayer dollars and a private membership organization, it provides a wide range of functions from collecting artifacts to operating programs. Its $2 million annual budget is split roughly 50/50 between state support and private revenues.

But after touring just a small portion of sprawling Old World Wisconsin and reading up on a bit of its history, it’s hard to imagine the state undertaking something like this today.

The idea for the project dates back to the 1960s when a group of visionaries, researchers, history buffs and volunteers launched an incredible preservation effort to rescue at least some of the rapidly disappearing immigrant and migrant architecture.

They managed to secure approval to move dozens of historic buildings from all around Wisconsin to the Kettle Moraine State Forest where they were painstakingly reconstructed—in some cases brick by brick or log by log.

In his 2013 book, Creating Old World Wisconsin, author John Kugler details the fascinating origins of the outdoor museum and the obstacles that confronted its supporters, including limited funding, bureaucratic snags and a skeptical public.

But the site, led by Milwaukee architect and preservationist Richard Perrin and UW-Madison landscape architect Bill Tishler, opened in 1976 in time for the national bicentennial. It has continued to endure despite state budget cuts, a damaging 2011 tornado and competition from other tourist attractions like water parks and amusement rides.

Old World Wisconsin attracted over 100,000 visitors when it first opened for the bicentennial, but recently has settled into the range of 70,000 to 75,000. It’s the most visited of the fee sites operated by the historical society.

“Weather is always a big factor in terms of visitors, but we’re running ahead of last year,” says director Dan Freas. “We’ve been really trying to reach out to families, which is the core of our business.”

There’s no way you can see all of Old World Wisconsin in just one day, especially if you hike some of the trails set within the glacially-sculpted terrain of the Kettle Moraine. The trails were once groomed for cross-country skiing and I can see why, with the rolling hills and mix of pine and hardwoods.

Our middle-schooler was most thrilled with the blacksmith shop, where he got to watch iron rods heated red-hot over a coal fire and hammered into a free souvenir coat hook. He even got a chance to work the hand-operated fan that pumped air into the coals and brought them to a white-hot glow.

Of course, I was excited by “Catch Wheel Fever!”, which gives visitors a taste of the 1890s bicycle boom that captured Wisconsin. This new interactive exhibit lets you hop on a replicated tricycle of the day and spin around an outdoors bicycle racetrack. It also features a 19th century workbench and wheel truing stand, not too much different from today.

In addition, there’s an old road map for cyclists of the day—something that warmed my heart since I still prefer a good, printed paper map to a smart phone or GPS unit for navigating around the Wisconsin countryside on a bike.

The Wisconsin Historical Museum in downtown Madison is also featuring a companion exhibit called “Shifting Gears: A Cyclical History of Badger Bicycling.” It includes a collection of Wisconsin bicycles and information about the state’s pivotal role in bicycling from past to present.

Fun stuff all around.

Mike Ivey is a Madison-based writer whose journalism career includes 30 years at The Capital Times.