Even though we’ve moved only 20 miles from where I went to elementary school, I’ve been surprised at how infrequently I find myself returning to the important places of my childhood. There are things that are similar in the neighborhood we live in now—the Lannon stone houses from the local quarry, the way the tulips arrive just around mothers’ day, or how summer smells of lake water and cut grass and charcoal grills, but we don’t actually go to my childhood library, or walk past my elementary school, or even visit my favorite Mexican restaurant. I think as Jackson grows we’ll take more trips to some memory-laden places to swim or ice skate or look at art. Until then I’ve gotten to tag along with our friends’ grade school daughters as they explore the wonders of southern Wisconsin—baseball games, pumpkin patches, art exhibits, and last week the wonderful outdoor living museum: Old World Wisconsin.
Old World Wisconsin is a bit like Williamsburg, Virginia, only instead of recreating the colonial buildings where they would have stood in the middle of a still busy and vibrant University town (and near-by water parks), Old World Wisconsin is filled with 19th century buildings (the actual original buildings not replicas) brought in from all over the state, forming both a town and several clusters of farms.
As a kid I LOVED going to Old World Wisconsin. They had women dressed up in gorgeous dresses, homemade root-beer, and a real working blacksmith shop. It was like the whole world of Laura Ingalls Wilder had come to life before my eyes—tiny cabin to one room school house to town store with burlap sacks of flour and coffee.
A few months ago I told my friend Loren about the wonders of Old World Wisconsin and how it would make a great home school field trip for her 7 and 11-year-old daughters, Evelyn and Joann. Loren, being infinitely on-top-of-it found that there were actual home school days at Old World. (Good job Old World Wisconsin!)
I got to tag along, either as a chaperone (1:1 ratio) or as a very eager mother starting to home school her 10-month old. Either way, it was $4 less than regular admission (Jackson was free), and no one questioned my presence. Actually there were a lot of babies there, but they all had older siblings; still I did not anticipate scoping out really amazing baby carriers and baby carrier accessories (score again, Old World Wisconsin, you never cease to amaze me).
Old World Wisconsin is about an hour from Milwaukee, and I loved the chance to drive through the countryside chatting with friends, and Jackson thought the first 20 minutes were awesome, the second 20 minutes was a rough sobbing to sleep, and the last 20 minutes a peaceful, if all too short morning nap. The rest of the day he was nestled in the baby carrier (although by far not the coolest one there) and I was able to mostly stay up with the girls as they explored how life was more difficult, while simple and beautiful, and overall that strange mixture that the past is: so different and yet the same.
Carrying a baby along for the day made me appreciate the work of the women. We started out at the laundress’ house. She was an Irish widow who supported her two girls by endlessly boiling and scrubbing and drying clothes.
By the end of her life, she was able to build a rather nice house that we walked through, touching the cold irons and peaking inside the huge cast iron stove. The girls got to agitate some clothes in barrels outside with a metal contraption that looked a bit like a toilet plunger.
We then made our way to the unmarked wheel makers’ shop. There aren’t signs on any of the shops, so I felt particularly like the tour guide remembering what builders were which.
The girls got to make wooden dowels and touch wagon wheels learning about bending wood with water and comparing their bicycle wheels to giant wagon wheels. Jackson quietly took the whole thing in.
Then it was on to the general store with a hoop-skirt bustle, a box of dried cod, and a jar of biscuits. Here we got to see the cloth that would have made up those dresses and shirts the girls helped to wash.
Later at the farms, we’d see how families without stores at which to buy cloth would card, spin and weave linen or wool to make their own fabric. The general store has so many things to touch, digging your hands in a sack of rice or beans, looking into the glass display of tiny sewing scissors or fancy gloves, or admiring the farming equipment like the hoes and rakes and pitch forks.
The girls then bounded across the street to see how those hoes and rakes and pitch forks would have been forged and shaped at the blacksmith’s shop.
We got ourselves a lady-blacksmith, which I thought was awesome, and even more awesome that the girls didn’t even seem to notice.
Jackson and I had to step out to nurse, so we missed most of the making of the “s” hook — iron glowing red, pounding on the anvil to make it curve, and then putting it into water to cool, causing a plume of sizzling smoke (you can tell I have seen it before a few times).
The girls got to crank the bellows before realized that the horseshoes the shop made were on actual horses out back, and we scooted out to see the quarter horse.
Next stop: The Inn. Everyone was in the back watching pies being made.
So we slipped past the gentleman’s bar and checkers area, and into the kitchen where dough was being rolled out.
(Home school day did not include getting old fashioned root beer, so there is some incentive to not pretend you’re a home schooler and come on a regular day.) I loved the dishes and the flowers and the furniture, which I didn’t remember much of from my childhood trips, probably because when I was little I didn’t notice those things.
Then on to the shoe maker’s shop, where he explained that $5 would buy you a pair of shoes that lasted 20 years ($1 would buy you an acre of land) but $2 would get you factory shoes that would last 3 years.
We looked at thickness of leather, the different pieces of shoes, before pounding tiny wooden pegs into shoe soles. At lunch we had a math and economics lesson as Loren asked the girls which was the better deal. Joann thought about it and decided that when your feet were still growing, the factory shoes would be better. But later, Evelyn piped up, the other shoes would last longer. Well thought out ladies.
The town is nearly a mile away from the farms, but I think the open tram was one of the girls’ favorite parts. Exhausted by all the sights and people, Jackson fell asleep for most of the afternoon farming activities.
At the German settlement, we met some oxen coming in from plowing. We saw flax go from a plant to fibers to thread to woven linen all in the farmer’s front room.
We walked through vegetable patches, the girls identifying plants that they had helped plant at their CSA.
The farm had a bunch of hands-on activities: the girls kneaded dough, and cut shingles, and ground grain. They even got to pretend to be oxen or horses plowing a field.
The Norwegian settlement was not too far of a walk, and the girls kindly helped Jackson sleep by skipping the awesome short tram ride, taking the not very often traveled wooded path.
On the way Joann asked me about my story, which in her mind I’m taking an awful-long time to write (in my mind too Joann), but Joann is a great lover of babies and she led off with, “Miss Amy can you not write as much because of taking care of Jackson?” I told her yes, but a little of what I was working on in the story. I sort of assumed that a minute description would be all that she’d want, since that’s my normal experience sharing about my writing, but no sir. She wanted the whole thing. We only got a little way into the story before we arrived at the next farming village, but the whole car ride home was filled with me telling the girls my story.
I love the mixture of returning to Old World Wisconsin that is filled with things just as I remember them, and yet each time just being there with family makes you think about life differently. In the Norwegian settlement there was a school house that I didn’t get any pictures of, but was by far Joann’s favorite place, just like it had been mine when I was her age.
There is something about being in a place for children, in a place that you both understand and is so foreign that makes it magical. After the school house there was a quick stop to see a farmer’s wife card and spin yarn, and then an unexpected chance for just the five of us to help feed a pig a broken egg.
I wouldn’t have thought that the walk to the next farm or a broken egg and a big pig would have been some of the highlights of the trip, but they were.
We were pretty tired as we waited for the last tram to take us back to the entrance. (Although the promise of buying old time candy buoyed sagging spirits).
I have a picture of me and my childhood friend Anna Kate, whose parents introduced me to Old World, waiting on that same corner for the tram, tired and happy and posing for the camera in jean overall shorts and a jean hat with fake flowers on it.
And I love that Old World Wisconsin hasn’t changed much, just a few more buildings. It seems a pretty unique thing to have a place so like how you remember it. Well, it did seem a little bigger when I was little, but other than that it was fairly unchanged. And I love that it’ll be there for Jackson to discover and someday return to with friends to show around and introduce to the wonderful world of Old Wisconsin.
Have you returned to a place like Old World Wisconsin or Williamsburg? What has it been like to return to a place you loved as a child ?
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