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The Getaway Guys were scheduled to visit Old World Wisconsin (OWW), a “must-do” destination in Eagle, Wis. suggested by several readers, when a tornado struck this Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) site on June 21. Only a few structures were damaged, but the grounds suffered a severe loss of mature trees. Remarkably, OWW was able to reopen on July 24, and Neil and Alan visited shortly afterward.
Inspired by Richard W. E. Perrin’s (1909-?) idea of a living assemblage of historic Wisconsin structures collected from around the state and preserved in one place, OWW was established in 1976 and continues to grow as new acquisitions become available. Disassembled, moved and reassembled, many (if not most) of its buildings were destined for destruction because of encroaching development or simply decay.
Using these rescued structures, working farms and a village have been recreated at OWW. Befitting the Badger State’s ethnic and cultural composition, the village and farms represent seven 19th-century immigrant groups arranged on over 600 acres just outside Eagle. The Guys were privileged to have a guided tour with Martin Perkins, curator of research, who has spent much of his professional career since 1976 directing the site’s development.
Although they are former rehabbers of personal dwellings, Neil and Alan felt like rank amateurs in Perkins’ company, but they could understand and appreciate the complexity of the undertaking. They were also impressed by the period clothing worn by the interpretive volunteers slaving over wood-burning stoves while whipping up period foodstuffs. Last, but not least, were the animals husbanded and gardens cultivated in keeping with 19th-century rural Wisconsin life. Alan got into the cooking and the animals, but Neil thought it was too hot an August day for culinary inquisitiveness – the animals seemed to agree.
Six hundred-plus acres are not an inconsequential amount of land to traverse on foot, so the Getaway Guys took the tourist tram to get oriented. After identifying particular points of interest, they hoofed it – an approach they recommend. Tram riders can get off and on at conveniently located stops.
OWW’s ethnic areas include African-American, German, Polish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish and Yankee. Before touring the farms, the Guys focused on the Crossroads Village where they found a general store (1878, Waterville), a shoe shop (1879, Slovan), a resurrected Catholic church (1839, Milwaukee), a wagon shop (1881, Whitewater) an impressive inn (1853, Horicon), a town hall (1876, Harmony) and two historic houses (1885, Hubbleton and 1875, Fort Atkinson). Period-clad volunteers explained the intricacies of 19th-century life.
It was a hot day, and Alan insisted on taking a break for some iced tea and a snack at the site’s Clausing Barn (1897) Restaurant. Neil (never hungry) ate half of Alan’s chocolate chip pumpkin bread. Afterward, the Guys visited the African- American, German, Finnish and Danish areas. The African-American contribution consists of two diminutive churches, one (Pleasant Ridge, Wis.), complete with a reconstituted graveyard containing accurate replicas of period tombstones. Pleasant Ridge was one of the first integrated communities in rural Wisconsin.
In the German area are three distinct farms: the Schultz (1860s, Herman), Schottler (1875, Germantown) and
Koepsell (1880, Jackson). Neil thought the Koepsell vegetable garden interesting, especially with an outhouse adjacent. Alan liked the colorful wagon at the Schultz farm because it reminded him of Costa Rica (odd observation).
The Finnish area has the former Rankinen farmhouse from Oulu (1897) and the relocated (from Crossroads Village) blacksmith shop (1868). Alan was impressed with the smithy’s expertise. Neil was reminded of his blacksmithing days in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s.
Both felt sorry for the gentleman clothed in period attire in sweltering August heat and humidity (no spreading chestnut tree). In the nearby Danish area, the Pedersen farm (1890) is restored from Luck, Wis. There a period-clad staffer was cooking something she called bland, but which smelled delicious to one half the Getaway team (Alan thought it divine). Neil thought it was high time (3:30 p.m.) for a 21st-century lunch.
The Norwegian, Polish and Yankee areas, as well as an authentic historic baseball field, would have to wait for another visit. “Old World Wisconsin, America’s Heartland: A Guide to Our Past,” published by WHS, is an excellent guide for planning a visit or touring the site.
OWW also offers extensive educational programs and special events. In 2010 there are baseball games, barn dances, farmhand buffets and a musical comedy about the Civilian Conservation Corps. The OWW also offers bird and wildflower tours and a Belgian Holiday Dinner in December.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.