Old World Wisconsin opened to the public last week, as it has every May since 1976. As always, the new season brings a variety of changes intended to improve visitor experience. But this year also marks an unwanted and profound change. For the first time ever, Marty Perkins isn’t watching spring unfurl at the historic site.
Marty started working at Old World in 1974. He began on the restoration crew, helping to dismantle, move, and reconstruct some of the historic structures.
For most of his career he served as Curator of Research and Interpretation. Most recently he concentrated on his primary love, research.
He loved his work. Part of his job involved driving backroads all over the state, searching for historic buildings. The people who owned the old homes or barns or shops quickly learned that Marty was a friendly, down-to-earth guy who truly wanted to hear their stories. He had a rare affinity for getting along with everyone.
I met Marty in 1982, when I moved to Wisconsin to work at the site. On a cold April day during training Marty gathered the German area interpreters in one of the old farmhouses. We built a fire in the woodstove and he shared tales about the buildings and the people who once occupied them. I knew I’d come to the right place.
During the thirty-eight years he served at OWW, he saw many colleagues come and go. Marty chose to dedicate his professional life to the site he’d helped plan, develop, and interpret. No one knew more about Wisconsin’s ethnic history and architecture than he did. No one knew more about Wisconsin’s crossroads villages, or 19th-century baseball teams, or the workings of farmers’ clubs, or so many of the other topics he explored.
Gathering facts, though, wasn’t the point. He was a storyteller.
After Marty died suddenly last November, his coworkers referred to him as the heart and soul of Old World Wisconsin. He was. One colleague said that the site’s institutional memory had burned to the ground. That’s also true.
Marty was also the site’s conscience. He knew that research had to be the foundation of everything that happened at Old World Wisconsin.
That may sound obvious. But historic sites never get the funding they need, and research takes time. It is not uncommon for a distant administrator or generous donor to suggest some new program, with little thought given to what’s truly involved. At any site, loud voices can clamor for something old-timey if people think it would be fun and/or sell more admission tickets.
Marty calmly and pleasantly insisted on a solid foundation of research for every new program or initiative. He helped others see that documentation wouldn’t detract from popular programming, but instead enhance the site’s educational offerings.
Of all the things I learned from Marty in the years we worked together, that philosophy is perhaps the most important.
Now that I’m writing stories instead of greeting visitors, I try to bring that ethic to each new book project. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing an historical novel for children or fictionalizing historical events in a mystery for adult readers. Research forms the foundation of the story.
But I’m not the only person Marty mentored. I can’t even imagine how many lives he touched over the years: how many novice interpreters came to share his passion for the site, how many colleagues developed a lifelong habit of looking for vernacular architecture on country drives, how many interns chose to make museum work a career.
His work lives in in the historic structures and programs at Old World Wisconsin, and in the many people he inspired.