Wrong, All Wrong

Old World Wisconsin was hit by an F2 tornado on June 21.  First, the good news:  it happened at night, when the site was closed.  No one was hurt.  None of the farm animals were hurt.  The damage to the historic structures is, miraculously,  minimal.

The Visitor Center mall and Clausing Barn. (Ellsworth Brown/Wisconsin Historical Society photo)

Now the bad news:  almost three thousand trees were destroyed.

(Mark Was/TMJ Chopper 4, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo.)

The photos and aerial footage I’ve seen leave me heartsick.   The photo above shows the parking lot and visitor center area.

Many of the downed trees were pines, planted decades ago.  The pine plantation was not the native oak-prairie landscape.  Still, I loved those trees. They shaded the parking lot, and the visitor center mall and picnic area.

More than that, though, they helped visitors transition from the modern world to the site itself.  Before the tornado, visitors turned from Highway 67 onto an entrance drive that wound through the pines.  The trees helped create a reflective environment.

Looking from the green to the parking lot. (Wisconsin Historical Society photo.)

When visitors headed out onto the site, the pines provided a living screen between the historic site and modern intrusions. One of the first buildings visitors encounter on site is the Caldwell Farmers’ Club hall.  It is still standing, but an animal shed beside it was destroyed.

The animal barn beside Caldwell. (Old World Foundation photo.)

Not all the losses were planted pines, though.  Many magnificent old oak trees, remnants of oak savannah prairie, graced the area.  I suspect that most of those are also gone.

One of my Old World friends wrote, “The pictures just don’t show the real damage. You stand on the Caldwell hill and you honestly don’t know where you are – it is just wrong, all wrong.”  Another friend, who has worked at Old World for decades, says the area looks like a war zone.

It’s an apt analogy.  I am reminded of civilian accounts I read while researching Too Afraid To Cry.  After the Battle of Antietam, local farmers got lost in their own neighborhood, because all landmarks were gone.

Way back when, I majored in forestry at West Virginia University, with a focus on environmental education.  When I worked at Old World, researching and helping to create new interpretive programs, I always tried to think about 19th-century people within the context of their environment.  Whenever I write, I try to instill a strong sense of place into the narrative.

The Hafford House in the Crossroads Village, last July. (K. Ernst photo)

One of the things I’ve always loved about Old World is the landscape itself.  The original site planners did a superb job.  It’s possible to look out the window of an old house and see a garden, an agricultural field, a prairie remnant, and woods beyond.

Old World Wisconsin is, for the time being, closed.  The most urgent work is well underway—making the parking lot and all historic structures accessible.  In the weeks and months to come, I’m sure the Old World staff will create a long-range plan for restoring the landscape.  In the on-site prairie areas, that likely means replanting the oaks.  I don’t know what will be decided for the entrance area.

This photo was taken just a few days before the tornado. (Scott Meeker photo)

What I do know is that this place which is so dear to me will never, in my lifetime, look the same.

The Old World Wisconsin Foundation has started a Tornado Relief Fund.  For more info:  http://www.friendsoww.org/.

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2 Responses to “Wrong, All Wrong”

  1. Meg Justus Says:

    Oh, how awful. I know exactly how you feel (I felt the same way after the Yellowstone fires). If it’s any consolation, though, at least it was a natural phenomenon that could have been experienced by some of the 19th century residents.

    I’m sure Old World Wisconsin will come back from this better than ever.

  2. MJ Diem Says:

    I was floored when I saw the first news footage from a helicopter. You could hear the cameraman say something like “Does anyone have a map? I don’t know what this place is.”
    Thanks for the post!

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