Old World Wisconsin in Chloe’s Day

I’m sometimes asked why the Chloe Ellefson mysteries are set in the 1980s. The main reason is that my own museum career started in 1982. I write from my memories of Old World Wisconsin, and the historic sites biz. (I also think it’s nice to give modern visitors some space between the site they visit now and murder and mayhem, even if fictional.)

I sometimes forget how much Old World Wisconsin has changed in the past few decades, so I thought it would be fun to share some photos of the site in the early years.

The  site opened in 1976, with far fewer buildings than guests see today. A reader shared this photo from 1980.

Old World Wisconsin, 1980

I believe the crew was reconstructing the Hilgendorf Barn at the Koepsell Farm, in the German Area. Below, that’s me and Otto Hilgendorf, who donated the building, in 1982.

KAE and Otto Hilgendorf

This 1983 photo shows the stable in the background, part of a functional farmyard.

KAE Koepsell garden 1983

I took this photo of the Schottler House 1981, when I visited the site for the first time. No gardens, no summer kitchen.

Schottler, 1981

The crossroads village looked pretty spartan then too. Here’s the Four Mile Inn, restored but not yet open.

Four Mile Inn, 1982

The Hafford House looked quite isolated.

Hafford House, 1982

As the years went by at the site, gardens were planted, outbuildings moved and restored, fences added, old-breed livestock introduced. Visitors today enjoy the tangible results of decades of research and work.  If you haven’t had a chance to visit for a while, you’ll be amazed.

By the way, if you have any photos of Old World Wisconsin from the early years, I’d love to see them!

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4 Responses to “Old World Wisconsin in Chloe’s Day”

  1. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    We first visited in 1996, on our honeymoon. It is interesting to see the old photos and see how far things have come since the early days! It is one of our favorite historic sites. We love the Chloe books, too

  2. Heather L Says:

    I think the first time my sisters and I visited was in 1978 or 1979. No photos from that trip, but I remember thinking everything seemed less spread out when I returned in the 90s.

  3. Karen Pauli Says:

    I worked as an interpreter in 1979 and 80. I lived in the Chicago suburbs. I had taught myself to spin, and that led to a summer job demonstrating spinning at The Old Graue Mill and Museum in Oakbrook. I loved doing that and wanted to make a career out of museum work, so when a friend in Milwaukee told me that another mutual friend was working at Old World and said that they needed to hire more interpreters, the two of us applied. I started in mid-August of ’79. That year they bounced me around wherever I was needed. I had several weeks in the smaller of the Norwegian houses. To keep busy I had whittled a crochet hook and was crocheting a shawl. One day I opened the door in the morning to find the house filled with hornets. Apparently one of the logs at a back corner had rotted and the hornets had made a nest in it. Eventually they worked their way through the wood to the interior. So I sat out front of the locked cabin that day crocheting and did a lot of explaining of not only the history of the house, but why you couldn’t go inside that day. Since I could spin yarn as well as repair spinning wheels, I got the job of getting all of the museums spinning wheels running (though I was unable to convince them to re-arrange the spinning wheels so they matched the ethnicity of the houses, so I was stuck with a Swedish wheel in the Norwegian house, a Norwegian wheel in the Finnish house, etc). The second year the Schultz house was finally finished and I worked there all summer. I instructed the woodworkers on what parts we needed made to get the barn loom operational, and on extremely busy days I would find a corner of the work room where I could see the front door but all the visitors could get past me and just sit an spin and interpret the front portion of the house from where I sat. I worked it into a circular talk, so people could continue on to the back of the house when they realized I was repeating what they’d heard before. I loved the job but I couldn’t live on what they paid.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hello Karen! Thanks for sharing your memories. You were really there in the early days. I learned to spin flax and wool at OWW, probably on wheels that you cared for. Between the seasonal aspect of the work and the salary, it’s always been hard to keep good interpreters employed at most sites. Have you had a chance to visit recently? The site has developed a lot since the 70s!

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