Why A Settler’s Year?

As the launch date for  A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through The Seasons approaches, I’ve been thinking about the journey I’ve taken with this book.  Why did I spend two years living with this project, and why was I confident that readers would care?

A Settler's Year

My interest in the topic goes back to 1981, when I first toured the fledgling historic site called Old World Wisconsin.

Schottler Farm, Old World Wisconsin, 1981

The Schottler Farm was raw in 1981—no gardens, no fences, no summer kitchen.

I was so captivated by the stories, the setting, and the museum’s mission that the following spring I packed up, moved to Wisconsin, and went to work as an interpreter in the museum’s German area.

KE-BraidOWW400w-enhanced - Version 2

That’s me in the Schottler doorway, 1982.

After two years on-site I moved behind the scenes, and was hired as curator of interpretation and collections. For the next decade I worked closely with Marty Perkins. You can read more about Marty here.

Kathleen Ernst & Marty Perkins

On one of my visits after I’d left the site, Marty told me he’d been working with a photographer named Loyd Heath, and showed me some of Loyd’s incredible photographs. “You’d love Loyd,” Marty told me. “He’s a great guy.”


Loyd in action.

The last time I saw Marty, he told me about a book proposal he was developing for the Wisconsin Historical Society Press about pioneer life in Wisconsin, featuring Loyd’s photographs. Marty was happy to be working on a topic so near to his heart, and delighted that the book would bring Loyd’s work to a bigger audience.

Marty died suddenly two weeks later.

Some months after that, my friend Kathy Borkowski, publisher at the WHSP, asked me if I’d like to pick up the project. “I couldn’t possibly,” I said. “Just think about it,” she said. We went through that routine several times over the next month or so.

Finally I sat down with Kathy and Kate, the senior editor. “I can’t write the book Marty would have written,” I said. “Nobody can do that.” They said they understood. I talked with Marty’s wife about it. She said she and the kids understood, too.

One of the many articles Marty wrote for the Old World Wisconsin Foundation's newsletter.

One of the many articles Marty wrote for the Old World Wisconsin Foundation’s newsletter. (April-May, 2006 issue)

Finally I realized how much I did want to pick up the project. It was something I could do in honor of my former friend and colleague.

Marty Perkins 2012

Marty doing what he loved: giving a tour at Old World Wisconsin.

In addition, there are few topics I feel as passionate about as the lives of early immigrants. I’ve spent the last three decades thinking about them, interpreting them, writing about them, creating museum events and television programs and poems and books about them. The immigrant experience is, at its essence, about people searching for a new home, in a new place. That journey has meaning for almost all of us—whether in our own lives, or in our ancestors’ lives.

LC - [Four immigrants and their belongings, on a dock, looking out over the water; view from behind] Created / Published c1912 Oct. 30.

Immigrants, c. 1912.  (Library of Congress)

And as frosting on the cake, I was delighted with the opportunity to work on such a visual book. Loyd takes gorgeous photographs, and the WHSP produces gorgeous books.

WHSP catalog

I’ll always wish I could have read the book that Marty would have written, but I’m enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved. Reading the immigrants’ accounts, and pairing their stories with Loyd’s photographs, was a healing, rewarding, and often moving experience.

I hope that you, too, are moved as you experience A Settler’s Year:  Pioneer Life Through The Seasons.

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19 Responses to “Why A Settler’s Year?”

  1. Jen @ DollsBetweenUs Says:

    Great Christmas Gift….

  2. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    What a labor of love and tribute to Marty! I look forward to reading it. Old World is one of our favorite historic sites.

  3. Char Shirven Says:

    Choked me up reading this and thinking about all the great moments we have had, together with Marty, out at Old World. Thank you so much for accepting this continuation of the journey.

  4. Carole Dagg Says:

    Count me among the readers who care – A Settler’s Year is going on my TBR list!

  5. Kim Holder Says:

    So proud of you my friend. You are a fabulous writer.

  6. Nancy Says:

    Kathleen-this book sounds fascinating! Thank you for bringing it to our attention. What a wonderful project you took on. Need to get a copy of this along with your new Chloe book coming out!

  7. Knight Says:

    Hi there: I’m looking forward to seeing this one, and maybe seeing you again, to boot. I’ll try to watch your schedule, but geez it makes me dizzy.

    Michael H. Knight

  8. Kathleen Says:

    Looking forward to reading this book, it should be lovely! I was lucky to have been on tours Marty gave at OWW for the Friends behind the scenes tours, including one in the barn where all the artifacts are stored. He made the tours so special because of the amount of detailed information he had, and also how excited he was to share his obvious love of OWW. What a special person he must have been!

  9. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    Yes, it will bring back fond memories. Our first visit to OWW was on our honeymoon 19 years ago! The picture of Marty on the porch looks so familiar, was it taken the day you were there talking about Chloe and the Old World Murder books? We met both you and Marty that day. He was so excited when he talked about driving around and spotting old buildings that he thought would be appropriate for the site. I just love hearing immigrant stories as my dad’s family was some of the first white settlers in Nicolett county, MN.

  10. jessicariege Says:

    As an interpreter in the German area at Old World I’m so excited for this book to come out! It will be a wonderful mix of both Lloyd’s talent and yours.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks for connecting, Jessica! The German area will always have a special place in my heart. And as you can probably imagine, I had a very hard time choosing from among Loyd’s many, many images.

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