Archive for the ‘Old World Wisconsin’ Category

My Cookbook Shelf

June 12, 2015

I’ve spent the last year having fun with old recipes from Minnesota’s flour milling history.

photo

The Wheat and Flour Primer

And I had fun celebrating The Washington Island Cook Book and The Settlement Cook Book.

As I was thinking about a final post for cookbook week, I decided to see what stories my own cookbook shelf can tell.

I grew up in Maryland, and inherited this volume.  I never use it, and I’d never get rid of it.

Maryland's Way Cookbook

The dedication reads, “To the generations of Maryland Cooks who, since 1634, have blended the fruit of bay, field, and forest into Maryland’s way”

Although I didn’t know Betty Crocker’s history, her cookbooks were popular in my house when I was a kid.

Betty Crocker Cookbooks

Top:  1978; and bottom, 1950 editions.  I think these actually came down in my husband’s family, but the older edition is the same as my mom’s. This one was so well use the binding had to be repaired!

When I was a young woman the go-to cookbook was Joy of Cooking, first published by Irma S. Rombauer in the 1930s. I rarely use these anymore, but can’t imagine not having them.

Joy of Cooking

Mass market paperbacks, 1964 editions.  These were the first cookbooks I owned.

My other beloved classic is the Moosewood Cookbook, written by Mollie Katzen in 1974. This one I still use. A lot.

Moosewood Cookbook

I started collecting cookbooks with historic themes when I was in college…

Vintage cookbooks

as well as cookbooks from historic sites.

historic sites cookbooks

When I moved to the Midwest and began working at Old World Wisconsin, I purchased a copy of The Ethnic Epicure. The price penciled inside is $6.95, and when I was living on an interpreter’s salary, that was a serious splurge. But the book helped introduce me to the ethnic food traditions of my new state.

Ethnic Epicure

The cookbook was published in 1973—three years before Old World Wisconsin even opened.

Ethnic Epicure 2

All proceeds from the book, compiled and edited by Mary Joanne VanCronkhite, were “used for the development of Old World Wisconsin by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.”

Ethnic Epicure3

I scribbled some OWW recipes on blank pages.

Since I began writing the Chloe Ellefson mysteries, which are set in the 1980s, I’ve had fun collecting vintage Wisconsin cookbooks, especially those with ethnic flair.

Vintage Wisconsin Cookbooks

And of course I look for cookbooks and recipes that celebrate the ethnic groups featured in the mysteries. You can check the Foodways link at the right of this page if you’d like to explore featured recipes.

Dusting off some of these old books brought back special memories. I hope you also have a shelf full of food traditions and memories too!

Old World Wisconsin Locations Guide

May 13, 2015

As the Chloe Ellefson Mystery series grows, I thought it would be helpful to provide a single list of Old World Wisconsin locations that appear in the books.

(Special note:  This Sunday, May 17, I’ll be sharing a preview of the next Chloe mystery, Death on the Prairie, at Old World.  The 4 PM program is free of charge, but why not come early, buy a ticket, and tour the site? You can visit the highlighted buildings, and enjoy springtime activities throughout the outdoor museum.)

SPOILER ALERT: the notes below reveal information about the plots.

OWM – Old World Murder (#1)
THM – The Heirloom Murders (#2)
TOD – Tradition of Deceit (#5)

(Books # 3 & 4, The Light Keeper’s Legacy and Heritage of Darkness, do not include scenes set at Old World.)

Crossroads Village

St. Peter’s Church – The series begins with Chloe walking into the Village and visiting this structure. (Note: The Swiss house mentioned in OWM, is imaginary. All other buildings mentioned in the series are real.)

St. Peters Church, Old World Wisconsin, 1981

I took this photo on my first visit to the site, in 1981. It’s hard to remember the church without its fence.

Four Mile Inn – Chloe sometimes attends the morning briefing held for the interpreter in the basement, which is closed to the public.

Yankee Area

Sanford Farm – The large barn across the road from the farmhouse was the scene of a murder in THM.

As you travel from the Village to the German area, you will see a marshy kettle pond to the right. In Chloe’s time, her office building—Education House—was located out of sight on the far side of the pond. (That’s where I worked for many years.) The area is now closed and not accessible.

German Area

Schottler Farm – During the early 1980s, ski trails were maintained on the site. In TOD, Chloe takes a break from stress by skiing out to this farm, ostensibly to check the stove. (In reality she enjoys baking kuchen and making notes about trouble in Minnesota.)

Schottler Farm, Old World Wisconsin, 1981

The Schottler house, 1981. The farm looks much better now, with gardens and fences and more outbuildings!

Norwegian Area

Kvaale Farm – This farm plays a key role in OWM. Chloe visits the farm while searching for the missing ale bowl, and Roelke is called to the farm after an alarm is triggered one night. The climax scene takes place in the farmyard. Be sure to visit the stabbur, where Chloe found the bowl (the 2nd story is not open to visitors) and the barn where Chloe tries to hide from Joel. Inside the house you’ll find an ale bowl on display on a high shelf.

The climax scene in Old World Wisconsin takes place in the Kvaale farmyard.

The climax scene in Old World Wisconsin takes place in the Kvaale farmyard.

Finnish Area

Ketola Farm – Chloe especially loves the sauna, which is the first small building you’ll encounter. In THM she visits to enjoy some quiet time after-hours, and gets locked inside.

* * *

Much more detailed Locations Guides for Old World Murder and The Heirloom Murders are available on my website.

Old World Wisconsin is a great place to visit any time, any season. Happy wandering!

Kuchen

April 29, 2015

Rhubarb is popping up in my garden, so this edition of Cooking With Chloe comes from yours truly.

As curator of collections at Old World Wisconsin, Chloe Ellefson, protagonist of my historic sites mysteries series, is responsible for maintaining the antique stoves in each historic kitchen.  In Tradition of Deceit Chloe skis to one of the German farms one winter day—for purely professional reasons, of course—and bakes kuchen.

At Old World this German coffeecake is often made at the 1875 Schottler farm. The Schottlers’ granddaughter recalled enjoying the treat with her grandparents.

KAE Schottler Sepia enhanced

(That’s me in the Schottler kitchen back in 1982, cutting up rhubarb for kuchen. A friend took the picture and printed it in sepia tones.)

You don’t need a wood stove to bake kuchen, and you can use whatever fruit is in season.

Kuchen

2/3 c. sugar
2. eggs, beaten
1 t. salt
1 c. shortening (originally lard)
¼ t. nutmeg
2 oz. yeast, dissolved in ¼ c. warm water
1 c. milk
3-4 c. unbleached flour
fruit
cinnamon and sugar to taste

Put yeast and water and 1 c. flour in mixing bowl. Let sponge set for about 1 hour. Add sugar, salt, nutmeg, shortening, and egg. Add remaining flour and knead. Let rise until almost doubled, 60-90 ninety minutes. Grease a round cake pan or cast iron skillet. Punch down dough, and form dough into pan. Top with sliced fruit, and/or cinnamon and sugar. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 35-45 minutes.

Enjoy!

About Those Trailers…

June 12, 2014

Readers sometimes wonder if I exaggerated the artifact storage conditions when I wrote Old World Murder. Well, here is one of the trailers Chloe discovers when she begins her job. (When collections care was tacked onto my job as curator of interpretation at Old World Wisconsin in the 1980s, this is what I inherited.)

Trailers II

In a former, happier life, the trailer had served as Wisconsin’s Historymobile, as celebrated in this recent image from a Wisconsin Historical Society newsletter.

scan0002 - Version 2

The Historymobile was retired as Old World Wisconsin was being developed, and it was repurposed at the site for collections storage. It wasn’t adequate, but with no proper facility, it had to do.

Trailers III

However, soon after I left the site, the situation improved. For the first time, a full-time collections curator was hired for Old World. And the modern storage facility that Chloe (and Ralph Petty) dream of in the book became a reality. (Photos courtesy Old World Wisconsin.)

Coll Bldg II

Coll Storage

While I confess to missing the good old days at times, it’s nice to remember the things that have improved! For a long time now, Old World Wisconsin has had a dedicated Curator of Collections and proper storage for the site’s huge collection of artifacts. Even Ralph Petty would approve.

Brick Bake Ovens

March 12, 2014

After I posted instructions for making sourdough bread starter from scratch—just as Caroline Abbott might have done—several readers asked about the type of oven Caroline would have used.  She and Grandmother used a brick bake oven.

Women used these bake ovens for centuries.  While visiting historic sites that interpret the period, I talked with several interpreters about foodways during Caroline’s era.

Old fort Niagara Kitchen

This interpreter was cooking in a kitchen at Old Fort Niagara.

For anyone using a brick bake oven, building a fire inside the oven was the day’s first chore. It took hours to heat the bricks.

Old Fort Niagara Kitchen

Can you see the small oven door in the back of the fireplace?

The arrangement at Old Fort Niagara (shown above) made the best use of the fire itself. When the oven was hot enough, coals were raked into the hearth and could be used for other cooking.

Old Fort Niagara bread

These round loaves were probably baked directly on the bricks.

The interpreter at Fort George National Historic Site, in Ontario, had a slightly different arrangement (below). Her oven is off to the side, which meant she didn’t have to lean over the fire to tend the oven.

Fort George

The oven door is the dark shape on the right side of the photo. This was much safer, and more comfortable, than having the door behind the main cooking fire.

Fort George

Using a bake oven was a big job, so smaller things—like these small cakes (cookies)—could be baked on a griddle hanging over the fire.

I learned to use brick bake ovens in my own interpreter days at Old World Wisconsin. In the photo below, the oven door is open. When the oven was hot enough, I’d use a hoe-type tool to rake  the coals and ashes into a chamber below.  (In the photo, that opening is covered with the board below the oven door.)  Later I’d open the little floor-level door  below the oven and shovel the cold ashes out.

Old World Wisconsin Schottler

Old World Wisconsin Schottler Kathleen Ernst

That’s me, explaining the process to visitors.

I used the long-handled paddle leaning against the wall to the left of the oven to place the bread dough into the oven, and remove the finished loaves. The length of the pole gives you an idea of how big the oven is!

Experienced bakers knew how to get the most out of a hot oven. When the bread came out, smaller items such as coffeecakes went in.  When they were done, there just might be enough heat left to bake a pan or two of cookies.

This kitchen is at a farm restored to 1875, which has a modern cookstove. So why would someone still use a bake oven? Perhaps she needed a dozen loaves to feed a hungry farm crew, as we did the day this picture was taken.

Michael Douglass Schottler summerkitchen

All from a single baking.

It took some practice to get the hang of using a brick bake oven. But one taste of hot, crusty bread spread with homemade butter made it all worthwhile.

Pioneer Winter

March 1, 2014

I’ve been reading a lot about winter lately. While working on a book project for the Wisconsin Historical Society, I’ve dug out a lot of primary accounts from European and Yankee immigrants settling in the Upper Midwest in the 1800s. Not surprisingly, the most poignant accounts describe the earliest days of white settlement.

When I worked at old World Wisconsin, one of my favorite buildings to interpret was the 1845 Fossebrekke Cabin. The Fossebrekkes, like many immigrants, opened their home to late-fall arrivals who had nowhere else to go. Some visitors couldn’t imagine surviving a winter in such a small building.

That's me in warm weather, heading into Fossebrekke, 1983.

That’s me heading into Fossebrekke, 1983.

But when Knudt arrived in Wisconsin, he had nothing. He worked as a laborer and spent his first winter in some kind of a shelter dug into the side of a hill. So I imagine that he and Gertrude Fossebrekke took enormous pride in their sturdy cabin.

I haven’t found a first-person account describing life in a dugout through long, dark, bitterly cold months. However, here’s a story shared by a descendant of a Norwegian immigrant who joined forces with two other single men. The three spent their first winter in a dugout…and their second winter as well:

A large log house was built on Nils Gilderhus’ land in the summer of 1841, but as they did not get it ‘clinked’ (sic) between the logs before cold weather set in, they continued to live in the dugout that winter.

Here Andres Lee and his wife, Gunvor, a sister of Nils, came from Norway late in 1841 and lived with all the rest in the dugout, as did a man named Andres Fenne. Later in the winter, Tore Kaase was also welcomed to live in the same dugout, there being no other shelter, which made a family of six men, one woman and two children, all in the same small dugout.

(“Mrs. Styrk Reque Tells History of Early Pioneers of Gilderhus Clan,” Capital Times, September 7, 1930.)

Those who barely managed to build some kind of free-standing structure often didn’t fare much better:

The winter was severe, and the house being enclosed by foot wide boards, but neither plastered or sealed the green boards warped and left great cracks, and the water froze in our glasses on the table, and if a little spilled on the floor it would freeze before we could wipe it up.

Renee Fossebrekke

Fossebrekke interior.  (Renee is making flatbread.)

We had no crib for the baby and had to keep him tied in  a chair. Our mother was sick all winter and we hung quilts and blankets around the stove pipe and fixed her bed in the enclosure; our money was nearly gone and we had to plan closely to get provisions but by hook and crook we managed to keep alive.

(Hannah L. Parker, “Pioneer Life in Waushara County,” Wautoma Argus, February 13, 1924.)

And here’s one more:

Only those who have experienced it can imagine the loneliness of the first winter 30 miles from a post-office. One inconvenience was the lack of matches. One wild, windy night Mr. Gardner’s fireplace went out. Soon Mr. Salisbury came. He, too, had lost fire. Together they started for Moses Smith’s to borrow coals. Mr. Salisbury fell into a river when crossing on a fallen tree.

Schulz cooking nook Old World Wisconsin

Cooking nook, Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin.  Without matches, fire could not be taken for granted.

While Mr. Salisbury remained at Smith’s to dry his clothing, Mr. Gardner started homeward. After going some distance he thought the pail seemed light and found that the bottom had melted and the fire was gone. Returning he borrowed an iron kettle, filled it with coals, and succeeded in reaching home with it, and a good, comfortable fire greeted Mr. Salisbury on his arrival.

(Helen Hicks, “Pioneer Settler of Spring Prairie was New York Man,” Racine JournalNews, January 15, 1932.)

Last week, while on a writing retreat, I stayed in a cabin built in 1853. I’ve stayed there before, and it’s a good space for me.

Fern Hollow Cabin

Fern Hollow Cabin in NE Iowa, owned by Liz Rog and Daniel Rotto.

Fern Hollow Cabin

From the family album–Fern Hollow Cabin before restoration in 1989.  Liz’s great-great-great-grandparents raised six children in this home, and Liz and Daniel later raised their own two children here.

It was cold during this stay—often below zero. The cabin’s only source of heat is a small wood-burning stove.

Fern Hollow Cabin

That’s a slab of soapstone on the top right side of the stove. After heating it up, I’d wrap it in a towel and take it up to bed in the loft.

I got a lot of work done, but the status of the fire never really left my awareness. A rhythm developed:  fetch wood, tend the stove, write. Fetch wood, tend the stove, write.

Fern Hollow Cabin

All the essentials—laptop, companion feline, and stove. Not shown: steaming mug of cocoa.

I was also acutely aware of how easy I  had it. I did not cut the wood, or stack it. When I had to leave for several hours, my hosts kindly stoked the stove. And I knew that if I did “lose” my fire, all I’d need to do was crumple newspaper and light a match to get it back.

This has been a long winter for most of the country. I will savor the first warm days of spring as much as anyone. But the accounts of pioneer winters have helped me keep the season’s challenges in perspective. It’s snowing as I write this, and I can’t help thinking that I have a lot to be grateful for.

Fern Hollow Cabin

Fern Hollow Cabin.

We can never truly imagine how our ancestors experienced winter, while struggling to build a better life for generations to come.

Lefse

October 28, 2013

Since a lefse pin spattered with blood is on the cover of my latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, Heritage of Darkness, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the murder weapon is. . . you guessed it, a lefse pin.

Heritage of Darkness 1

Which has led some readers to ask, What the heck is lefse, anyway?

Lefse is a round flatbread usually made with mashed potatoes (which used up old potatoes, and kept the bread soft) and baked on stovetop or griddle. It was a staple in the diet rural Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans in the 19th century.

LEFSE

This old stereocard image shows a Norwegian woman making lefse on an outdoor griddle. A lefse stick is used to turn the paper-thin round of dough.

I was introduced to lefse when I worked at Old World Wisconsin. Lefse was frequently made at the Fossebrekke cabin, home to young Norwegian immigrants.

KAE at Fossebrekke Web

That’s me at the 1845 Fossebrekke cabin in 1982.

potato masher

Hand-cranked potato masher, Fossebrekke cabin, Old World Wisconsin.

The heavy wooden pins used to roll the dough were deeply scored or grooved, which helped reduce air bubbles, pulverize any bits of unmashed potato, and keep the rounds of lefse quite thin and pliable.

lefse pins - Version 2

Two pins on exhibit at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

lefse pin

This pin’s groove’s are nearly worn away. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum Exhibit)

In Norwegian-American communities it can still be found in local stores. . .

Schuberts Mount Horeb lefse

Schubert’s Diner and Bakery in Mount Horeb, WI.

. . .often folded into quarters and offered fresh or frozen.

lefse sale

Oneota Co-Op, Decorah, Iowa.

Although fewer and fewer people make lefse at home, it still holds a special place in good Norwegian-American hearts. Many people have memories of mom or grandma boiling Russet potatoes and making lefse on special occasions.

Last year my friend Martha invited me to the local Sons of Norway – Valdres Lodge Norwegian Constitution Day Dinner on May 15, held at the Washington Prairie Lutheran Church outside of town.  (Learn more here.)

On the way, she told me that when the church needed a new roof, several elderly members of the congregation made hundreds of lefse. They announced sales, to be held at a bank in town. Sales were brisk, and the money raised helped buy the new roof.

DSCF5941

A few weeks later at Nordic Fest, a celebration of Scandinavian heritage and pride held in Decorah each summer, another small army of  lefse bakers reported for duty.

lefse Nordic Fest - Version 2

Warm rounds of lefse are delivered from the griddle to eager buyers, who add whatever toppings they prefer.

lefse Nordic Fest

I’ve read that 10,000 lefse are served at Nordic Fest each year.

lefse Nordic Fest

Me, I love lefse spread with butter and brown sugar, then rolled up tight. Maybe a touch of cinnamon. Or lingonberry jam.

Decades ago, I bought a lefse pin at an antique store.  I don’t know how old it is, or who used it, but I liked to wonder. Who once used it to roll out a bit of home or heritage on a flour-dusted table?

lefse pin

My lefse pin is much larger than my regular rolling pin.  Heavier, too.

And one year, while working at Old World Wisconsin, the Norwegian-area interpreters gave me this lovely rosemaled lefse pin at the end of the season. While I treasure the stick, I must admit that I’ve never made lefse at home. After learning how on an antique stove in an 1845 cabin, it just wouldn’t feel the same.

lefse pin

This stick has had a place of honor in my kitchen for 25 years.

At the launch party for Heritage of Darkness held at Mystery To Me (in Madison, WI) I witnessed lefse’s popularity all over again.  My talented baker friend Alisha brought a gorgeous cake.  She also brought a plate of lefse made by Lutheran church ladies, and rolled up with butter and cinnamon and sugar—the combination she’d learned from her Norwegian grandmother.

People who’d never tried lefse were eager for a sample. People who had their own fond memories of lefse munched happily, reminiscing.

Alisha with lefse

This plate of lefse disappeared fast. Really fast.

I think the generations of long-gone lefse makers would be pleased.

Why Vesterheim?

September 13, 2013

“Why is the new Chloe book set in Iowa?” The question came in an email. “Why is Chloe crossing the border? Why not explore other sites in Wisconsin?”

Heritage of Darkness 1

I have no intention of having Chloe leave her job at Old World Wisconsin. Roelke McKenna, suitor and local cop, will remain in the area as well.

But I do plan to get Chloe out and about from time to time. She can travel to other sites for professional and personal reasons, finding mystery and mayhem and historical echoes wherever she goes. Variety will help keep the series fresh. It also gives me the chance to showcase other sites that I find particularly appealing.

That happens in Chloe #4, Heritage of Darkness. Chloe, Mom, and Roelke head to Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, for a week’s vacation. So. . .  why Vesterheim?

Vesterheim wikipedia

It’s a stellar museum. Vesterheim is the most comprehensive museum in the United States dedicated to a single immigrant group. The collection is phenomenal.

Vesterheim trunk

Local historians began collecting artifacts over a century ago. The Norwegian government—believing Norwegian-Americans should be able to learn about their heritage—also contributed original pieces to the museum.

Vesterheim

It is not, however, a museum only of interest to those with Scandinavian heritage.  Vesterheim’s mission is to “explore the diversity of American immigration through the lens of Norwegian-American experience.” I can attest to that. I have no Norwegian heritage, but I find that each visit helps me reflect upon what my own Swiss, Dutch, and Irish ancestors experienced.

Vesterheim knitting

The Open Air Division of the museum contains twelve buildings, ranging from the tiny homes of new arrivals to a huge commercial mill. I only recently learned that Vesterheim’s collection has special significance. Sten Rentzhog, in his book Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea (2007), notes that “The oldest American outdoor museum appears to be Vesterheim. . . ”

Vesterheim Valdres snow

I had visited Vesterheim several times since moving to the Midwest in 1982, but returned with special purpose in 2005 while doing research for Old World Murder, the first Chloe mystery. That mystery centers on a missing antique ale bowl, and I made arrangements to visit collections storage so I could study Vesterheim’s bowls.

Vesterheim ale bowls

I thought I’d visit, say thanks, and that would be that. Instead, I’ve gotten more involved. My husband and I have returned to enjoy a variety of special events.

Vesterheim syttende mai

Vesterheim Christmas

Another part of Vesterheim’s mission is to “showcase the best in historic and contemporary Norwegian folk and fine arts, and preserve living traditions through classes in Norwegian culture and folk art, including rosemaling (decorative painting), woodcarving and woodworking, knifemaking, and textile arts.”

Vesterheim rosemaling

I’m a heritage arts junkie, and have enjoyed classes in painting, fiber arts, and foodways. Vesterheim’s combination of top-notch instructors and behind-the-scenes access to artifacts for study is unparalleled.

Kate demonstrating the basic stitch.

Vesterheim Laurann

When I took my first rosemaling class, the Education Specialist spoke of “the Vesterheim Family.” It does exist. There’s a special sense of sharing and camaraderie that helps explain why so many people return to Vesterheim again and again.

Writing a Chloe mystery involves several years of thinking, researching, and writing. I can only pick locations that I love—and that I believe readers will love too.

KAE ale bowl Vesterheim

Bonanza Farms

August 21, 2013

Harvest has started.  Now there will be no rest for man, woman, or beast until frost comes.  – Mary Dodge Woodward, August 11, 1885

It’s harvest-time, which reminds me that I had no idea what threshing grain involved until I moved to the Midwest in 1982.

Old World Wisconsin showed the evolution of threshing technology at its three restored German farms, from hand tools to horse-powered machines to the mighty steam engines that powered an enormous threshing machine.  Last fall my friend Marty sent me photo below, which had surfaced in some old files.

That’s me talking with one of the visiting crew, with the Koepsell Farmhouse visible in the background, in 1983.

When I visited the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, MN, I was again reminded of threshing days. The museum is wonderfully tucked within the ruins of an old flour mill. Many of the exhibits focus on the technology of milling. It’s difficult to present industrial history at an historic site, but the Minnesota Historical Society has done an amazing job of engaging guests in creative ways.

Good interpretation helps visitors make connections. In the context of a flour mill, that meant educators and exhibit designers had to find a way to help people consider not just the mill workers, or even the farmers who raised the grain, but the women who baked with it. Those things had been tangible at Old World Wisconsin. I was curious to see how an indoor museum, without fields of grain and threshing machines and working farm kitchens, would present those concepts.

As it turned out, quite well! A steam engine stands in one corner of the main exhibit floor, near a life-sized photograph of a threshing crew.

DSCF6836

A cast-iron cookstove sits nearby, with pans of (faux) food waiting for kids to put in the oven.

These kids got into the spirit by pretending to cook for the threshing crew.

These kids got into the spirit by pretending to cook for the threshing crew.

A long table is set for a threshing dinner.

Threshing crew table, Mill City Museum

DSCF6826

Hanging on each chair is a card with a short quote from a man involved with harvest work. And sitting on each plate is a quote from the diary of Mary Dodge Woodward, a widow who moved from Wisconsin to a 1,500-acre “bonanza farm” about 8 miles SW of Fargo  in the Dakota Territory in 1882.

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Mary Dodge Woodward, 1880s; from Dodge Genealogy, 1904.

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An interpreter portraying Mary Dodge Woodward helped guests understand the enormity of the task facing women who cooked for enormous threshing gangs.

DSCF6926 - Version 2

When the Northern Pacific Railroad was being built, politicians wanted settlement along those tracks, and huge tracts of land were claimed in the name of progress. But when the railroad didn’t pay the dividends some investors had expected, the government stepped in and made huge parcels available—with the promise that all absent landlords needed to do was hire a manager and crew, grow wheat, and reap the financial rewards. The first of these bonanza farms were established in the Red River Valley in the Dakota Territory and Minnesota.

DSCF6831

Mary Woodward gives a clear picture of the enormity of feeding the men needed to work a huge wheat farm. Not only did she cook food in colossal proportions, but for three years, she didn’t leave the farm. Books, magazines, and newspapers provided her only links to the outside world. (Her keen observations about the annual agricultural cycles have been published as The Checkered Years:  A Bonanza Farm Diary, 1884-1888. I recommend it.)

When I talk with kids about historical research, I encourage them to approach their topic from as many different directions as possible. It’s a lesson I learn over and over again. While those years hearing and smelling and tasting and watching threshing time at Old World Wisconsin made an indelible impression on me, visiting the Mill City Museum gave me a whole new appreciation of women’s work when the threshing gang arrived.

 

Remembering Marty

May 7, 2013

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 in front of Caldwell Farmers Hall, OWW.  (Milwaukee-Journal Sentinal photo.)

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.

Marty Perkins-Koepsell Construction1975

In 1975, Marty helped reconstruct the half-timbered Koepsell home in the German area.

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.

Marty Perkins 2012

Marty sharing stories at the Kvaale Farm, OWW.

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.

The Koepsell house, 1982.

The Koepsell house, 1982.

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.

Marty leading a tour.

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.

The Benson House at OWW, Christmas Through The Years, 1990.

The Benson House at OWW, Christmas Through The Years, 1990.

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.

In 2012, Marty and I teamed up again to offer two History and Mystery tours at OWW.

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.