Archive for the ‘INTERPRETATION’ Category

Giving Thanks

November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I enjoy good food; even more, I enjoy pausing to celebrate bounty. So this week I thought I’d re-post some thoughts about the simple pleasure of homemade  bread.

Bread dough raising in a coiled rye straw basket at Old World Wisconsin.

Two of German farms that have been restored at Old World Wisconsin, setting for my Chloe Ellefson mysteries, were home to immigrants from Pomerania. The 1860 Schulz Farm represents a newly-arrived family. Heavy rye bread is baked in a brick bakeoven.

That's me at the Schulz Farm...

The Koepsell Farm has been restored to its 1880 appearance—when the family was prosperous and well settled in Wisconsin. Interpreters there prepare lighter wheat bread in a cookstove. By visiting both farms, guests can see for themselves how life changed over the years.

...and at the Koepsell Farm.

I worked in the German area for most of 1982—my first year at Old World Wisconsin.  On the last day of the season I suddenly realized I should have copied all of the recipes we used.  One of my friends, Jean Hornburg, scribbled down the basic recipe for the Koepsell wheat bread on an Exhibit Building Report (kept in the houses so interpreters could notify curators of any problem.)

Thirty years later, I still treasure the recipe. The bread is good. Even better are memories of sharing meals with good people who thought that working at Old World was a special thing to do.

By the way, Jean still sometimes works at the site. I had the chance to see her when I went back to launch The Heirloom Murders in September.

One of the best things about writing the Chloe Ellefson mysteries has been reconnecting with friends!

This Thanksgiving I’m grateful to have good food to eat, and family and friends to share it with. I’m also grateful to readers!  I wish you and yours a peaceful holiday.

Sentimental Journey

July 20, 2011

I love small towns. I was reminded of this when my family attended “The 40’s:  A Sentimental Journey,” presented by the  Eagle (WI) Historical Society and the Palmyra-Eagle Community Band.

We expected to enjoy some great ’40s music—and we did. But that was just the beginning.

Band director Ed Pierce and historical society director Elaine Ledrowski wove together a program that brought to life a 1940s radio broadcast, with all in attendance serving as the listening public. Ed had spent a year tracking down original arrangements of the musical selections. Elaine had combed through period issues of The Quill, the local paper at the time. She and Ed shared a variety of letters and news items—some interesting, some funny, some sad.

Elaine Ledrowski and Ed Pierce kept the crowd entertained.

Local veterans of World War II were the day’s honored guests. I lost track, but I’d say about two dozen were in attendance.

During "mail call," each veteran received a certificate and letters from local children. (What a great idea!)

Ed said in closing, “For a few of us here today, these things are living memories. The rest of us can only try to imagine.”  Looking at the faces of many of the older folks in attendance, I could tell that their memories were fresh. But lots of families attended the program too. It provided a great opportunity for kids to hear about the war years from those who’d lived through them.

Events like this could not take place without volunteers. Lots and lots of them.

Local businesses donated ice cream. Volunteers provided plenty of baked goods.

Dancers demonstrated period moves.

Reenactors and collectors were on hand to answer questions.

The Eagle Historical Society provided displays honoring all local WWII vets.

A local boy scout is planning to recreate a period memorial, which will be placed on the Eagle Historical Society grounds.

Period military vehicles were on hand for guests to examine.

The program and food were free, but donations were earmarked for the band or the Eagle Historical Society.  I told one of the EHS volunteers that I hoped the event raised a lot of money for the society.  “Oh, this isn’t a money-maker,” she said.  “We did this to honor the veterans.”

If you have trouble finding patriotic spirit on the evening news, try visiting a small-town celebration instead.

Striker to the Line!

May 18, 2011

The Eagle Diamonds, ready to play.

If you want to enjoy a real game of base ball this summer, find a grassy spot and settle in to see how the game was played a century ago.   I can recommend watching the Eagle Diamonds at Old World Wisconsin, but lots of historic sites are fielding teams these days.  Players who simply appreciate the fun of base ball as it was played in the 1860s are also creating teams.  Vintage base ball (historically it was two words) is a fast-growing sport.

The matches are real, played by “clubs” in period attire, using period rules.  That means no gloves, for example.  No strike zones.

Players are called “ballists.”  Batters are “strikers.”  Fans are “rooters,” “cranks,” or “bugs.”

Umpires are “barristers.”  According to Haney’s “Base Ball Book of Reference” (1867), barristers should be known to be a “true man…  One, who howsoever he may err in judgment, decides a point accordingly to his honest and unprejudiced opinion.”

The participants do a wonderful job of evoking not just the game, but the traditions of 19th-century matches.  At the game I watched last summer, one ballist politely asked the barrister for permission to roll up his sleeves.  In turn, the umpire politely asked the spectators if they minded.  (They didn’t.)   Fans can’t help but get caught up in the spirit, imagining themselves back to the days when neighbors turned out to watch the local boys play.

The games are fast-paced, scores can be high, and visitors can expect to be entertained.  For example, once a Diamond ballist hit a ball so high and hard that it got wedged near the top of a pine tree.  A player from the other club carefully climbed the fifty-foot tree and grabbed the ball, depriving the Diamond player a home run.  (He was out, according to period rules.)

The Old World Wisconsin team is modeled after the original Waukesha Diamonds, which formed in 1868.

The Waukesha Diamonds

The Eagle Diamonds, the Greenbush Dead Citys, the Milwaukee Cream Citys, and the Milwaukee Grays were charter members of the 19th-Century Base Ball Clubs of Wisconsin.

An Eagle Diamond player and a Milwaukee Cream Citys ballist at first base.

So mark your calendar, and plan to head out for a game!  The first home game for the Eagle Diamonds is June 11th.  You can find more info and the complete 2011 schedule for the Eagle Diamonds here.

Cabin Fever, Part II

February 12, 2011

Here’s another historical example of close quarters.

Mikkel and Hage Sinnes emigrated from Telemark, Norway, in 1849. In 1855, Mikkel constructed this building. It served as his blacksmith shop, but the couple also lived here for a year, until a home could be built. An infant was born during this time, but did not survive.

The building has been restored at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

Imagine spending a winter in this small cabin. Or delivering a baby here. Or tending a sick infant here.

The lower level held the shop; there was a small loft above.

If you’ve ever visited a working blacksmith shop, you know how pervasive the soot and smoke can be. Burning coal has a distinctive and lingering odor, too.

Visiting a place like this is humbling. Our ancestors experienced  a lot in their efforts to build a better life.  Remembering reminds me to appreciate my own warm, cozy house.


Cabin Fever

January 27, 2011

One of the reasons I love history is that it provides context and perspective for any irritation, frustration, or hardship that pops up in my own life. Case in point:  it’s that time of year when lots of people start feeling antzy. Shut-in. Claustrophobic. Bored.

Understandable, but let’s think back. One of my favorite buildings at Old World Wisconsin (Eagle, WI) is Fossebrekke, a cabin restored to its 1845 appearance.

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

It’s so small that visitors sometimes mistake it for an outbuilding. On the occasions when I interpreted that building, I loved helping guests see it from the perspective of Knudt Fossebrekke. In 1839 Knudt had—like so many others—arrived America with almost nothing. He spent his first winter in a shelter of some sort dug from the side of the hill. After that, it must have felt wonderful to complete this sturdy little cabin!

Bea and Sandy in Fossebrekke, probably late 1980s.

Oral tradition also suggests that Knudt and his wife Gertrude opened their cabin to other immigrants who arrived as winter was bearing down. Some say seventeen people wintered in the tiny cabin one year, although it’s impossible to know now if that count includes people coming and going, or people there all at once. In any case, sharing the space—one room and a loft—was both  generous and, I imagine, very challenging.

We get a glimpse of the other side of frontier hospitality from Elizabeth Koren, a Norwegian pastor’s bride who accompanied him to Iowa in 1853. They arrived in winter; no handy parsonage was waiting. Erik and Helen Egge invited the Korens to stay with them, and their two young children, in this 14 x 16′ home.

The Egge-Koren home has been restored at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

Elizabeth, who had lived a genteel existence in Norway, found the close quarters noisy, smelly, and often challenging.

Both adult couples slept downstairs, with only a curtain to provide a facade of privacy. The children slept in the loft.

Tight quarters, with no space wasted. Reverend Koren wrote his sermons in this cabin.

Elizabeth dreamed in her diary about having a home of her own:   “That will be glorious!”

I imagine it was.

On Display

January 19, 2011

I’m spending a week writing in Door County, Wisconsin (I know, tough duty).  While taking a walk, trying to think through a plot problem, I spotted this beauty:

Restored farm wagon.

What caught my eye was the lovely restoration work—right down to the stenciling. I don’t know why this wagon is displayed so prominently. Perhaps the owners are advertising their restoration skills, or perhaps they are simply celebrating their family or community’s history. In any case, it was an unexpected pleasure to see it.

There are still farms and orchards in the area where I’m staying. Perhaps that wagon was driven past someone picking rocks in this nearby field a century ago.

Stone fence near Egg Harbor, WI.

These artifacts were displayed at the entrance to a business across the road.

Old plow and wheel.

And at the next property, I spotted this old pump.

Perhaps the homeowner fills the basket with flowers in the summer.

When I circled back, I  found one more artifact.  (I hadn’t even noticed when driving by.)

The Cottage Retreat, Egg Harbor, WI.

It’s not uncommon, of course, to find artifacts in the landscape. Some, like the old pump and stone fence, are original remnants of another time. But often, people choose to display historical objects outside their homes or businesses. Some may be motivated by nostalgia, or want to celebrate family history or local traditions. Others may simply find the objects beautiful or whimsical.

Whatever the reason, I love discovering these relics, especially while traveling. They provide clues to local history, and I can’t help  imagining the people who once made or used these things.

How about you? Have you kept or salvaged any relics of the past, and put them on display?


December 18, 2010

St. Peter's Church, Old World Wisconsin

Scott and I planned to spend last weekend in Eagle, taking in Old World Wisconsin’s Christmas programming and attending the Belgian Holiday Dinners put on by the OWW Foundation. As we headed out on Saturday afternoon, I checked the weather and learned that the winter storm warning had been upgraded to a blizzard warning.  Sunday would bring bitter cold, high winds, and drifting snow.

We didn’t want to miss the dinner that evening. Getting stranded in Eagle wasn’t too appealing either. We decided to keep going, but drive back to Madison that evening after the dinner.

As we drove east, the temperature hovered just above freezing and an icy rain pelted the car. “The site itself might be closed by the time we get there,” I told Scott. “I can’t imagine people traipsing about in these conditions.”

To my surprise, though, we found a fair (relatively speaking) number of cars in the parking lot. We had allowed extra time, and decided to make a quick visit to the Crossroads Village before heading back to the Clausing Barn for the Belgian Dinner. We passed several families bundled well against the sleety rain. In St. Peter’s church the pews were filled.

Visitors braved nasty weather to enjoy the program.

As I wrote a year ago, way back in the ’80s I had the privilege of helping to research and create the Christmas event at Old World Wisconsin. Programs have of course continued to evolve and grow! Still, the scene in St. Peter’s was cozy and familiar. I felt a bit emotional as I listened to two good friends and long-time interpreters, Bea Jacobson and Ed Pierce, share music and stories with the guests. Inside the church the fading light, slush, and ice didn’t matter.

Bea at the old pump organ.

It was clear that many of the visitors who braved the weather that day had attended OWW’s “The Spirit of Christmas Past” before. For those guests, experiencing a program about Wisconsin’s historical Christmas traditions has become a holiday tradition itself. Singing carols in the candle-lit church was a special experience they weren’t willing to miss.

Ed played period music on a horn dating back to the Civil War.

When closing time came Scott and I headed back to the Clausing Barn, where Foundation staff and volunteers had created a lovely and festive ambiance.

Decorations brought old world cheer to a cold night.

We enjoyed a superb meal (catered by Maders–enough said), followed by a short program that celebrated holiday festivities from Belgium. The event had been a sell-out, and although there were a few empty seats, most of the ticket-holders had shrugged aside the weather forecast in favor of attending. Many of the attendees had been coming to these Dinners for years, enjoying the different ethnic focus each year.

The carrots filling the shoes are heirlooms, grown on the site!

The holiday season always provides a reminder that links between present and past are important. We develop and perpetuate traditions within our own circle of friends and family. We also celebrate traditions that reflect, in a much broader sense, both heritage and history.  What better place to do both than an historic site like Old World Wisconsin?

The rain turned to snow that night as Scott and I drove—very slowly—back to Madison. Conditions were so bad on Sunday that all programming was canceled, but  I’m already looking forward to next year.

Boys in the Kitchen

August 18, 2010

When I was in middle school, girls had to take home economics and boys had to take shop. End of story.

Today kids have more choices. But when it comes to getting children engaged in hands-on activities at historic sites, traditional gender roles often kick in. Boys (mostly) sign up for workshops in blacksmithing and woodworking. Girls (mostly) take classes in quilting and baking.

Genesee Country Village & Museum photo.

We could debate whether such tendencies should be encouraged or not. In fact, I remember participating in such debates at various museum conferences I attended during the years I worked at Old World Wisconsin. One educator in particular felt strongly that kids learned an important lesson when they were separated by gender, with only traditional activities made available.

My bottom line? I think it’s great for girls and boys to learn anything about the past. When I worked in museum education my first goal was to engage kids in fun and active ways. Once they were excited about history, all things were possible. That said, though, I don’t remember ever having boys sign up for a cooking workshop. So I was intrigued to see that one large historic site in New York has addressed the issue directly.

Genesee Country Village & Museum includes over forty historic buildings, which progress through three different time periods:  the Pioneer Settlement, 1795-1830; the Village Center, 1830-1870; and the Turn-of-the-Century Main Street, 1880-1920.

GCVM offers an impressive list of day camps, scout programs, and classes. The first time I saw their offerings, I noticed “Boy’s Cooking” on the agenda, both beginning and advanced. Interesting.

I was able to visit last summer while one of the boys’ cooking classes was underway. Not wanting to disrupt the program, I peeked into the large kitchen where the boys were working. Instantly several boys greeted me enthusiastically:  “Want to see our possum?” (At least I think it was a possum.  Perhaps it was a raccoon.)

The boys proudly showed me everything they were cooking and baking. The workshop leaders provided guidance, but the boys were in charge. No sugar cookies and tea here. These boys were preparing the types of food that single Yankee men might have prepared when they moved into the area a century or so ago.

Later that day, while I was visiting other exhibits, the boys paraded through the village with their main course. It now looked a bit charred. No matter, they were excited.

I enjoyed touring the whole site. I had a great time chatting with interpreters, and learning about an area I knew little about. Still, seeing those boys so revved up was the highlight of my day.

Two other things impressed me. The site’s roster of kids’ programming included environmental topics. This is sometimes overlooked at historic sites (understandable, given scarce resources), but it’s difficult to consider and interpret the worldview of people in an earlier time without considering the natural environment in which they lived.

The programs list also includes “Historic Fiction Comes to Life–Farmer Boy,” “Tom Sawyer Day,” “Laura Ingalls Wilder Day,” “My Side of the Mountain,” and “1857 American Girls’ Book by Miss Leslie.”  Incorporating literature? Another gold star from me!

If you’re traveling through New York, be sure to check out everything Genesee Country Village & Museum has to offer.

Should It Stay, Or Go?

July 1, 2010

Scott and I recently spent nine wonderful days as live-in docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse. It sits on a cliff within Rock Island State Park, off the tip of Door County, Wisconsin. It was our second stint, and we hope to go back. We love the whole experience.

Me and Scott at Pottawatomie, 2009

Pottawatomie is the oldest light station in Wisconsin. It was established in 1836, twelve years before Wisconsin became a state. The first keeper lived in a tiny stone cottage, and tended a separate light tower. In Pottawatomie’s earliest days the light was fueled with whale oil.

In 1858, the lighthouse service built a new tower and attached duplex, designed to house a keeper and assistant keeper and their families. When whale oil became too expensive, the keepers used lard to light the lamp. Pig fat was cheaply available from the Chicago stockyards. It was also a difficult fuel to use. Pots were likely kept simmering on the stove, and several times during cold nights keepers would haul hot lard up to the lantern room. Every morning a sheen of fat had to be cleaned from the glass Fresnel lens.

The 1858 lighthouse (the back addition, a summer kitchen, was added later).

The lighthouse has been beautifully restored to represent it’s 1910 appearance by the Friends of Rock Island, a support group which works with the Department of Natural Resources to preserve, maintain, and interpret the site.

By 1910, the light was fueled by kerosene. For a time huge quantities were kept in the lighthouse cellar. The keepers finally were successful in their request for a separate oil house, but all that oil still had to be hauled up steps from the beach below, or up from a landing over a mile away.

Keepers lived in the lighthouse until it was automated in 1946. Forty years later, the Coast Guard planted a metal tower beside the lighthouse, with a solar-powered light on top.

Last year, a visiting Guard member told us that maintaining the light took about four hours a year. He also told us that when these automated lights die, they won’t be replaced; ship captains will rely solely on GPS and computerized navigation. During our 9-day visit this year, in fact, the modern light was not functioning. Perhaps we’ve already seen the end of the era of warning lights on Rock Island.

View from the parlor window. The modern tower sits in close proximity to the 1858 lighthouse.

By almost any standard, the metal tower is an eyesore. It certainly detracts from the lovely restoration work done on the 1858 building with such great care and expense.  The Friends of Rock Island have worked hard to create an impression of 1910 both inside and outside of the lighthouse.  Most people who love Pottawatomie Lighthouse can’t wait for the day the tower is formally decommissioned and removed.

But while on Rock Island this year, I heard an alternative perspective proposed.

Now, visitors to the station can stand in one spot and see the foundation lines of the 1836 stone cottage, the 1858 lighthouse, and the 1986 tower. The entire history of Rock Island’s guiding lights can be taken in at a glance.

Here's the 1836 foundation line, with modern tower in background. The lighthouse is just out of view on right.

All that remains of that first station is the tiny stone privy. Today it is celebrated as the oldest building in Door County.

The first keeper's stone cottage was so poorly made that it soon needed to be replaced. This outhouse is all that remains.

So…should that metal tower and solar-powered light be part of the interpretive story? A century from now, will interpreters wish it had been saved?

When any restoration project is undertaken, philosophical choices have to be made. There is no right or wrong answer.

Me, I want to see the tower removed. I want to be able to stand in that peaceful clearing, and contemplate the families who lived in the lighthouse, without any modern intrusion.  Docents can use photographs of the tower to discuss change over time.

But I also acknowledge that the tower is part of the continuum, and part of Pottawatomie’s story.

The end of an era.

What do you think? Should the metal tower stay, or should it go?


February 4, 2010

A year or so ago, the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville announced plans for an online literary journal.   I submitted five poems to the editor, and was pleased when they were accepted as a collection.  These poems are part of a larger collection I’ve been slowly assembling about 19th-century  immigrant women, and the varied experiences they had in the Upper Midwest.

Publication was delayed—not sure why—and the Driftless Review evolved into a blog, instead of a website.  Nonetheless, I’m delighted to announce that my poems have been posted.  If you’d like to take a look, the easiest thing to do is Google “Driftless Review” and my last name, which will get you to the proper string.

For now, I’ll share one of them here.  “Empty” was inspired by my time at Old World Wisconsin both in content, and in style.  On the surface, it’s the story of an immigrant woman.  But I tried to tell her story with images of her things, and her place, instead of with her own words.  When I was a curator, I might have tried to tell the same story by carefully choosing artifacts, and their placement within an historic structure.

An unidentified woman.


The immigrant trunk, where she’d tried to tuck
the essence of home—an embroidered collar,
her mother’s prayer book—among the fry pans
and hatchels and sturdy boots.

The cradle, after her daughter died.
Faded blue blanket gone for a shroud,
no lingering scent of urine or milk,
no echo of chortles or cries.

His seat at the table, too, more and more often
as the wheat was devoured by chinch bugs,
so thick on the ground that her boots crunched
as she walked the scoured field.

The jug as well, cast aside on the threshing floor
meant for sprawling piles of golden grain on canvas,
the measured tread of oxen or the rhythmic beat of flails,
baskets brimming with winnowed wheat.

And the cracked blue crock on the pantry shelf
where she tucked coins earned
selling her noodled geese on market day.
Empty now, set a bit off-angle, as if ashamed.