Posts Tagged ‘Marty Perkins’

Why A Settler’s Year?

July 5, 2015

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.”

LoydHeathAtOWW

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.

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.