Historic Old World Wisconsin: Stepping Back in Time
Wisconsin Bicentennial Project
When visiting the very historic Old World Wisconsin, be prepared to take a step back in time to the 19th century to see how the pioneers lived and survived in Wisconsin. Be sure to bring your camera for some great picture-taking opportunities!
Oh, and be sure and take some good walking shoes! Why the recommendation for good walking shoes? The setting of Old World Wisconsin is on 576 acres of land!
It opened for the first time in 1976 as a significant celebration of what Wisconsin created for our nation's bicentennial. This massive undertaking has served since that time to record what life was like for settlers in Wisconsin in the format of an outdoor working museum.
There are different areas of ethnicity and a total of 10 working farms in Old World Wisconsin. The photo at the top of this page shows workers stacking already harvested oats in the fields. This year-round museum shows things the pioneers would have been doing more than a century ago to live and thrive in this environment at all times of the year.
With effort and hard work, involving clearing the fields, plowing and working with sustainable agriculture, Wisconsin rewarded these hard-working pioneer families with good, fertile farmland on which to raise their crops and feed their animals.
Winters were cold, and most often, the land was blanketed with snow. Thus from early Spring to the last days of Fall, these farm families would have been putting in long hard days of work preparing for the frosty weather to come.
Visitors get to see the appropriately costumed Old World Wisconsin workers and volunteers performing the usual chores. Also, in many cases, one can even participate in some of these activities.
Many of the 60 historic buildings were moved from various locations within the State to this site. Some were in good repair, and others needed some restoration.
There are 12 working gardens. If one is inclined to do a little hoeing and weeding (if that is happening at the time of one's visit), one can join in that activity. The people working there impart stories while they are going about their daily activities. They include some of the following: gardening, preparation of food, canning, sheering of sheep, stacking of oats in the field, spinning wool into yarn, and other sundry routines of farm life.
Visitors can have any questions that might occur to them be answered in this interactive museum setting by the costumed workers who act as docents. It is truly a fantastic place!
Shown above is one of the most impressive relocated houses on the site of Old World Wisconsin. The Sanford House was built in 1858 in La Grange, Wisconsin, and is of a Greek Revival style. It reflects the tastes of what would have been a wealthy and prosperous Yankee farmer back in those days.
The Raspberry School is a one-room schoolhouse built in 1896 for use in the town of Russell. It has been restored and now shows what it would have been like in the year 1906. The three of us (my mother, aunt, and niece) joined others in sitting in the wooden student desks and listened to some lessons by the school teacher standing at the front of the room. Children of various ages and grades would have shared this one room. There was a dunce chair that sat in the corner of the room.
At one time in my childhood, I attended a Catholic school, and several grades were in one room. There are some advantages to that. Homework could be addressed and even finished as another class was being taught. For the smarter kids, they could listen and learn, absorbing more information than they would typically learn by merely being in one grade at a time.
The Grotelueschen Blacksmith Shop
This blacksmith shop was initially in the Village of Waubeka in Ozaukee County of Wisconsin. German-born Henry Grotelueschen was the owner, and his shop originated in 1886.
On the day of our visit, the fires were hot, and this young man was doing some work on horseshoes. We could readily see all the tools of a blacksmith's trade. Hammering those hot rods of metal into the various shapes of articles needed would have kept a blacksmith busy servicing the needs of residents living in the surrounding countryside.
St. Peter's Church
St. Peters Church was initially called St. Luke's and was the first Catholic Church in Milwaukee, constructed in 1839.
The Koepsell House
This half-timbered German "Fachwerk" house was built in 1858. It resided initially in the town of Jackson in Washington County, Wisconsin. It is one of three farms in the German area of Old World Wisconsin.
The Schottler and Schulz farms join the Koepsell farm showing more of the German influence in settlement of Wisconsin in earlier days. Mr. Koepsell was a successful dairy farmer, as well as a builder of houses in Wisconsin.
The Turck-Schottler House
In comparison to the Koepsell House, this German-built house shows a different method called "Blockbau," and it originated in 1847 in Germantown, Wisconsin. In 1865 a lean-to was added, enlarging the space for the family.
In the picture above, some visitors are walking by one of the 12 gardens in Old World Wisconsin just outside the Turck-Schottler House. It seems to be bearing some good produce. Initially owned by the Turck family, it was sold to the Schottlers, another German family. It was moved to Old World Wisconsin in 1977.
Animals on the Farm
At Old World Wisconsin, one will see oxen and horses in the fields often hooked up to plows with the farmers preparing the land to be cultivated and planted.
Sheep were a vital animal to early 19th-century pioneers due to the ability to be able to harvest their wool and spin it into articles of warm clothing. Pigs became an important food source, and dairy cows provided milk as well as meat. Roosters and chickens were also a common animal found on the farms. Eggs from the chickens and the meat provided an excellent and ready source of protein.
Of course, the early settlers also supplemented their pantries with animals that they would have secured by hunting and fishing.
It is in the Polish area of Old World Wisconsin that one finds this shelter that housed both humans and their chickens. As already pointed out, animals were essential to the lives of pioneers.
Often people slept in rooms adjacent to animals or some instances, in lofts above the animals. The animals would have been protected from inclement weather and also other animals who might have found them as easy prey.
The Kruza House was built in 1884 and came from the Town of Hofa Park. This unique type of architecture is known as "stovewood" because the walls consist of logs that are stove wood lengths held together with mortar.
Tour With Loyd Heath (Old World Wisconsin Foundation)
The Pedersen House
The Petersen house and farm are in the Danish area of Old World Wisconsin. Primarily the Pedersens' earned a living by raising dairy cows as well as gardening and the other typical life skills honed by most pioneers settling in Wisconsin in those days of the 19th century.
The Pedersen home was built in 1872 and was initially in the Town of Luck in Polk County. A kitchen wing had later been added, and it bears a resemblance today to what it would have looked like in 1890.
While in America, the Queen of Denmark made an effort to dedicate this rustic Pedersen house in the Bi-centennial year of 1976 in Old World Wisconsin.
Not all of the work by pioneers was outside—steady work occurred by the wives, sisters, grandmothers, and other family members inside as well.
Volunteers and workers are busily engaged in doing the necessary tasks that were of equal importance to keep their families safe, clothed, and fed. Those are just a few of the things one gets to see as one wanders inside of the various buildings as well as traversing the grounds.
Spinning the carded wool into usable clothing was showcased in several of the homes the day of our visit.
People dressed as pioneers were doing many things. They included sweeping wooden floors, making bread and pies, milking cows, using a fancy cream separator, etc. One of the pictures above shows the cream separator, which had come along by 1915 to make the settler's lives a little easier.
The round flatbread pictured below would be dried and become rock hard. The hole in the center made it easier to hang during the drying process. The hardened bread would later be soaked in soup or stews or some other liquid to soften it before eating it.
Finnish Area of Old World Wisconsin
There are two farms showcased in Old World Wisconsin where the settlers and pioneers to this new land had initially come from Finland.
- The Ketola Farm: Dairy farming was Ketola's main business.
- The Rankinen Farm: The house with my mother pictured in front of it is the Rankinen House, constructed in 1892 and restored to how it looked in 1897. It originally stood in the town of Oulu in Bayfield County, Wisconsin. The Rankinens took in boarders and did odd jobs to make a living such as woodcutting, etc. It was merely subsistence-level farming. It did not expand into anything much more significant than keeping the needs of its occupants satisfied, according to a brochure that we picked up at Old World Wisconsin.
As can be seen in the photo below, the children living in this particular house had dolls with which to play. Old fashioned games of many sorts would have been played outside in the fresh air and sunshine, and other games would have kept occupants entertained inside as well.
Storytelling was an art form and would have passed along fables as well as family history to generation after generation. There were no television sets or video games or computers or text messaging to consume a person's time.
Community barn dances would have been organized and looked forward to with great anticipation during the year. Musically inclined individuals would play instruments in the homes, churches, and other events where many individuals would sing songs to suit the occasion. Times may have been simple, but the days were filled with not only work but good-hearted fun as well.
Beautifying these farmsteads was also accomplished as time permitted. Rugs would have been made to warm and embellish the floors. Embroidery would have added pretty detailing to curtains or clothing.
In the picture below, look at the "remembrance crock" on the top of this piece of furniture. Bits of broken but treasured china was plastered onto the surface of this crock, which would ultimately become a family heirloom.
I'll leave you with a photo of one of the oldest buildings, that of the Fossebrekke House, which was built in Newark of Rock County in 1841. This tiny pioneer homestead stands in the Norwegian area of Old World Wisconsin, near the 1896 Raspberry School and the 1848 Kvaale farmhouse. The Fossebrekke's primarily grew wheat and did trapping for their livelihood.
Kettle Moraine State Forest
Located in the southern region of the gorgeous Kettle Moraine State Forest, Old World Wisconsin resides amidst the rolling and wooded hills of this scenic area. There are nature trails that can take one from one historic building to the next. Or for ease, one can take the trams which continually operate between the different sites.
From day camps to workshops or even barn dances, Old World Wisconsin can be enjoyed in several ways.
Old World Wisconsin is easily accessible to hundreds of thousands of people for an easy day trip away from home. It is only 75 miles northwest of Chicago, 35 miles southwest of Milwaukee, or 55 miles southeast of Madison.
During the winter months, this site closes except for some holiday events and programs. It will reopen on May 9, 2020.
Pricing varies between weekday and weekend visits. There are Groupon coupons and other discounts. Here is the number to call for admission prices: 1-262-594-6301.
Old World Wisconsin
Does visiting Old World Wisconsin look like something you would like to do?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2010 Peggy Woods