Trimborn Farm is a time machine back to 19th century Milwaukee
Driving down Grange Avenue around the border of Hales Corners and Greendale, the two towns look like typical pleasant suburbs, with assorted shops, strip malls, small businesses and parks mixed in between the cozy subdivisions and homes. And then you come across Trimborn Farm, a seven-and-a-half-acre time machine (right next to another separate historical site, the Jeremiah Curtin House) back to the 1800s, providing a glimpse at the history of the two towns and the city of Milwaukee.
The farm's origins begin near the back of the site, at the lime kilns. Led by Prussian immigrant Werner Trimborn, the Trimborn family bought the then 10-acre farm in 1851 to start a lime manufacturing venture. According to Milwaukee County Historical Society executive director Mame Croze McCully, lime was very popular back in the 1800s for several different uses, including purifying water, so in about two decades, the Trimborn's early lime business took off – cooking up about 200 barrels a day.
"They worked up to the point that there were 40 people who worked here and about the same amount of horses," Croze McCully said. "It was a true working lime facility, and I don't think they set out for this, but it just kept growing, becoming one of the largest in Wisconsin."
According to the Historical Society's website, the development and evolution of Portland cement soon made lime production a less profitable business. So in the very early 20th century, Trimborn Farm – expanded to over 530 acres from its original 10 – evolved into a dairy farm. The kilns were pretty much abandoned, and the over 40 horses that lived and rested in the stone barn were soon replaced with cattle.
"Werner Trimborn was a fairly well-to-do farmer and landowner back in the 19th century, and I think he just had a pretty acute business acumen," said Milwaukee County Historical Society archivist Kevin Abing. "He diversified, I guess you could say, his operations, and he turned it into a pretty prominent concern at the time."
Trimborn Farm continued to change owners and evolve in use over the next century. As the next generation of Trimborns sold away parts of the land, the dairy farming business kept going on, while an airstrip also developed on the site for crop dusting, sky writing and aerial photography.
The grounds and structures continued to age and degrade, early on from use and eventually from disrepair, over the years until the Milwaukee County Park System stepped in around 1980 to develop the area – along with the neighboring Curtin House – as a historical site.
Several impressive restorations and another management flip later – from the Park System to the Historical Society – has brought Trimborn Farm to where it is now: a nine-structure historical site. The nine structures include the lime kilns – excavated and restored in the early '80s – the red threshing barn, the granary (also used as a bunkhouse for the lime workers), the farmhouse, the stone barn, machine shed, chicken coop, a special building housing an exhibit into the archaeological work done at the site and a smoke house.
Some of the structures aren't available to the public. Much like back in the 1800s, the machine shed is currently being used for storage, and since there are no more chickens around, the coop is used for the same purposes. The tiny smoke house – once an utterly dilapidated structure only a couple of bricks high before it was restored to new life – is also locked off.
However, the rest of the structures are available to the public on event days or for guided tours planned ahead of time by appointment, and the grounds themselves are open everyday as well from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.
The lime kilns, for instance, are a part of the open grounds. Most of the actual rocky kiln bays have caved in and become closed off, save for one beautiful one that was kept open and is currently still available for visitors to venture into. According to Croze McCully, the kiln area was last restored back in 1983 using the "appropriate" historical improvements.
"Sometimes, the materials just aren't available, the same ones," Croze McCully said. "However, we do our best to make sure the historic integrity of the building remains. So wherever possible, we try to use original materials. Also, sometimes they used materials that just aren't sustainable; they'll rot in a couple years. So that we might change out a wood type to ensure that it lasts, because we're stewards of these properties, and we want them to be around for a long time."
On the other hand, the stone barn – one of the largest and last ones remaining in the state – has remained mostly intact and unchanged, according to Croze McCully. Made of quarried limestone and Cream City brick – the two silos were added about 70 years later – the barn housed the horses and cattle. Inside the structure is still littered with stables, and over one of the doorways is an old rusted horseshoe.
The threshing barn and farmhouse are also still impressively intact. Stepping into the former almost knocks you back with a rich, wooden, sauna-esque smell. The structure – often rented out for weddings and educational programs – is a mix of old and new restorations, but the inside is almost all original wood, with the markings from the bark stripping and cutting still visible on the beams.
Meanwhile, the latter features all sorts of old period-accurate gadgets, trinkets and items – some from the original property and others donated but authenticated.
Now, instead of burning down lime and creating dairy, Trimborn Farm now mostly serves as a brief step back into local history books – as well as a popular site for school photos and events. Some of the occasions are more personal, such as weddings and receptions; others are for the public, including this weekend's Harvest of Arts and Crafts.
The harvest, now in its 32nd year, runs Saturday and Sunday, scattering over 80 craft vendors selling jewelry, wreaths, food and all sorts of interesting art pieces and decorations all across the Trimborn Farm and Curtin House grounds. Some of the vendors are in pop up tents outside, but even more are tucked into the historical buildings, mixing new creations and old scenery for a unique vibe.
"You've got that rustic feel with it," said Historical Society event coordinator Katie Nitz. "With the crafting thing, you've got this back to the roots, family-oriented feel, and the farm goes back to the roots and is family-oriented. It just gives the right feel."
It's certainly a special setting, one that's survived and evolved over the centuries. And in another 100 years from now, it'll be fascinating to see what else Trimborn Farm has added to its already long resume of events and experiences.
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