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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Nov. 24, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

The buidings are the stars at Old World Wisconsin, but it is the staff that makes history come alive.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Damage from the June 21 tornado can be seen all around ...

In Travel & Visitors Guide

... but Old World Wisconsin has mended and has risen again like a phoenix in the town of Eagle.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Chicken pot pie and homemade soup are as tempting now as they would have been more than a century ago.

Old World Wisconsin rises again like a phoenix in Eagle


Old World Wisconsin is located in the town of Eagle, but considering how fast it has rebounded from tornado damage suffered in June, perhaps it should be re-dubbed Phoenix.

Heading south on Highway 67 toward the complex of historic buildings representing Wisconsin's past, it's impossible to miss the downed and broken trees along the roadside. Turn into the long and winding Old World Wisconsin driveway and you see more. When the woods open up to reveal the parking lot, the devastation can be seen all around.

The storm took down more than 2,000 trees, but no people or animals were hurt.

But, there are cars, there are employees, there are patrons and Old World Wisconsin -- owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society -- is mended and up and running again. On a recent visit, despite threatening clouds, guests made their way along the paths, in and out of the preserved structures, utilized the tram system and eagerly enjoyed an old time base ball game.

Old World Wisconsin is back! A month and three days after the June 21 tornado wreaked its havoc on Eagle, the living museum reopened to the public, hosting a two-day grand reopening celebration.

"People have been wonderful, asking how they can help" says director Dawn St. George.

"We've taken a bit hit financially by being closed for so long, although we had to do it to make sure the site was safe for visitors. I keep telling callers that the best way to support us now is to visit us now, and visit us again soon. And tell a friend about the experience."

I visited for the first time in perhaps 20 years last week and I'm here to tell you, friends, about the experience.

There are more than 60 structures at Old World Wisconsin -- farmhouses, barns, general stores, houses of worship, blacksmith shops and more -- and they stood up to the winds admirably. A few suffered relatively minor damage. At least two of them stared in the face of tornadoes in the past, too.

One -- the James Sanford House -- lost its roof in another June 21 twister, 71 years to the day before the 2010 funnel. This time a window sash was "slightly repositioned."

The other -- the Thomas General Store -- was damaged in an 1880 tornado, losing its chimney. Coincidentally, the chimney was hit again this time, but fortunately not destroyed.

"Old World Wisconsin's more than 60 historic structures are sturdy and resilient artifacts," wrote curator of research Martin C. Perkins, after the storm. "Many have successfully stood the ravages of time and in some cases neglect before planting new roots at the museum. Decades of use, physical modification and weather-related stress have all challenged their original physical fabric."

On my recent visit, the structures had almost no visible damage and were continuing to do their jobs admirably. But the buildings alone are just that: inanimate objects that can't whisper their long histories into our ears.

For that, we count on the people that "inhabit" them now. My guest showed merely a passing, casual interest in most structures, until he spotted signs of life: the movements and voices of people inside, the scents wafting from kitchens, the clank of the blacksmith's hammer on the anvil.

From the blacksmith that gifted my son a hook that we watched emerge in minutes from a plain metal rod, to the attention that the folks at the Town Hall showed us, teaching us how to play simple, outmoded, but still fun, games, to the woman in the church that let him ring the church bell 12 times to signal high noon, the people at Old World Wisconsin made our visit memorable.

And then there were the animals. We loved looking at the cows, horses, sheep and chickens in the pens. But we also loved the guests that Mother Nature provided. We saw large groups of wild turkeys in fields and perched on fence posts. We watched chipmunks scurry. And we even saw some sand hill cranes from about 20 yards away.

Walking back in time at Old World Wisconsin was an eye opener for my kid; quite literally when I explained the purpose of the small structure (call it a privy or an outhouse) behind one vintage home. The look I got was nothing short of incredulous.

The idea of lighting a fire for warmth and every time you wanted to cook something ignited similar amazement.

I wasn't sure if a kid in 2010 would fall under the spell of a place like Old World Wisconsin. But I had nothing to fear. We spent a few hours there learning about how our ancestors carved lives out of a wild and unfamiliar place, bringing their traditions with them and adapting them to the landscape, in the meantime creating new ones.

We had a great time doing it and left with a renewed respect for those who came before us to forge a path. Thanks to their hard work, we can stroll considerably more easily on that path than they did. It behooves us to remind ourselves of that every now and again.

So, visit Old World Wisconsin. And then visit again soon. And tell a friend about the experience.


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