Guess what I made today in the wood stove at Old World Wisconsin? Rhubarb pie! First time I’ve ever made it and first time I’ve ever used a wood burning oven. It’s a display pie, meaning no one is going to eat it. The crust was a tad dark on one side, but it looked pretty good. I have no idea how runny or crunchy the inside is. Maybe someone will cut into it tomorrow. It was lovely just sitting by the wood-burning stove, keeping toasty in the 50 degree rainy weather, smelling the pie bake and hemming handmade linen towels. We didn’t have many visitors, so I felt like I was having a cozy day in my own little corner of the 19th century, by myself. Nice work, if you can get it, I think.
So now that I’m back home, I’ve got to figure out if there’s something I can whip up for dinner in this century. Plus, I’ve got 3 days of dirty dishes in the sink to wash. Domestic bliss. For your entertainment, let me showcase a guest photographer: Steve. He took this shot while we were hiking on the Ice Age Trail on Monday.
One of my activities today was to string rhubarb up for drying. Dried rhubarb will keep for a while, and then you can boil it down for rhubarb sauce and pie later. So there are two strands of rhubarb hanging on the wall of the summer kitchen. Maybe in a week or two we’ll have enough for one of those super 70s-like door curtains, you know, the kind they made out of love beads? Do you suppose that’ll become a fashion trend? Okay, maybe not.
I opened the door to the stairs where we store our flour and sugar in plastic containers and our newspaper and matches for lighting the fire. Something smelled like death. Sitting next to the pile of newspapers is a “tin cat” – a metal mousetrap. I made a mental note to ask my supervisor to show me how to check it. I built a fire in the woodstove and in the bake oven. The smell was forgotten quickly as smoke billowed out the chimney. After fetching water and setting up some rinsing basins, I stepped outside to sit down and enjoy the sunshine. A black and white cat came ambling up the gravel path. He sniffed at the doorway into the summer kitchen, mewed at me a few times, and moved on. I wondered if he smelled a mouse. When my lead came by after lunch, I mentioned my suspicion to her, and she showed me how to open the trap. Sure enough, a dead mouse was inside. She wrapped it in a plastic bag and disposed of it in the trash, so as not to spread any more poison into the food chain. I apologized for asking her to perform such an unsavory task right after lunch, but she laughed it off with a comment about what she does to be paid the “really big bucks” at Old World Wisconsin.
A school tour group came by in three installments. I was surprised to see how many kids had brought phone cameras. I was also surprised that some of the teen girls didn’t want to knead the bread dough. What? Too squishy? Afraid to get your hands dirty? Don’t want to put down the camera? Whatever….
A homeschooling family of four arrived later, each with massive lenses and expensive camera equipment. They were taking pictures for our annual photo contest…for the eighth year. They had each won prizes in last years’ contest. The teenaged boys enjoyed chatting about the merits of Nikon vs. those of Canon and making “Saskquatch” prints in the garden. They snapped away as I opened the bake oven door and placed the 8 foot pile inside (the bread paddle). I wished them good luck in the contest and mentioned other great photo opportunities I had taken, like the oxen and the zigzag fence.
Cash prizes, folks! Photo contest reception is September 7. Come on by and take some pictures! And say “Guten tag!” to me!
I am reading a book called After the Fire: The Destruction of the Lancaster County Amish by Randy-Michael Testa. Kirkus’ Review sums up the basics thus: “As a Harvard graduate student, former third-grade teacher at a Denver private school, and serious ethical thinker of Catholic persuasion and “morally tired” condition, Testa spent the summer of 1988 living with an Amish family in Lancaster County, where he conducted fieldwork for a Ph.D. thesis exploring a “community of faith”.”
Here is an excerpt that echoes all the discussions Steve & I have about living a life that embodies our values, a grounded life, a life of depth.
“…Dorothy Day once quoted from the Archbishop of Paris: ‘To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery; it means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.’
“I stand barefooted thinking of Elam. Earlier in the week, he and I trooped across the Franklin and Marshall College campus to the library to look for some maps of the county. In lieu of classes, campus had been taken over for the summer. Everywhere there were boys in soccer gear and coaches in black shorts and white and black striped shirts blowing whistles and clapping their hands and yelling, ‘Atta boy! Good work! Good WORK!’
“Elam and I had just driven in from the farm. I had been up since five working in the sweltering barn, where I am regularly stung in the eyes by sweat rolling off my head. My white shirts are permanently stained yellow. I have gained ten pounds and back muscles. I sleep so soundly in the Stoltzfus house I sometimes awaken myself with my own snoring. So for all that, hearing the word ‘work’ in teh context of a soccer camp seemed like complete insanity.
“Elam turned to me and asked, ‘What is this?’
‘It’s a soccer camp,’ I said. I felt my soul tense.
‘What is ‘soccer’? Elam asked blank-faced.
‘It’s a sport. Like baseball.’ (I knew some Amish played baseball at family outings.) ‘These boys are here to learn how to play it better,’ I replied quickly.
‘But why? It’s a game,’ Elam said, puzzled.
‘These boys have paid money to come here to learn how to play a sport better,’ I repeated tersely.
‘But why would they go to school to learn a sport?’ he persisted.
‘Because the outside world doesn’t have or value productive, meaningful work for its young men, so it teaches them that it’s important to know how to play a sport well. This keeps them occupied until they go to college and THEN THEY PAY A LOT OF MONEY TO COME HERE AND ASK WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE!!!’
“I practically turned on him- and my own world. I shocked Elam with my vehemence. I shocked myself as well. I wondered what was happening to my view of the world.
“Now, standing in Levi’s meadow in the middle of the night, suddenly I understand what has happened. At this hour, in this stillness, among these people, life makes perfect sense. The outside world does not. I have become a witness.
“I return to the upstairs bedroom as the blue mantel clock in Elam and Rachel’s room chimes three, and fall asleep to a cow lowing in the moonlight.”
To live in a way that embodies your deepest values, despite persecution, propaganda, and perspiration. That seems like an honest life to me. I hope I have the courage to live like that.
(photos taken at Old World Wisconsin, the living history museum where I work as a costumed interpreter)
It’s been pouring and thundering and lightning all day. The Bustle Hustle was cancelled, and I ended up waiting out the storm in the basement of 4-Mile Inn, which flooded. Rain went down those cellar steps and right into the staff room where we were sitting around chit-chatting. Out came the mops and buckets and dust bins…anything to scoop the water up. Suddenly the whimsical display of brightly colored swim fins and floaties and paddles someone had tacked to the back of the door made sense. When it let up a bit, I made the trek down the road to St. Peter’s under my umbrella. I didn’t stop to think that an umbrella isn’t wide enough to cover my enlarged behind! My bustle was soaking wet…on the outside. I didn’t feel it under all those petticoats, but when I sat on the pews, I left water marks. I needed to inject some humor into the situation, so I pumped up the organ and began to play “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”….a bulwark….our helper, He, amid the flood (of mortal ills prevailing). Visitors finally trickled in along with the rain, but I only had about ten in 5 hours.
I met some new volunteers and staff people in the course of the day, and enjoyed talking to them about dreams and lifestyles. How do you want to live? What are you finding important at this stage of your life? Many are retired or old enough to be. Hobby farms, family history, grandparenting and traveling were hot topics with this crowd. There are also the college students, who talk about classes and shopping at Good Will and how to survive on minimum wage. Most took cover under ground in the storm, a few stayed out on the porch to watch the power of nature in the sky. The horses turned their rear ends to the oncoming winds and whinnied a bit, but weathered the day in their own way.
I think about resilience, expectations and comfort. The immigrants whose stories we tell at Old World Wisconsin were of heartier stock than us 21st century types. They pushed across miles of unknowns without a “smart phone” to tell them where they were, what was ahead, and what the weather pattern was likely to be. They looked up and around, assessed the situation to the best of their ability, and went ahead. What happened…happened. They made their own fun, they solved problems with their own strength and wits, and they passed on what they could to their children. I like their spirit.
And when the rains come, “don’t forget to wear your rubbers!” (My mother’s voice echoes from my childhood…)
I’m back in the 21st century today, having breakfast with Steve’s mother, doing laundry at the laundromat, that kind of thing. My heart is still somewhere in the world of 150 years ago. The deep connection with the land is something that I miss in this century. I learned about the process of making linen from flax. It is a very complex procedure, actually. The fibers of the flax plant are like the phloem and xylem in a maple tree. They run from root to branch tips, and they are beneath the green outer husk and outside of the hard woody core. That corresponds to the sapwood in a tree that lies under the bark and around the heartwood. The flax is pulled up from the roots so as not to shorten those fibers. Then, it’s placed in running water or on dewy ground to rot away the green outer husk. This can take a month. Next, you take it to the threshing floor of the barn to break up the woody chaff. There are a few different machines that aid in that step. Combing the strands through a nail board leaves long hanks of golden fibers and short curly bits that are stuck in the spikes, which is called tow. That’s where we get expressions about flaxen hair and towheads. The fibers are wound on a distaff for spinning; tow can be spun like wool. I’d never tried spinning before. It’s a lot more difficult than it looks at first!
Linen making is extremely labor intensive. The retting process where microorganisms dissolve the outer husk is the prohibitive part for Old World Wisconsin, apparently, so they buy their flax at about $40 pound ready to break and spin. Which finally gets you around to having skeins of linen. But then, just setting up the loom seems like it would take forever! Imagine setting up a loom for a 400-count cotton sheet…that’s 400 threads per inch. Of course, that’s all done on industrial machines now. Factory-made cotton cloth was available and cheaper by the mid-19th century, but linen was sometimes useful as a back-up during the Civil War. Factory made shoes were available as well.
We’re off to have breakfast with Steve’s mom. I’m imagining eating in the ladies’ parlor at 4-Mile Inn….
Another day at the living history museum under my belt. The new thing I did today was make rhubarb sauce from the gigantic rhubarb plants in the garden. Not that I actually ate any, I just boiled it in water on the wood stove for a few hours so that the smell would permeate the summer kitchen. I didn’t have any sugar at first, so my initial taste was very sour! It reminded me of my mom making rhubarb and custard from the rhubarb in our garden. My mother didn’t garden a lot, so this was impressive to me. I know she helped her parents with a “Victory Garden” during WWII, but she was pretty young. She shops at farmer’s markets and does delicious things with fresh produce, but she doesn’t grow it herself. I’m looking forward to more garden-to-table assignments.
I love that this job allows me to be outside so much. We had thunderclouds overhead for much of the day, but no rain. The humidity was high, but there was a breeze kicking up from the storm front miles away. And I noticed a fishy smell first thing today…I guess with storm conditions you can smell Lake Michigan from 50 miles away?! Unless there’s another explanation. Anyway, I thought I’d share some photos I took of outbuildings and such.
As you can tell, I’ve got a fabulous work environment! I’m loving this job.
May Day! The first day of the season for Old World Wisconsin. We were open to the public as well as conducting school tours. In the German area, there was only one school of 68 students that came through. In the Crossroads Village, they had 3 tours with students from 4 schools, one of which was a group of 8th graders from France. I also had a single adult visitor, an adult couple, and a family with 3 children from Arizona come by. In other words….PEOPLE. Real, live people with stories and questions and backgrounds making connections. This is living history, after all. And I love it! I had so much fun with the 3 kids from Arizona who shaped dough and pounded the froe to chop kindling, and smiled and talked the whole time. They were enjoying themselves, and their parents were snapping pictures and asking questions. They were learning and engaging in a very comfortable way…they were homeschooling. I really like the small group interaction involved: 3 adults, 3 kids. Very nice. Somehow, when it’s a group of 21 kids and 3 chaperones, there’s almost more crowd control going on than learning. Or so it appears. I hope they learned something; I hope they were listening and paying attention to more than just their classmates and the instructions the chaperones were giving.
So all of that went on in about an hour…and I had several more to kill. The great thing is that I don’t feel any pressure to be super productive the whole time. I chopped wood and carried water and washed dishes and tended the fire and sewed on my pin cushion and all of that good stuff, but then I sat down on the porch and watched a thirteen-striped ground squirrel scurry around the yard near the woodpile snarfing up dandelion seeds. Just quietly, listening to the birds. Minutes went by. I felt the land around me and thought about the sense of time and energy that a tree feels when it’s “busy” growing. The woods, the fields, the garden…they are living under the sky at a pace that is so different from us movers and shakers. They feel the air, the light changes, rain falls, things happen and they respond, but they don’t “react”. I want to learn more about that way of life. How long can you “not react”? It’s like practicing meditation. Breathe and be. Light changes, form changes. Breathe and be. Everything changes. Breathe and be. I think that’s what I’m learning from nature. I am very happy to be spending more time outdoors.
During training for my new job at Old World Wisconsin, I was introduced to many new friends. On the last day of training, I took some pictures. Here are some portraits and brief bios about my new co-workers.
This is Bear and Ted, out in their favorite pasture next to the 1860 Schultz farm. They are a magnificent team of oxen. Bear is on the left, with a brass horn cap on his left horn. (“Bear left” is how I remember which one he is.) This is so that when he is yoked to his buddy Ted, he doesn’t gore him by accident. Each of them weighs about a ton (2,000 pounds). They like to be rubbed under their chins, but they will drool on you. I’ve been told that I will now enjoy good luck because Bear drooled on me. I like how this photo reminds me of the drawings for the book Ferdinand by Robert Lawson.
This is Ted with Bear behind. (Okay, I couldn’t stop myself.) They are clever escape artists, but also well behaved. They managed to bump up against the logs that cross the fence opening in such a way that they worked them free from their supports. They carefully stepped over them and went out to the garden in front of the homestead and helped themselves to the red cabbage growing there. Then, they went back into their pasture. The next morning, the staff looked at the obviously nibbled produce and the huge hoof prints in the garden and thought, “Oh no! The oxen are loose!” But there were Bear and Ted, looking innocent as can be from the pasture enclosure. But then they checked the gate, which these guys failed to close behind themselves, and their guilt was confirmed. I give them credit for sticking to the garden paths and returning home by themselves.
This is a close up of Ted. He’s a good worker, slow and steady. He pulls carts and plows and isn’t as skittish as a horse. You can hook up a cart to the team and go into town, but it’ll take you a while. They can run as fast as 30 miles an hour, but not for long. You can’t saddle them up and ride them because their spines form a peaked roof that’s uncomfortable for the rider (and probably for the animal as well). Sometimes a farmer would put a child on the ox’s back for a short time, just for fun. They are very docile, and these guys respond to commands like “Gee” and “Haw” and “Whoa” and “Get up” and “Back up” very cooperatively. They kick to the side instead of straight back, so when you walk beside them, you want to be in front of their back legs. So, that’s Bear and Ted. Here’s another team member. We call her Queen.
She and Quincy make up our team of Percherons. Stud horses were brought over from Europe in the mid 19th century and bred with local mares to improve the stock of draft horses for heavy farm work. I don’t know the pedigree of Queen and Quincy, but I imagine they’re crossbreeds. What non-profit museum could afford purebreds? They do a lot of wagon hauling in the harvest season, I think. Kids love to see them, but they’re massive and a tad dangerous. We have some quite elderly horses who provide the petting and photo opportunities for visitors with less risk. Steve put his apple core in Queen’s feed box just about 20 minutes before I snapped this photo. That may be why she’s giving me such a benevolent look.
This is Lily. She and her paddock mate Daisy (who was known last year as Thelma) are over in the Koepsell farm, where they are installing a new exhibit called Life on the Farm. They’re erecting a petting barn for baby animals, and Lily will be used for milking after she’s calved. Oh, yes. She’s pregnant. Look in her eyes and you can see the fatigue and determination of a heavily laden mother-to-be, can’t you? She will be producing milk for our dairy demonstrations: cream separation, butter churning, cheese-making and such. I am hoping to get the opportunity to milk her. I used to milk goats at a camp when I was in college, and I really enjoyed it. We milk by hand at OWW, of course. It seems like a very intimate way to get to know another working mother. Perhaps it will produce a beautiful friendship.
The pigs who will be in the piggery over in my area haven’t been moved onto the site yet. One sow just gave birth to a litter of 7 about two weeks ago, and another is about to drop her litter any day. The piglets are still too young and the weather too cool, but I will get a batch in a few weeks, I imagine. I’ve been instructed to name them things like “Bacon” and “Hammie” if anyone asks. Hog butchering is one of our autumn events.
I am very excited about working with these creatures. I want to be more aware of my anthropocentric mindset and challenge myself to think outside of that box. I wonder about the relationships we have with animals and the domination that we assume in those relationships. I expect that there is a lot more to discover than what we are used to or instructed to consider.
I love my daughter. I love having her visit, and I love how we slip into a comfortable companionship around making meals, talking, laughing, reminiscing and being outside. I love feeling that we are genuine with each other. It wasn’t always this way, of course, especially not when she was a teenager and I was an anxious mother. Ah, but it’s wonderful to mature.
I wonder how my relationship with my children would be different if my husband were still alive. Would we act as advisers? Would we be cheerleaders? Would we be judgmental? Would we be willing to share our mistakes and successes? Would we be anxious? Would we be distant?
I guess I feel like I can be more transparent, perhaps as if hindsight had opened up a window. I am able to offer my marriage as an example without feeling like I am betraying any confidence.