New World Wisconsin

I spent yesterday in the 21st century instead of the 19th, as I wasn’t working at Old World Wisconsin.  Here are some photos from my afternoon walk around the neighborhood. 

Actually, we do have peonies at OWW, too, but not this color.

Urban cottontail rabbits are much more brazen than the ones out in the country.

The weather is warm and breezy, and begging me to take a nap!  We had school tours for 4 solid hours today, meaning that I only stopped talking for 20 minutes during one rotation that only had 2 groups, and then for 30 minutes at lunch.   That nap is sounding like a real good idea!  

And It’s Still a Mystery!

Yesterday’s post featured some views of Aztalan State Park in Wisconsin.  You can read about it in the Wikipedia article here.  The pillars formed a stockade that enclosed an open area that contains a few pyramid-shaped, flat-topped mounds.  Excavations have produced some burial remains, but re-constructing the way of life of these Mississippian people is still largely guesswork.  It didn’t help that the area was sold for farming and plowed in 1838 after its initial discovery and survey.  In 1941, the stockade was re-constructed from post holes that were excavated, but there were gaps…were there always gaps?  No one knows, for sure.  So all of you who guessed that the area may have been used for keeping animals in or animals out or for fortification or for rituals or for farming…you may all be absolutely correct!  And you may all be incorrect.  Pre-history is great for people who like open-ended answers.  It’s humbling to those of us who tend toward perfectionism.  We can’t ever really know The Truth, but we can observe and imagine and learn about ourselves by the stories we tell about the world.  Change is all around us.  Our experience seems to be the truest thing…until the next experience comes along.   Maybe a good way to look at all of life is with a wink and a smile!


Draggin’ My Wagon

I had the first truly busy workday at Old World Wisconsin today, full of great surprises.  The first was that a former co-worker showed up as a guest, with a motorcycle club from Willow Creek Church in Barrington.  It was wonderful to see her and to have a group of 40 visitors from my old stomping grounds.  What a contrast for them to be at St. Peter’s Church, though!  Imagine, leather clad moderns stepping into a Catholic Chapel that was built in 1839.  The church where they worship has 2 “sanctuaries” that hold some 13,000 people…balconies and upper balconies equipped with jumbo screens so that they can see the preacher or the lyrics of the worship song that a band is cranking out at how many volts?  Here I am seated at the pump organ in my bustle playing for a congregation of 20.  Quite a juxtaposition of growth.  What is the value of history, of retaining some artifact or memory of a time before?  Before growth, before technology, before the cultural shifts and changes that dominate our lives today?  Steve suggests that an important value in our culture now is convenience.  Willow Creek Church has a food court.  You can get a pizza or a coffee or a host of other fast foods without even leaving the building.  That’s convenient if you’re going from Worship to a class or meeting hosted there that same day.  Was convenience an important value in the 19th century?  I can bake 24 loaves of bread at one time in the bake oven at the Schottler farm.  I suppose that’s convenience making headway.  Also, I learned today that Sears Roebuck sold a Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencil with a nickel clasped eraser at the end in 1905.  You have your pencil lead and eraser on one tool, and you can order a box from the catalog and have it delivered to the train depot.   Was that convenient?  I suppose it was more convenient than whittling them by hand.

I like the feeling of being out chopping wood or trimming grass with a sickle around the homestead, and looking up to see the clouds or listen to a woodpecker.  I think it’s convenient to be right there on the land so that any time I drop what I’m doing, I feel connected to the whole earth.  Driving for a half hour away from the city to get to the country is not convenient. 

Tomorrow, I’m back at St. Peter’s for another day of the Church Bazaar, the Temperance Rally and all the Women’s Work and Reform activities.  Tonight, I am really tired!  I’m draggin’ my wagon, and I’m off to bed now. 

Another Day Behind the Rhubarb Curtain

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!

Living Mystery

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)

The Melting Pot

One of the school boys doing a tour at the Schottler farm at Old World Wisconsin asked me, as he was working with rye dough, “Did they make pizzas?”  I told him that pizza is an Italian food and that these German immigrants probably would have no idea what that was.  This boy looked to be Hispanic.   Would it be an epiphany for a 10 year old to look around at all the things that seem to be “normal” to his life and realize that they all came about in a particular way and have a particular story?  How did pizza get to be part of life in America?  Another kid said that he thought the dough smelled like beer.  How did beer get to be part of life in America?  Other kids said that they were making tortillas.  Or pita bread. 

I wonder what kind of connections they’re making….or not making.  In 20-minute rotations through so many presentations and activities, what kind of sense are they making about all this converging and co-mingling history?

Migration, immigration and assimilation are fascinating.  Everyone approaches it differently.  Some people are very proud of their origins and hang on to ways of life and culture with a firm grip.  Others push to assimilate as quickly as possible and let go of the old ways.  Some have their culture systematically stripped from them, often under the pretense that it’s “for their own good”.   Just tracking down how a family name has been changed can reveal a lot.  Who changed it?  Under what circumstance, and why?

I suppose the thing that I’m learning most is this: respect everyone’s history.  We are all inter-connected, we all change each other. 

I am thinking also today of the man who was my father-in-law for 24 years.  Today would have been his 78th birthday.  I carry his family name with me and intend to do so until I die.  Maurice Galasso’s dad, Antonio, was born in Italy.  He emigrated to the United States and eventually moved to the Monterrey Peninsula.  Mo (as my father-in-law was called) recalled that his father had various jobs, for example, gelato vendor and dance instructor.  Antonio died when Mo was only 7.  As the “man of the house”, little Maurice was quite resourceful and ingenious.  He eventually became a highly respected structural engineer and owned his own company.  Their family story is full of struggle, creativity, serendipity, stubbornness and grace.  As is, perhaps, everyone’s.  The more I listen to stories, the more I understand about people, and the more compassionate I am capable of becoming.  I want to honor Maurice Galasso today and thank him for the connections I have because of him.  

Maurice and his son, Jim Galasso

Mo and his Galasso grandchildren (my kids). Taken at the grave site after the interment of Jim’s ashes.


Hire Learning

My head is bubbling with thoughts about education today.  I just started giving voice lessons to a new student…who is actually the Senior Pastor of a Baptist Church.  I like his attitude: he’s been singing with his worship choir for a while, and now, he wants to learn how, seriously.  He’s willing to pay to hear what another person has experienced and to try to have a similar experience himself.  That’s very humble, in a way, and very honoring.  There’s a mentality switch in allowing yourself to be taught.  It’s not like you can’t sing without voice lessons.  Heck, anyone can sing.  It’s not like you can’t cook without cooking lessons.  There have got to be hundreds of activities that we do without having ever had “instruction”.  What is added when you decide to be taught?  Standards? Judgment? Community? Collaboration? 

I’ve been having such a great time learning new skills at Old World Wisconsin and trying things I’ve never done before.  I’ve noticed some different attitudes among the people who have been instructing me, mostly about the extent of their ego involvement.  Some people teach from the platform of themselves — their experience, their methods and their knowledge seems to be the central point of engagement.  Others seem to be teaching from the platform of the subject.  They put that at the center and allow you to poke it and prod it in different ways, but they’re always looking for the results and responses from the material itself, as though they are still students themselves.   You can learn something from teachers of every style, I suppose, but I find the ones who loosen their ego grip more inspiring.  They allow passion for the subject to arise.  Therefore, I was pleased when my new student said that he found the lesson “really fun!”  He was discovering singing with his own voice, not mine. 

My daughter shared this great comic with me by e-mail, so I want to pass it on.  I hope it comes out legible!  (courtesy of

The Village People

Today was my first day as one of “The Village People” at Old World Wisconsin.  I interpret St. Peter’s Church, built in 1839 as Milwaukee’s very first Roman Catholic chapel and cathedral.  Only 7 years after the cornerstone was laid, the parish had grown from 20 members to 100 families and they began to construct a new cathedral to accommodate the growing population of Catholic immigrants.  St. Peter’s was preserved and used for Sunday school, meetings, and a boys’ school (in the basement).  It was also moved around (3 times), added to, and then restored to its original design.  We acquired it in 1975 and restored it to its 1889 appearance.  The wood stove is no longer used for heat; since we store some of our collections artifacts in the basement, we’ve updated to central heating.  Still, it was chilly and damp today.  Here’s the interior and a close up of the altar.  The framed pieces are the Missal (service prayers) in Latin.


I hang out at the back of the church, stitching my pin cushion for the Christmas Bazaar or playing the pump organ.  I am getting used to pumping with my feet, adding volume and overtones with my knees, and keeping all ten fingers busy on the keyboard.  The organ is placed underneath one of fourteen Stations of the Cross displaying the German woodwork of that time.

Of course, I sit on that little chair and play while in costume, complete with corset and bustle.

Tomorrow is the 5K Bustle Hustle, a run/walk event for all ages (children can do a 1K route).  I will be cheering the participants on before taking my place in the church.  So tonight, I am turning in early!  Before I close, though, I have to share a photo of the most handsome man of The Village People standing outside The Wagon Shop. 

I said, “Young man! There’s a place you can go…”


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!

Thatched roof barn

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. 

The blacksmith shop with St. Peter’s in the background.

When “nature calls”, you can head for the woods…

…or use the 3-holer out by the garden. Good idea planting the fragrant lilacs right beside it!

As you can tell, I’ve got a fabulous work environment!  I’m loving this job.  🙂