Spinning Yarns

I took this picture yesterday at Old World Wisconsin.  This is Rachel, one of my colleagues, at the spinning wheel in the Kvaale house.  Rachel is over 6 feet tall, and it’s a wonder she hasn’t given herself a concussion every day as she passes from this room into the kitchen.  The doorway is probably only 5 and a half feet tall. 

The Norwegian immigrants knew how to stay warm – a very useful skill in Wisconsin winters, too.

VIP Tour

Late in the afternoon yesterday, some VIPs came to tour Old World Wisconsin.  Unfortunately, they arrived only an hour before closing and didn’t have ample opportunity to view the 575 acres and 50 buildings that comprise this living history museum.  So today, my day off, I took them back to the site and gave them a personal tour.  I also secured for them a copy of the historical gardening book that our expert, Marcia Carmichael, published last year.  Putting Down Roots: Gardening Insights from Wisconsin’s Early Settler’s includes historical references, tools and plot layouts, produce recipes from each ethnic area, and a lot of other wonderful information and sumptuous photographs of the meticulously researched and maintained gardens.  I know this couple is beginning to practice organic gardening, and they are eager to learn all they can.  In addition to that, the young man is a carpenter, and was thrilled to see the craftsmanship on the original structures.  They were able to get some behind-the-scenes photos and detailed descriptions of the building methods of the 19th century.  Each of the interpreters in the various houses were in fine form, communicating information and interest  in a very friendly and professional manner.  The weather was perfect for our visit, and we skipped the tram rides and walked the entire circuit of trails through the site.  It was an altogether delightful tour, and I enjoyed seeing parts of the museum that hadn’t been included in my training schedule.  I consider it a privilege to have been invited to host this marvelous young couple.  Who were they?  My daughter, Rebecca, and her boyfriend Joe. 

In the sauna at the Finnish Ketola farm

One of the friendly faces on the tour


Friday Night Dancing

After the living history museum closes and I’m finished my work for the day as an interpreter in St. Peter’s Church, I’m changing out of my corset and bustle and into modern day country dancing togs!  There’s a barn dance tonight in the octagonal barn.  Square dancing is something that I’ve enjoyed since grade school when Mr. Maghita, the gym teacher, would call out the squares and teach us to promenade, doe-see-doe, and allemande left with our classmates.  I didn’t even mind the boy cooties.  Even better, though, was the Girl Scout square dances when I got to dance with my father.  Which reminds me of a funny story….

  On my 15th birthday, my older sister Sarah and I were staying with my father at the historic Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.  We had just delivered my sister Alice to the University of Colorado, Fort Collins and were heading back to California.  As we checked in, I noticed a sign in the lobby advertising that there would be square dancing on the patio that evening.  It sounded like a perfect way to celebrate my birthday, so after dinner, we made our way out to the terrace.  I noticed that there were a lot of people dressed in square dancing outfits – ladies in ruffled skirts that stuck straight out, gents with string ties and cowboy boots.  I lamented the fact that I hadn’t really packed for this occasion.  I also wondered why all these people had pinned on name tags with the same logo.  As the music started, people started squaring up, and my father promised me the first dance and asked my sister to wait her turn (since it was MY birthday).  When all the squares were completed, I spotted a rather disgruntled couple in costume sitting on the sidelines.  The caller and the dance started up, and the other couples in our square, in professional regalia, started ushering and dragging my father and I around to the dance steps being announced.  Finally, I started putting all these clues together and realized, to my complete teenaged humiliation and embarrassment, that my father and I had just crashed a Square Dancing Performance!!  I had always thought of square dancing as a teach-as-you-go, anyone-can-play kind of thing.  It never occurred to me that the hotel guests were supposed to be simply spectators!  My sister was so happy that it wasn’t her birthday, allowing her to be spared this special treatment.  Ah well, Daddy.  It makes up for there not being enough room for us to dance together at my wedding reception in the parish hall of the church 6 years later.

So tonight, Steve & I are dancing.  I’m pre-posting this because I intend to get home from Old World Wisconsin all hot and tired and in need of a shower and sleep.  Enjoy your Friday night, friends!  I hope you DANCE!!!

P.S. Becca – you know this reminds me of you!

Little House in Old World Wisconsin

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in Wisconsin in 1867, in a Little House in the Big Woods (near Pepin, WI, close to the border of Minnesota).  Mary Hafford, the Irish immigrant who lived in the house where I work as an interpreter for the living history museum, Old World Wisconsin, was widowed in the year 1868 with 3 small children and lived as a renter in a small village near Watertown, WI.   The Ingalls family continued to move west and eventually set up a homestead in South Dakota, but Mary Hafford worked away at her home laundry business and eventually achieved social and economic prominence in her little village.  In 1885, she had a new house constructed on the property that she had bought.  She never learned to read or write, but her children did.  Her youngest daughter, Ellen, studied dressmaking, a skilled trade, and became a live-in dressmaker.  Ellen was married in 1891 (six years after Laura Ingalls married Almanzo Wilder), and her mother hosted a reception and dinner for 75 guests.  Three months later, Mary Hafford died of dropsy.  I imagine Ellen Hafford Thompson and wonder what stories she might have written about her life in the Little House where she lived.  I have a burning question: what happened to her older sister, Ann, who is conspicuously absent from all records from the mid-1880s on?  Did she die?  If so, why isn’t she buried next to her father & mother?  Did she go into a convent?  Did she elope with a Lutheran?  The mystery remains unsolved!

The neighbors’ backyard

Trusty “Rapid Washer”

A shadow box memorial to a young woman who had taken religious vows. The braid that was cut off is all the family would ever see of this loved one after she went into the convent.


New Digs (well, actually, really old digs)

I am now working the summer schedule for Old World Wisconsin.  I am still at St. Peter’s Church playing the pump organ and singing to the rafters on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.  I am also working at the Hafford house on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Mary Hafford was an Irish immigrant who came to the U.S. with her husband and son, living first in New Jersey and then settling in Wisconsin where she had family members who had also moved there.  She had two more children here, and then, at the age of 36, she was widowed.  Her husband had worked on the railroad and owned no land or property.  She could neither read nor write.  Somehow, she had assets (possibly from a railroad company’s pension plan?) amounting to $500, twice the average for the village where she lived.  She spent $150 to buy two lots in a rural village where she had been renting lodgings.  Presumably, there was a dwelling on that lot, a worker’s cottage.  She took in laundry and did the washing, ironing, and mending from her home so that she could look after her children.  By the time she was 53, in the year 1885, she was able to hire carpenters to upgrade her house to a more respectable cottage.  This home is the one that is now on Old World Wisconsin property, right next to St. Peter’s Church.  It has one large room (combination kitchen, dining room, living room) with a small bedroom and a pantry on the ground floor and two bedrooms upstairs.  It has a kitchen garden in which is growing lavender, sage, rosemary, alpine strawberries, thyme, and other fragrant herbs.  The wash tubs and clothesline are set up outside so that visitors (kids, mostly) can try their hand at washing without electricity or plumbing.  The laundering process in the 19th century could take up 3 days of the week.  For Mrs. Hafford, it would probably be 6 days a week.  Soaking, boiling, spot treating with lye soap, scrubbing on the washboard and rinsing would require multiple trips to the pump with two large buckets.  One article estimated that women carried 400 lbs. of water in a week for laundry.  After the clothes were dry, she would heat the irons on her wood stove and press them.  One of the irons we have weighs 6 lbs, though it’s only about 5 inches long.   I get the feeling this woman had no need for a gym membership.   She pumped iron, literally, at home often enough!  So this is the story I interpret for visitors.  When there are no guests to chat with, I sit in the rocker and crochet rag rugs.  I just learned this skill last week.  I pass the time wondering what it would be like to be unable to read and write.  Yesterday was my first day in this position.  Sorry I didn’t post a blog entry, friends, I was just too tired and hungry and out of time by the end of my day!  Here are some photos to whet your appetite.  More to come!

Auf Wiedersehen, Schottler!

Today was my last day as the historic interpreter at the Schottler house at Old World Wisconsin.  I’m going to miss Stud Muffin, the young male pig, and watching him grow fat.  He still hasn’t figured out how to go outside…up one little ramp and down another on the other side…who said pigs were smart?  I am going to miss the smell of cabbage roses and camomile in the garden.  I will miss stringing rhubarb up to dry and making rhubarb pie.  Oh!  I have to tell you that the rhubarb pie I made DID get eaten after all, at least partially.  They cut out a slice to display on a plate with a fork and some school group chaperone ate it while the interpreter was making sure the 45 kids running around didn’t break anything!  I am satisfied that it was not too runny, as my objective was to improve upon the last display pie that was baked.  And my darling daughter, the Approximate Chef, has told me that she whipped up some rhubarb and ginger sherbet the other day.  She sent this photo along to share:

Today was a gorgeous day, though.  Plenty of time for slowing down, too.  One of the school groups was an hour late, so they skipped my area entirely.  The other school group was 3 groups of only 9 kids, so it felt quite leisurely not to be herding 30 kids at one time. That meant that I could sit on the porch sewing, enjoying the quiet during the off hours.  Three photographers with tripods and bunches of gear came by and snapped away.  The Schottler farm is a still life paradise, really.  And so monochrome friendly!  Although the delphiniums in full bloom definitely deserve color.  

I’ll be a Villager next, five days a week.  At Mary Hafford’s house, I do get a kitchen garden with lavender, sage, thyme, and rosemary.  And I need to learn how to crochet rag rugs.  It’ll be fun.  Too bad I don’t know any welcoming phrases in Irish! 

Baseball & Brides

Ah, June!  Yesterday’s weather was picture perfect for Wisconsin summer.  Life at Old World Wisconsin was happily busy.  Sorry I didn’t post last night, but I was just too tired.  We had the first Vintage Baseball game of the summer, so families were treated to an exciting and genteel sporting event, and our team won (Wullah, wullah, wullay!).  No baseball mitts, no walks, and different terminology were the biggest differences one guest reported.  I didn’t get to see the action in the baseball field because I was working at the church, and briefly, at the Irish washer-woman’s house.  I finally had a visitor willing to join me in singing a round of “Dona Nobis Pacem” a capella in the church.  The acoustics are terrific, and we really did a lovely job, I think.  I thanked her enthusiastically for the privilege.  I had a Brownie troop who filled the front pews like a classroom and stayed a good half hour, I think, asking questions about everything.  It was nice not to feel rushed like I do during a scheduled school tour, but just to let the conversation flow.  They were a great group.  Finally, about an hour before closing, a wedding party came by from the Clausing Barn area where they had their service to take pictures by the church.  They didn’t come inside, but the groomsmen invited me into a picture with them on the front steps.  I think they were attracted to my bustle.  They then staged the same shot with the bride in my place.  Perhaps I’ll be comic relief in their wedding album some day soon.  The men all wore different hats: the groom’s was a black cowboy hat which he wore with dark sunglasses.  He smoked a cigar throughout the photo session.  The bride and several of the bridesmaids were sporting elaborate tattoos.  The bride’s covered her upper back and was quite colorful.  Another guest saw them leaving and asked if they had been dressed in period costume.  “Oh, no.  Those weren’t period tattoos, either,”  I replied, and she laughed.


Today’s game is described on the Old World Wisconsin website like this:

“On Sunday the girls of summer, from the World War II Girls Baseball Living History League, will play their brand of 1943 ball. Joining the team on Sunday will be Milwaukee Public Radio coordinating producer Stephanie Lecci. Original girls-league players will be invited as our special guests, including Joyce Westerman who will be available after the game to sign copies of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press book about her life and sporting career, Joyce Westerman: Baseball Hero.”

Our costumer, Rachel, plays on this team.  I wish I could see them.  It reminds me of my days in the church softball league.  I played second base. 

For more information on 1860s baseball, visit the Old World Wisconsin website here.  Rules, schedule, photos and more are included.

photo courtesy of OWW website


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 ovenIt’s a display pie, meaning no one is going to eat itThe 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.  

Infinity pines


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!