48 artifacts from Wisconsin’s largest historic site are now online in the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database. First opened to the public in 1976, Old World Wisconsin is the world’s largest museum dedicated to the history of rural life. The development of Old World Wisconsin was one of the major undertakings of the Wisconsin Historical Society in the 1970s. Researchers traveled the state in search of buildings and artifacts to represent the groups of settlers that established farms and villages throughout Wisconsin in the 1830s up through the early 20th century, including Yankees, Germans, Norwegians and Finns. Bringing together Wisconsin’s architectural and material history into a vast outdoor park was the state’s central contribution to the United States Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, a time of great popular interest in American history–particularly the histories of local communities and individual families.
The artifacts that furnish the homes at Old World Wisconsin came from a variety of sources. Some were heirlooms donated by the descendants of early Wisconsin families, such as an unusual carving (above) by Amund O. Jorde of Green County, one of several examples of woodworking gifted to Old World Wisconsin by his great-granddaughter. Other furnishings came from Wisconsin antiques dealers who sought out handmade furniture, such as an unusual “Bohemian” chair (above) acquired by Jim Babcock. According to Babcock, who is currently the curator at the Hawks Inn Historical Society (another Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database participant), the chair was initially collected by another dealer directly from a Czech family in the Manitowoc area and passed through several hands before it came to Old World Wisconsin.
Only a few objects in the collections are original to the buildings in which they are now displayed. One standout example is a settee (below) from the Zirbel family, whose home in the Town of Herman (Dodge County) is now part of Old World’s Schulz Farm.
The chance to get up close and personal with the site’s artifacts led to a few exciting surprises. For example, when I pulled out a drawer in a wardrobe to look at how it was constructed, I discovered a whimsical handwritten inscription on the underside: Whoever gets me he will be good off. Henry F.–Dodge County, Wisconsin (and so forth). This was an exciting clue to the original owners of this massive piece of furniture (read the details here).
Adding selections from Old World Wisconsin’s collections to the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database happened in several stages. Last summer, I made several trips out to Eagle to dig through accession records and tour the site in order to choose the objects with the closest ties to Wisconsin craftspeople and Wisconsin families. Curator of Collections Ellen Penwell was an invaluable resource, allowing me up-close access to the collections on site and in storage. Laura Houston, an undergraduate intern in the UW-Madison Material Culture Program, was a patient photography assistant and note-taker. After collecting the data and images, I delved into primary sources–census records, marriage records, county histories, and more–to learn as much as possible about the people who made and used these objects. Chipsone Foundation research intern Rebecca Wangard conducted some important genealogical research and also did the photo editing and data entry necessary to prepare the catalog entries for posting online.
As many of you may know, Old World Wisconsin has been in the news a lot lately. On June 21, the area was severely affected by a tornado and thousands of trees were downed or damaged (fortunately, the historic buildings were mostly unscathed and no people or animals were harmed). The site was closed to the public until July 24. A video about the site’s ongoing recovery is available here and the Old World Wisconsin Foundation has established a tornado relief fund to support the continued repair work.
Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer.