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When the stress of daily life threatens to overwhelm, it helps to take a step back in time. Reflecting on how our predecessors managed to survive and even thrive in the midst of harsh weather, disease, war, and unrelenting physical labor does tend to put 21st century tribulations into perspective. And there are no better places to engage in contemplation of times past than at the Wisconsin Historical Society's sites. From the wanderlust that brought explorers to Madeline Island in the seventeenth century to the ambition that led a family to build the extravagant Villa Louis mansion, the sites embody many characteristics of the pioneer spirit.
At Villa Louis, a Victorian-era country estate on St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien, visitors can marvel at the effort and funds the wealthy Dousman family lavished on the horsepower of the day. In the early 1800's the family's Artesian Stock Farm bred and raised fine trotting horses for harness racing. The farm soon established a name for itself within the Midwest due to its graceful setting and superlative stable of more than 75 horses. On September 6 & 7 at the Villa Louis Carriage Classic – the Midwest's largest and most elegantly appointed competitive carriage driving event – you can enjoy a pleasant trot back in time. Watch horses harnessed to more than 100 new and restored carriages prance, canter and gallop in, obstacle courses and cross-country events. (608) 326-2721.
As word spread of a lead strike in the Wisconsin Territory, Cornish miners crossed the Atlantic in the 1830s and '40s to stake a claim in Mineral Point. The Cornish immigrants' distinctive limestone houses meandering along crooked streets evolved into a neighborhood called "Shake Rag Under the Hill," which resembled a village in old Cornwall. By the 1930s, many of the homes had fallen into disrepair, but thanks to the efforts of preservationists, some of the houses were restored and now have become part of Pendarvis, a Wisconsin Historical Society site. The neighborhood celebrates its Cornish roots on September 27 during Crowdy Crawn – roughly translated from Cornish as "entertainment that is a mixture of things." One thing sure to be in the mix is the authentic Cornish pasty, a savory meat pie popular with the lead miners, is served today at Pendarvis area restaurants.
In the days before that famous light bulb flickered on in Thomas Edison's head, folks relied on candles, and oil and kerosene lamps to light the way. Old World Wisconsin, a grouping of immigrant farmsteads and a village settlement located on 600 acres of rolling, wooded hills in Eagle, invites you to bask in soft lamplight glow on an Autumn Lamplight Tour. As the sun goes down you'll be immersed in the farm and village life of the 1870s after dark. Lamplight tours will be held September 19, 20, 26 & 27. To make a reservation, contact the Friends of Old World Wisconsin at 262/ 594-2922.
Visit Wisconsin Historical Society for details on these and other events hosted by the Wisconsin Historical Society. To build a day trip or weekend getaway itinerary around one of the sites, see the society's "America's Journey" page for the Mississippi/Wisconsin Waterways Heritage Tour, Southeastern Wisconsin Rural Roads & City Streets Heritage Tour, and the South-Central Wisconsin/Native American Heritage Tour.
New skills, old crafts
If you've ever wondered how your great-grandparents (and their parents) managed to survive and thrive in the early rough-and-tumble days of Wisconsin's statehood, then consider participating in one of Old World Wisconsin's hands-on workshops. You can learn how to drive a team of oxen, hammer out a pair of tongs at a blacksmithing forge, plant an heirloom garden, build a log cabin, bake a hearty loaf of German bread from an old immigrant recipe, and more. The authentic trades and crafts are taught as they were practiced more than 100 years ago. In addition to the traditional craft workshops, Old World's curators lead a museum study series covering cultural research, object cataloging and preservation techniques for photographs, textiles, metals and ceramics. For a workshop schedule and registration details, visit Old World Wisconsin or call (262) 594-6300.