Hands-on History: 6 Wisconsin Sites for the Modern Traveler

By Carla Minsky
Special to TravelWisconsin.com

You have permission to live in the past. In fact, you’re encouraged to do just that at historic sites in Wisconsin.

Here are five that bridge past to present by profiling dreamers and doers, celebrating Wisconsin ingenuity and preserving the state’s distinct sense of place, while also making some unexpected ties to 21st century interests.

Kids will be wide-eyed and grown-ups will be wowed. And because these are only in Wisconsin, applying the oft-overused word “unique” is absolutely allowed.

Old World Wisconsin Eagle

Old World Wisconsin has more than 60 historic farm and village buildings that were moved to this spot from every part of the state, plus 10 fully operational farmsteads, all spread out over 600 acres.

According to Robert Parker, assistant director of operations, visitor reaction is often astonishment at the sheer scope, detail, authenticity and level of interaction. As for the highest rated exhibits? “The blacksmith shop always scores high, and visitors like the ‘life on the farm’ area where they take on a role as a member of the farm family, which means doing chores like collecting eggs, working the garden, cooking and cleaning,” said Parker.

Also on that high-rated list is the interactive exhibit “Catch Wheel Fever!” that immerses visitors in the cycling craze that swept Wisconsin and the nation in the late 19th century. Guests can climb aboard a stationary high-wheel, tinker with tools at a bicycle repair shop workbench, learn the lingo of 19th century cyclists, and explore period road maps for bicyclists.

“The highlight is the opportunity to ride a replica 1880s adult tricycle, preferred at the time by women and older men, around a crushed stone path,” said Dan Freas, director at Old World Wisconsin. It’s a fitting exhibit in a state that has shot up the ranks for bike-friendliness.

Old World Wisconsin is open May through October.

Stonefield Cassville

Curious for details on how Wisconsin landed the moniker “America’s Dairyland?” There’s a place to feed that curiosity and it’s called Stonefield, home to the State Agricultural Museum, which houses Wisconsin’s largest collection of farm tools, models and machinery chronicling our agricultural past.

Alan Hanson, education specialist at this historic site, noted that those fond of tinkering with tractors will want to check out the 1896 McCormick Auto Mower, the oldest tractor in North America. There’s also a re-created 1901 farmstead at the site furnished to the period, a train depot where you can hop aboard the red caboose, and an entire re-created rural farming village. Plus, you can tour the estate of the first governor of Wisconsin, Governor Nelson Dewey, who named said estate Stonefield.

“I can assure you kids never get bored here,” Hanson said. Stonefield is open end of May through October.

Wade House Greenbush

The Wade House is a circa 1850s stagecoach inn built along a plank road to serve carriage and wagon traffic. No one was whizzing by at 70 mph back then and you still shouldn’t today or you might miss out on wonderful finds, like one of the few working water-powered sawmills of its kind in North America or the state’s largest collection of horse-drawn carriages.

The gardens are a sight to behold too. Gardeners will be intrigued to know they only grow period-appropriate heirloom vegetables here. There’s also a Dye Garden, where colorful crops are grown to be used as dye in the wool that comes from the sheep they shear, turning that wool into yarn that visitors can buy. Come for a historic Hearthside Dinner and you’ll be put to work, preparing the meal using the garden’s vegetables. Those dinners run September through May.

“There’s so much interest in reclaiming historic varietals, and our gardeners are a wealth of knowledge if you have questions, right down to the DNA of tomatoes from the 1850s,” said David Warner, site director.

If you’re a baseball fan, you should know that Historic Base Ball – yes, it’s two words when referring to the 1860s game – is part of a growing phenomenon, with some 225 clubs around the country now. “It was a hit right off the bat,” joked Warner. “It makes for a great afternoon when you take a horse-drawn carriage right to the field.”

Circus World Baraboo

Sure, the name is Circus World and it’s located on the grounds of the original winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. Circus, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this historic site is only for circus fans. And that’s from the mouth of the longtime ringmaster, Dave SaLoutos.

Chatting with him in between shows, SaLoutos chronicled the many ways Circus World entertains. “The circus invented modern advertising, so if you like graphic design you’ll want to see our poster collection,” said SaLoutos.

Then he proceeded to tick off a long list of draws. For fans of folk and fine art, there are the meticulously restored circus wagons, a spectacle of form and function. Fashionistas will love the glitz and glamour of the circus costumes. Anyone into collecting miniatures will be astounded at the miniature circus which took 40 years to create. If you like performing arts, you’ll be happy to know that no seat in the Big Top is farther than 30 feet from the action of acrobats, jugglers and cute performing dogs.

There’s also a comedy show and a thrill show on the grounds. If you love music, you’ll want to hear SaLoutos play antique circus instruments, with the shaker chimes his favorite. The Tiger Adventures educational demonstration features a magnificent family of captive-bred Bengal-Siberian tigers, offering insights into animal habitats and conservation efforts.

Interesting side note: SaLoutas was born in Baraboo in a historic Ringling family home-turned-hospital. “I was predestined for this as my life’s work,” he said.

U.S. Mailboat Tour Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva’s U.S. Mailboat, The Warlworth, showcases “jumpers” delivering mail to homes around the lake. The catch is – the boat never stops, with the jumper hopping off with mail in hand, running down the pier, putting it in the mailbox, collecting the mail, and jumping back on.

Jack Lothian, general manager, made the point that this tradition of jumpers spans generations. “Our first jumper on our first run of the season is a perfect example, as her mother, aunt and sister were also jumpers,” said Lothian.

Lothian’s favorite part of the narration during the two and- a-half hour tour is the history of the grand estates on the “gold coast” of the lake, where millionaires took to Lake Geneva as their summer playground in the late 1800s.

Neill Frame has been at the helm of U.S. Mailboat since 1969 and, in all that time, there have only been two days when weather forced them to stay in dock. “The mail must go through,” said Frame. As for what visitors like best, he said they enjoy the kids on the crew, the interaction and the jokes. As for jumpers falling in the drink? “Miraculously they seem to ‘fall in’ on hot days,” he shared.

Their season wraps up Sept. 15.


Ready for more Wisconsin heritage? Check out the state's top 25 historic sites!

This entry was posted in History & Heritage Tours