Wisconsin Historic Sites Put Heritage in Holidays

By Jim Bach
Special to TravelWisconsin.com

The holidays are a great time to look back, to cherish memories of Christmas past, to linger in the glow of a shared cultural nostalgia. Here in Wisconsin, we treasure that past, preserved in museums and historic homes throughout the state.

During the holidays, many of these properties host special tour opportunities, a chance to mix the joy of the season with a celebration of the past. Here are some of our best historic holiday traditions.

Lincoln-Tallman House – Janesville

Constructed between 1855 and 1857, the Lincoln -Tallman House is a superb example of Italian Villa-style architecture and upper-class life during the mid- to late 1800s. The five-story mansion is the only surviving private residence where President Abraham Lincoln slept in Wisconsin, staying one night in October of 1859. The Tallman House is a unique house museum, in that nearly 75 percent of the furnishings are original to the Tallman family, including the bed that Lincoln slept on during his visit. The "Christmas Tour" season showcases the home dressed in all its Christmas finery and highlights the traditions of yesteryear.

Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion – Milwaukee

This Flemish Renaissance Revival mansion, built for world-famous beer baron and seafaring Captain Frederick Pabst, was completed in 1892. It was considered the jewel of Milwaukee's famous Grand Avenue of mansions and epitomized America's Gilded Age Splendor in Milwaukee. For the holiday "Twilight Tour," a dozen of the Mansion’s magnificent rooms are elegantly transformed with seasonal décor.

Hearthstone Historic House Museum – Appleton

On September 30, 1882, Hearthstone became the first home in the world to be lit by hydroelectric power. During "Victorian Christmas" weekends, tour this Victorian grand-dame festooned for the holidays with its rich woodwork, parquet floors, nine fireplaces and authentic furnishings.

Forts Folle Avoine Historical Park – Danbury

This 80-acre historic park is an accurate reproduction of two British fur trade outposts built on the site in 1802. The complex includes the stockaded outpost, a Native American village, an 1887 schoolhouse and a visitor center. Visit the fort during "Christmas at the Forts" to see the grounds decorated for the holidays, take horse-drawn sleigh rides, visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus, listen to storytelling and music, shop and partake in a silent auction, and chow down on soup and hot chocolate. Kids can get hands-on with activities just for them at the Elves' Store.

Hawks Inn – Delafield

Authentic holiday decorations adorn Hawks Inn, built as a stagecoach stop in 1846. Learn about the lifestyles of travelers in the mid-19th century where this Greek Revival inn was the center of social and political life in the frontier village of Delafield. Overnight lodgers included farmers in search of a homestead, trappers, traders, territorial politicians and miners. Eighteen of the inn's 22 rooms are open for public viewing.

Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center – Coon Valley

This 400-acre heritage and nature center dedicated to preserving the Norwegian culture of the Coon Valley area pulls out all the stops for its "Old-Fashioned Christmas." Take a horse-drawn wagon ride around the quaintly decorated grounds, cabins and Bekkum Homestead, set to the soundtrack of carols by area musicians. Feast on a Norwegian buffet or homemade baked goods, get in some Christmas shopping at the gift shop and even pick up your holiday tree, and watch as artisans spin in the traditional pioneer style and cook over a wood stove. Kids will enjoy getting their picture taken with Santa in an old-fashioned sleigh, participating in a scavenger hunt and creating make-and-take crafts.

Wade House – Greenbush

Built in the 1850s, this Greek Revival-style museum with a blacksmith forge, working sawmill and extensive carriage collection welcomed weary travelers for half a century as a stagecoach inn. "Hearthside Dinners" invites you to experience a delicious hearth-cooked meal, prepared with your own hands, in the historic Wade House stagecoach hotel.

Old World Wisconsin – Eagle

This remarkable living museum offers sixty historic buildings organized in several ethnically themed pioneer villages. During "An Old World Christmas," you can wander the grounds to meet an 1800s Santa and see the village decked out for an old-timey holiday, take a horse-drawn bobsled or wagon ride, and enjoy caroling, storytelling, games and treats.

Heritage Hill State Park – Green Bay

"The Spirit of Christmas Past at Heritage Hill" celebrates the season amid 25 period buildings dressed for the holidays, with several Christmas trees donated by local farms and decorated by community groups. You can listen to local musicians or dance along to historic tunes, fill up on hot chocolate and holiday treats or even lend a hand in the kitchens. Kids will love meeting Old World Santa, learning how Christmas was celebrated throughout Wisconsin's history, hearing stories more than a century old around the fire and making their own keepsake craft.

Octagon House  Hudson

Built in 1854, the Octagon House is a fine example of the novel eight-sided house popular in America in the mid-1800s. "Victorian Christmas Night" tours are led by lamplight and include the restored home with its Victorian furnishings and tradititional holiday decorations, as well as the adjacent Garden House and the Carriage House. Music and seasonal treats help get you in the holiday spirit.

Fairlawn Mansion – Superior

This 42-room 1889 mansion recalls the elegance and prosperity of Superior’s early boomtown days, with the building serving as an orphanage from 1920 to 1962. The Queen Anne Victorian home features a fourth-story turrett overlooking Lake Superior. Stop during the holiday for Twinkling Tuesdays or Classic Holiday tours to experience the lavish decorations. 

Wisconsin Governor’s Residence – Madison

Built in 1921, Wisconsin’s Executive Residence is a 34-room Classical Revival mansion overlooking lovely Lake Mendota. The guided holiday tours, which last about 30 minutes, include a brief history of the home with a walk-through of the main rooms on the first floor that each display a beautiful ethnically-themed evergreen. There is no charge for admission, though groups of 20 or more are asked to make a reservation.

Pinecrest Historical Village – Manitowoc

A 60-acre outdoor museum, Pinecrest features 25 historic buildings with period furnishings from Manitowoc County's Norwegian and Bohemian/German immigrant settlers. Celebrate the holiday traditions of the past with sleigh rides, live holiday music, beautiful decorations and family activities in buildings heated by wood-burning stoves at "A Pinecrest Christmas."

Hazelwood Historic House Museum – Green Bay

One of the city’s architectural gems overlooking the Fox River, this restored, ten-room 1837 Greek Revival home is decked out for the holidays with authentic furnishings and period Christmas décor. Partake in a Victorian Christmas tea party with sweet and savory courses, program and tour at "Holiday Victorian Tea at Hazelwood."