How Wisconsin's Biggest Living History Museum Wound Up in a State Forest

Nov 21, 2013

As the largest outdoor museum of rural life in the country, Old World Wisconsin demonstrates how our immigrant ancestors lived through heirloom gardens, antique machinery and painstakingly restored buildings.

But those buildings didn't get to the middle of a state forest by themselves, so how did the living history museum come together?

Marquette University professor John Krugler has brought to life the history of this historical site in a new book called Creating Old World Wisconsin: The Struggle to Build an Outdoor History Museum of Ethnic Architecture.

It all started back in the late 1920s when a Milwaukee architect Richard W.E. Perrin began lamenting the loss of folk architecture from the 19th century throughout the state. By World War II, most of these old houses were being torn down for new construction.

In 1960, Perrin acquired the Koepsell house, which once belonged to German immigrants in Washington County, from a farmer on behalf of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Presenting to the society's board and director, Leslie Fishel, Jr., Perrin made his case for state intervention for preservation.

American history professor John Krugler's new book is a history of how Old World Wisconsin came to be.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society Press

"(He) made a very convincing argument that they needed to endorse this idea of capturing, saving, preserving, rescuing, salvaging, however you want to describe it, and bringing them to a common site," Krugler says.

But the historical society, known for its archives, had never before created a museum from scratch. Many worried that if the society got into historic sites, it would be a financial disaster, given the society's subsistence level of funding.

Still, the society had decided that it wanted to serve more than just scholars, and had already begun managing three "popular history" sites around the state.

With one historic building acquired, the society needed to find a site to house the buildings and began eyeing the southern Kettle Moraine Forest as an option. Even though the forest was managed by another state agency, the Department of Natural Resources, it still took the society 10 years to get the property.

"This was a long and in many ways a very torturous process, in large part fueled by the fact the society really didn't have enough money to be doing this," Krugler says.

In the meantime, the Society's crew went around the state looking for historic buildings. They then had to develop a master plan for the site - without spending any money. They turned to a Harvard-trained professor Bill Tishler and his students at the University of Wisconsin.

By 1971, the DNR had transferred the site to the historical society, and work soon began to move and reconstruct the buildings on the land. Again, the society ran into not having the money to fund professional workers, so instead, construction supervisor Alan Pape used local high-schoolers from Eagle to help put the buildings back together.

"That's not exactly the kind of workmanship you'd would like, you'd like somebody who's maybe got 20 years in on reconstructions, restorations," Krugler says.

It would take three years to get the museum built and its final incarnation was much different than the original plan.

"It wasn't what they planned but it was much more than the state deserved with what the resources were," Krugler says.

By opening day, anticipation for the new historical site had reached a fever pitch. Organizers had expected a few thousand visitors, but 8,000 people came for the opening. Krugler says nothing went perfectly that first day, but it was enough to whet the appetites for visitors to return the following season.

Krugler says the process to create Old World Wisconsin might not have been smooth, but it was successful.

"I think if they had done anything differently, the museum would not have happened," Krugler says. "There was almost a genius in the way they did this, and Les Fishel...said that his approach was to do it incrementally, one step at a time."

The rest, as they say, is history.