Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Old World Wisconsin Worth the Price of Admission +

While staying in the area around Kettle Moraine State Park, our primary destination was Old World Wisconsin.  This is an attraction run by the Wisconsin State Historical Society that was worth the admission price and then some.

To create this outdoor museum, researchers traveled throughout the state looking for authentic buildings representing generations of Wisconsin settlers. Opening in 1976, over 60 historic buildings from around the state have been painstakingly moved here piece by piece, literally numbering boards, bricks and logs to reconstruct them on site. These pieces become "villages and farms" that represent various times in 19th and 20th century Wisconsin. They even have a couple of re-created grave sites that have the exact inscriptions as the originals.

You experience 1915 at the Finish village, then turn back the clock more to 1839 at the Norwegian area. Each area has its own reenactor's showing what life was like, some even cooking food from the time.  There was a squirrel in the pot along with fresh turnips from the garden at the Norwegian village, while they had a little more modern goodies at the Finish place. These are only a couple of examples of life you can see while in here, as Old World Wisconsin is the world's largest museum dedicated to the history of rural life.

One of our top favorites now, we regretted that we had only 3 hours to tour Old World before it closed for the day.  Most definitely allow for at least 4 hours if not the day.  Spread over a large area, you can walk from exhibit to exhibit, or catch one of several trams that will drop you off.  From General Stores to shoe shops, and barns; wheel makers to bread bakers and historic breeds of animals, even baseball.  This museum has something for the entire family to enjoy.

All of it was great, but some of our personal favorites were the 1870's Crossroads Village where you'll find costumed interpreters telling about life as an Irish laundress, Welsh shopkeeper, Bohemian shoemaker, and more. During our visit they were also recreating some of Wisconsin's role in the Civil War, and they had Union troops camped here in the village displaying everyday life during the war.

Another favorite was the Raspberry One Room School House brought down from around Lake Superior. Representing the late 19th century, the "teacher" will tell you how it was quite hard to keep an instructor there for more than just a few months, and how short lived the school was.

Of course Kathy's favorite was the barns throughout.  Beautiful structures of a time past that have been brought here to be kept intact as they were when originally built. We both loved the Civil War reenactors, and what's great about this place is that different months have different themes.  So if we were to be here in October we would experience something new.

Open early May through end of October, Old World Wisconsin should go on your list as a must see.  Plan accordingly and check out the various themes and special events via their website HERE.

There's no way this blog could do the museum justice, so we took over 800 photos of our visit and have picked 34 of our faves (may add more) to display in our Old World Wisconsin Photo Blog HERE.

While in this area we stayed at the Rome River Campground and RV Park. We could have stayed in the Kettle Moraine State Park, but they didn't have any spots with hookups left. This second choice was not bad though. Rome is a very small town with a simple General Store (for sale during our visit) right by the campground.  But there are larger towns nearby for more groceries, etc.  Management was great, wifi was good when it worked (they had some known issues while we were there with their router). AT&T data coverage, while shows solid on the coverage map, was spotty at the campground.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Prairie du Chien Via a Field of Dreams

After leaving Amana Colonies, Kathy and I made our way to Pikes Peak State Park, on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. But first we had a quirky side trip to Dyersville and the nearby Field of Dreams Movie Site.

Surely most of you have seen the film? Kevin Costner, the corn field turned into a ball field to bring back a bunch of dead famous Baseball players. Great movie, I don't think I ever pass it up when scrolling through the TV Guide. What's really cool about this however, is what they had to go through getting this to work.

Director Phil Robinson came to the Dubuque area in early Spring 1988, to make a

decision on one of hundreds of farmsteads under consideration. While on his tour they came upon a farm owned by Don and Becky Lansing. According to information at the site, when Robinson spied it he immediately shouted "That's it! That's my farm!." So in no time they worked with Lansing, moved them to a camper on the other side of the house, and remodeled the home to accommodate filming. Everything going well, except for one major detail. Corn.

It was one of the driest years since the 1930's dust bowl, and they just couldn't get it to grow. Ingenuity paid off though, and after getting approval of local agencies, they dammed a creek that runs through the farm and irrigated the field. It worked so well that the corn grew higher than expected, forcing them to use a foot high platform for Costner to walk on while filming in the crop.

Building the ball field was also a large task. It would take seven semi-truck loads of sod, along with mixed up busted brick, dye and dirt to created the infield, but in just four days it was ready.

There were some interesting "Did You Know" facts on the billboard at the movie site. Like the fact that Moonlight Graham, played by Lancaster, was actually a real person, and holds the shortest major league career on record. And the identity of the "voice" in the movie is a closely guarded secret, listed in the credits as "himself".

The field is still just as green as in the movie, and you really get the thrill of being

there, sitting on the bench where the little girl falls and Burt Lancaster has to save her. Then standing on the mound where Costner first made his pitch to Ray Liotta. And of course having fun with a local star/extra, who played one of the ball players in the movie, Kathy doing her fade out into the corn with him. It was a great stop and one we recommend, especially this time of year. Corn looked just about ready to harvest, at least to this geek. The home and farm had been in the Lansing family since 1906, *until 2013 when it was sold to a group of investors "Go The Distance LLC", with plans on turning the area into a major ball park. We didn't see any construction during our visit, despite the fact that when announced in January 2013 the new ball fields were supposed to get started that Spring. Regardless, we may have been some of the last to see it as it was before the expansion.  This past June they celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the movies release with several of the stars returning for a trip down memory lane. (*corrected to reflect new ownership, hat tip to reader Albert Hall for bringing that to our attention)

On to our campground. 

Pikes Peak State Park sits at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi River on the
Iowa side and provides visitors and campers with a gorgeous overlook view of the river valley below. The campground for RV's and tent's is in the midst of pines, providing a forest experience nature lovers adore, complete with a hiking trail just beyond the river overlook to Bridal Falls.

For AT&T customers, this is no mans land. I don't mean just data either, as many times we didn't even have a connection for voice. So here we were truly disconnected. I know, many of you are thinking that's just the way it should be. But for this geek, it was a challenge not to constantly try to find a signal to at least attempt to see email. It was good for me though, and gave Kathy and I some extra time to just sit and enjoy each other's company instead of being glued to our work.

It was raining the morning after we arrived, but we headed out of the park anyway to start exploring the area (to be honest, we were looking for a McDonalds with wifi). After leaving the park you come into historic McGregor, IA.  Founded as McGregor's Landing in 1847, the area was original settled by Alexander McGregor, a direct decedent of Rob Roy McGregor of Scotland. 

McGregor had already been operating a ferry across the Mississippi River to Prairie du Chien, WI for 10 years when he planned the new city. It was incorporated as McGregor in 1857, and it quickly became a major commercial center after the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad established a line to Prairie du Chien, connecting Lake Michigan to the mighty river by rail. Other railroads were built from McGregor west, with North McGregor (now Marquette) acting as the rail terminus.  When reaching McGregor from the west, trains were taken apart, ferried across the river, then put back together to make their way to Lake Michigan. 

During the city's peak, the population exploded to over 5,500 and was the busiest shipping port west of Chicago during the 1870's. However the city would decline just about as fast as it grew when a permanent pontoon bridge was built to connect McGregor and Prairie du Chien, eliminating the need to disassemble the trains, and thus many of the jobs.  Today, McGregor and Marquette (formally North McGregor) have kept their historic charm, but the city has a population of less than a thousand. 

You cross two bridges into Wisconsin, both over sections of the Mississippi River, into historic Prairie Du Chien, the oldest settlement on the Upper Mississippi River, and the second oldest city in the state of Wisconsin, with roots dating back to the late 1600's and the French-Canadian Fur Trade.

St. Feriole Island was the city's earliest hub of activity, and was also the site of the Battle of Prairie du Chien in 1814, Wisconsin's only battle in the War of 1812. After the war, the government built Fort Crawford here as part of a chain of forts to secure the U.S. Frontier, and it would become the site of many treaties with Native American's.

One of the big attractions on St. Feriole Island is Villa Louis, a Victorian country estate established in the 1840's by Hercules Dousman, a local fur trader and entrepreneur. The house that still stands here was built by his son Louis in 1870, and is open to the public for tours under the management of the Wisconsin Historical Society. With over 90 percent of its original furnishings, and a recent restoration to recreate its 1890's appearance, Villa Louis is one of the Midwest's great house museums (open early May through late October).

Other sites on the island include the Fur Trade Museum in the 1850 Stone Brisbois Store, the 1837 Brisbois House and the Dousman House Hotel. Plan a day here to see the sites and tour the historic buildings.

The on and off again rain, along with some major road construction in town, had Kathy and I heading back to the trailer across the river for a while, but we ventured out again in the afternoon, this time heading north on the Great River Road in Iowa. Along the way, just north of Marquette, you can visit the Effigy Mounds. Here you can see ancient Native American culture, and some pretty fantastic views of the Mississippi River. Unfortunately we didn't have time for a stop, but this historic site run by the National Park Service is likely worth the visit. Plan on a little hiking.

From there we stayed on the River Road heading toward Lansing Iowa. Here we took in parts of the city established in 1851, including the historic Old Stone School built in 1864, then over the 1931 Blackhawk Bridge into Wisconsin. It was a very scenic drive up to Lansing and back down to Praire du Chien, with the road following closely to the river in Wisconsin.

Lots of great history to see and plenty to do in this area of Iowa and Wisconsin. See our travel, including some not talked about in this blog entry, through images via our photo blog HERE

RV'ers, Pikes Peak State Park is a beautiful campground, but pretty small. We suggest making reservations, especially in peak travel times.  We had electric, but had to fill up the water tank on the way in.  Dump station on the way out.  There are pull throughs, but limited in number. If you want to be in the woods with beautiful surroundings you can't go wrong here. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Amana Colonies


Our first "primary" destination on this journey through the upper-midwest is Amana Colonies in Iowa.  Amana, which means "believe faithfully", was established by the religious group Community of True Inspiration, with origins in Germany.  These German speaking European settlers came to America for many of the same reasons others did, because they didn't agree with the religious experience the churches provided.

Called "True Inspirationists", the group was founded by J.F. Rock and E.L Gruber in 1700's Germany, with both maintaining that the Lutheran Church neglected the spiritual needs of the congregation by getting to into formalized worship and intellectual debate.  Desiring a return to the basics of Christianity, Rock and Gruber attracted many followers with several congregations established throughout Germany, but by the mid 18th Century the movement declined.

Devastated by war and famine in the early 1800's, Germans took comfort in religion and once again the True Inspirationist's began to grow.  Based on the belief that God still spoke through prophets, these new "prophets" were called Werkzeuge, or instruments.  As the group regained it's popularity, Christian Metz would become a Werkzeuge and a guiding force in bringing them to America.

In 1842 the True Inspirationists purchased 5,000 acres near Buffalo, New York, and established a settlement called Ebenezer.  The idea was that all property would be held in common, but then eventually divided among the people based on their contribution.  However the leaders quickly saw the flaw in that plan with disparities in wealth and skills, and with backing of Metz, they adopted a constitution in 1846 that established a permanent communal system.

Reaching a population of 1,200 by 1854, Ebenezer became six villages and thrived.  However, land prices around Buffalo were rising, and the community leaders felt that capitalist and worldly influences were enticing their followers toward materialism, so they decided it was time to move again.

Passing up sites in Kansas, the True Inspirationists settled on a location in the Iowa River valley west of Iowa City. Construction of Amana began in 1855, and as before, they retained the communal system of ownership. Everyone shared in its success, each family was provided what they needed. From goods at the General Store bought with an annual allowance, to free medical care.  In return, the Elders assigned each person a job in the community based on skills and needs.  Most women started working at 14 in the communal kitchens and gardens.  They also tended laundry and a few worked at the woolen mills.  The men had more opportunity in their assignments, working in craft shops, mills, farms, and some educated as doctors and pharmacists.

By the 1860s it had grown to over 20,000 acres with seven villages spaced just a few miles apart.  Known as the Amana Colony, the seven towns were named by their location; West Amana, South Amana, High Amana, East Amana, Middle Amana and the original village of Amana. They would also purchase the entire town of Homestead so they could take advantage of the new railroad line.

Amana's woolen and calico factories, among the first in Iowa, were known throughout the U.S. for superior quality. By the early 1900's the two woolen mills were producing a half million yards of fabric a year, and the calico factory 4,500 yards of cloth a day.  A couple of flour mills processed the community's grains, and crops of potatoes and onions were shipped to Midwest markets.  All the profits were used to purchase goods from outside the colony.

Of course, all this success worried the leaders that the same capitalist influences that brought them to Iowa would again threaten their followers, so they held church services 11 times a week. Every evening, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, and Sunday afternoon.

The last Werkzeug, Barbara Heinemann Landmann, died in 1883, but the elders functioned for nearly 50 years afterward without support of divine authority.  Amana became one of America's longest-lived communal societies until June 1, 1932 and what Amana residents call "the Great Change."  Beginning in 1931, social strains of communal living, the loss of the calico print works after World War I, and a fire the previous decade that extensively damaged the woolen and flour mill, along with the national economic depression, came to a head with many True Inspirationists finding the rules to be overly restrictive, and the communal ownership inadequate. So on that June day in 1932, members separated the church from the business enterprises, creating a joint-stock company, and abandoned communalism.  The Amana Society Inc still controls about 26,000 acres of land, and because the land was not divided up, the landscape still reflects its communal heritage.  Today, over 450 communal-era buildings stand in the seven villages, and attract visitors from all over.

We had a great time in Amana Colonies, parking our travel trailer at Amana Colonies RV Park just outside of Amana.  Wonderful set up, in the midst of corn fields, which we will review on RV Park Reviews HERE. In Amana you can enjoy many shops, stores and a museum, and of course some great German cuisine.  Other colonies have museums as well, and some general stores.  It's a good stop for history, and enough to see that you should plan for an entire day in the area at the least.  Depending on your pace, and your pallet, you may consider two.

You can see our adventure at Amana Colonies through images in our Photo Blog HERE.  Additional reading about Utopia's in America can be found HERE.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Legends' Heads North

We're heading north this weekend on another long adventure in history! For those of you who have followed our travels before, you know that all plans are "loose" until we get there.  We tend to wander, and get distracted sometimes by bright shiny objects (mainly Ghost Towns and the occasional unexpected grave yard).  So this map is our "current" primary route.  We will stop at some points along the route and do what we call "hub and spoke", where we will explore out around us by 100-200 miles for several days then move on to the next RV park and repeat the process.

Here's our current plan for the first part of our journey

Here's the second half back home

We plan to spend some quality time in central Iowa over the next week and hope you will follow along our travels here and on our Photo Blog

Kathy and Dave, Legends of America