By Daniel Hubbard | August 7, 2011
A neighbor and I just took a small herd of kids to one of my favorite living history sites, Old World Wisconsin. I’ve probably been there more than a half a dozen times over the years and like any good bit of living history, you learn something new every time if you keep your eyes and ears open. Asking questions helps too, so I guess one could add an open mouth to the list. I still remember my first trip there as a kid and how horrified I was, and how many questions I asked, when I saw the northern German “black kitchen,” an apparently wood-conserving method of heating and cooking that isn’t so much a kitchen as a walk-in fireplace. I assume it gets its name from the soot that covers the brick walls. It horrified me because the same soot must have coated the person who did the cooking within those walls. I don’t want to think about the poor woman’s lungs.
I took a lot of pictures on this visit, which gives me some handy illustrations for this post. Of course, some were family photos. Others were very different and now that I look at them, most fit a theme, probably a mixture of opportunity and mood. The theme turned out to be light and darkness. I like the look but I also find something genealogical about it. If you research your family long enough, you will find people who stand out in the light. Their parents might be shadows and their children wisps of fog but that one person or one generation stands out almost glowing. Sometimes it is clear why, something made them noteworthy in their own time, an office held or a sacrifice made, but often it seems more the work of fate. Some people’s lives are simply lit up by a few preserved letters, a diary that was kept or an oddly detailed record made by a clerk who had time on his hands. Other times the light is there because that is where we shine it. Once we figure out what records to find to shine the light elsewhere as well, those mysterious parents and evasive children will also emerge from the dark.
For me, part of the point to visiting a place like Old World Wisconsin is to put some history into my family history. We like to research our families or we wouldn’t do what we do. On the other hand, still thinking in terms of photography, only understanding “family” without understanding “history” is as impossible as a picture with foreground but without background. History adds so much richness to genealogy and sooner or later, knowing the history will make the genealogy not just richer but possible. Much of the focus at Old World Wisconsin is on the lives of those who immigrated during the nineteenth century. My ancestors were not immigrants then but much would have been the same for them and much of how immigrants lived would have influenced them. I may not have visited my ancestors on this trip, but I did visit their neighbors.
I always like to talk with the interpreters beyond just listening to what they are supposed to explain. I chatted a bit with one interpreter who was tending a garden. The garden and the “front yard” were one and the same. One didn’t waste time and effort with a lawn, shrubs or much in the way of purely ornamental plants. The plants might be nicely arranged. They might be pretty but they generally had some use. One thing he said especially sticks in my mind. He told me that the best thing about working there was that he was constantly noticing and learning how clever people had been with what little they had. One example he particularly liked had to do with linen making. On that farm they had grown flax for making linen and the whole process made as much use as possible of the plants they had. The flax was pulled, not cut, because the fibers used for cloth making aren’t just found in the stalk. They extend into the roots. Some of the fibers that are extracted turn out to be useless for cloth. Those were wadded up and used to stuff pillows. They weren’t wasted.
At the wagon maker’s we learned a bit about making wheels. I already knew something of the mechanics of it—how the wood for the rim is curved by soaking it until it becomes pliable and how the metal tire was made just slightly too small for the wooden framework of the wheel. When heated enough, it expanded to the point that it fit over the rest of the wheel and then once quenched, it fit tightly enough to not only stay on but to “tie” the wooden parts of the wheel together (the origin of the word tire might be something that ties or it could be that a tire is literally the wheel’s attire). We learned that the wheelwright also needed knowledge of the local terrain and how the cart or wagon would be driven. Just as modern tires are made to absorb shocks from bumps and holes, wagon wheels were designed to absorb some of those shocks. This was done by angling the spokes so that they did not point straight out from the hub, thus making the wheel slightly bowl shaped. The angle allowed the wheel to bend slightly and act like a spring. How much “dish” the wheelwright gave the wheel was determined by what he knew of the roads in the area where the wheel would be used and perhaps something of the driving habits of owner. If the wheel would be used much on paved roads, the squeeze of the tire might not be enough to hold the tire to the rest of the wheel and the wheelwright might add bolts to hold it in place.
The blacksmith made us an s-hook with special little angled extensions at the ends. They look like decorative whimsey. They aren’t. S-hooks were often used by women to suspend pots over cooking fires. A fire, a pot heavy with food and a long skirt could spell disaster if the handle of the pot wasn’t caught by the hook as the pot came down. That little outward angled extension made the “target” bigger without making the hook larger or reducing the amount of curvature that kept the pot in place once it was hanging. A tiny detail but a very clever one that kept women from stumbling into fires and setting their skirts aflame. Such a small thing and yet at one time, so important.