BY AMANDA N. WEGNER
Mother Nature works in mysterious ways — which now includes a reimagining of the guest experience at Old World Wisconsin.
Since 1976, Old World Wisconsin has brought the history and characters of Wisconsin’s early years to life. The largest outdoor museum of rural life in the United States, Old World Wisconsin is a hands-on exploration of Wisconsin’s ancestors and how they lived between the 1840s and 1920s. With 60 meticulously restored historic structures on more than 600 acres of rolling landscape in Eagle, just 35 minutes north of Lake Geneva, Old World Wisconsin is an authentic showcase of our past that offers something for all ages.
But even old times are a-changin’. In June 2010, explains site director Dan Freas, a tornado barnstormed Old World Wisconsin’s front entrance, ripping out 2,500 Norway pines and causing some damage to buildings in the process. At the time, museum staff had been considering changes to the site’s master plan, but the tornado changed the game, and now Old World Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Historical Foundation are engaged in an ambitious multi-phase fundraising project called the New Arrivals campaign. The funds raised will support projects to reconfigure the site’s entrance, expand meeting spaces and amenities, add a Brewing Experience building and beer garden, and complete restoration of its latest building acquisition, a historic tavern.
“So many people know Old World Wisconsin and recall going to the site with their families or on a school field trip,” says Julie Lussier, executive director, Wisconsin Historical Foundation. “Reimagining the guest entry experience breathes new life into the site, and in particular with the Brewing Experience, allows us to expand the story we are telling about Wisconsin history. It will give people more reason to visit the site, stay awhile and return often!”
A BREWING STORY IN PROGRESS
Fundraising for the New Arrivals campaign at Old World Wisconsin started quietly in 2015, explains Lussier, and encompasses three phases. To date, over $2 million has been secured, allowing the society and museum to start construction of phase one, the Brewing Experience building.
The Brewing Experience building is part of an effort to fill an important gap in Old World Wisconsin’s story — the importance of brewing in the state, says Freas. The entire beer and brewing life cycle from growing to making to enjoying will be covered.
The story starts near an existing timber-framed, mid-19th-century German immigrant farmhouse. To introduce brewing as an extension of farming, a garden featuring heirloom hops and barley, key ingredients in the brewing process, will be added near the farmhouse as part of the final landscaping plan.
With the sights and smells of the garden in mind, the second stop is the Brewing Experience building, which is currently under construction. The Brewing Experience building features two large masonry fireplaces that volunteer brewers will use to brew small batches of historically inspired beer, some will include ingredients grown on-site. The beer will be available for guests to purchase. With a large bar area and gathering space, the building will also offer brewing demonstrations, workshops, tastings and other activities.
“The plan is to do some sort of brewing activity every day we’re open,” says Freas. Some days that will include working with volunteers from Milwaukee’s Museum of Beer and Brewing to make historic brews and showcase various cultural brewing traditions.
Next in the chronology is a celebration of Wisconsin’s tavern culture, which comes in two parts: a new outdoor beer garden and more notably, Wittnebel’s Tavern, the first historic structure to be relocated to Old World in 25 years.
Wittnebel’s will soon make the trip to Eagle from Old Ashippun, near Oconomowoc. Founded in 1906 and operated until 1987 by two generations of the Wittnebel family, this two-story building will be placed on a new foundation at Old World Wisconsin and lovingly restored.
“It is intended to be a functioning tavern,” says Freas. “We’ll be providing samples in the brewhouse, but the actual serving of beer — and root beer — will take place in tavern. It will be a fully immersive experience, like stepping back to the 1930s when Prohibition ended.”
A 1930’s beer delivery truck parked outside, backed up to the tavern’s cellar doors, is anticipated to be a popular place for photos. Given that Old World Wisconsin’s current interpretive history ends around 1920, the addition of the Wittnebel Tavern “brings what we offer closer to present day and within memory of some guests,” says Freas.
The final component, a new beer garden will serve as an extension of the historic but small space of Wittnebel’s Tavern as well as the Brewing Experience.
Construction of the Brewing Experience will be completed later this season, but it will not open to the public until the 2022 season. Lead donors for the Brewing Experience include Bob Kern of Waukesha and the Cleary-Kumm Foundation of La Crosse, along with other generous families and foundations around Wisconsin.
Wittnebel’s Tavern was moved to Old World Wisconsin in May and placed on its new foundation. However, additional funding is needed for its restoration as well as the building of the beer garden.
“Over the next year,” says Lussier, “we need to secure at least $2.5 million in order to complete the Brewing Experience with the restoration of the historic Wittnebel’s Tavern and creation of a beer garden. We have been so grateful to receive such generous support for this project, but need help spreading the word so we can successfully raise the remaining amount … we want to secure funds quickly so we can complete the Brewing Experience and share it with guests as soon as possible!”
Phase two fundraising is currently underway. See information below for details on how to contribute to the campaign.
A NEW WELCOME
Once the funding for phase two is secured, the Foundation and Old World Wisconsin will set their sights on fundraising for phase three, which includes amenities that welcome guests and set them up for their visit to Old World Wisconsin. “When Mother Nature decided we needed to move the front step of Old World Wisconsin,” says Freas, referring to the 2010 tornado, “we brought in a firm to help us decide our path. That includes an entirely new entrance plaza.”
The new complex features two buildings connected by an open-air plaza. One building includes a retail store, ticket windows with day planning services and staff offices. There will also be a new bank of restroom facilities.
Phase three also includes improvements to help Old World Wisconsin become more self-sustaining through the addition of meeting spaces and amenities to support special events and private events such as weddings and corporate events. For instance, the signature 1890’s Clausing Barn will be renovated to create space for larger groups and expand food and beverage capabilities. The Ramsey Barn, which currently houses ticketing and a small retail shop, will be repurposed into space for educational programs, special events and private functions with support facilities.
“We have so many great things planned for Old World,” says Freas. “This is truly a reimagining, and we can’t wait to move these projects forward and experience them with you. And the public’s support of the New Arrivals campaign, big or small, will help make that happen!”
The summer season at Old World Wisconsin will start June 16. On Wednesdays, the site will be open for small-group guided tours; Thursday through Saturday, the entire site will be open for self-exploration. For more information, including this season’s events, public health protocols and ticket information, visit oldworldwisconsin.wisconsinhistory.org.
SUPPORT NEW ARRIVALS
Old World Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Historical Foundation couldn’t create wonderful experiences without the support of individuals, families, foundations and organizations.
Contributions of any amount can be made online at support. wisconsinhistory.org/newarrivals.
There are also opportunities to make an impact with your gift through naming and sponsorship; connect with Julie Lussier, Wisconsin Historical Foundation executive director at 608-261- 9587 or [email protected].
to explore the possibilities. “Your commitment will help us make unforgettable experiences for years to come!” says Lussier.