Old World Wisconsin keeps Civil War era on the radar

By Jody L. Mayers - Special to TimeOut

August 7, 2014

TOWN OF EAGLE - Jennifer Van Haaften, associate museum director at Old World Wisconsin said the upcoming Civil War Encounters event running now until Sept. 1 gives guests a chance to see parts of what it was like to be a soldier in camp or to be at home keeping busy, sending items to the front to give their soldier comfort.

“The Civil War affected every United States citizen during the time in some way,” she said. “Over 11 percent of the Wisconsin population was recruited to fight the war.”

The month-long event kicked off Saturday and includes several events centered on the time-era giving spectators an up close and personal looks at the life including a small encampment in the middle of the crossroads village every day, Van Haaften said.

“It will be manned by at least one soldier, who will encourage people to try on uniforms, explore the bedrolls, tents, and equipment in camp,” she said. “We’ll also have dresses for the young ladies to try in the Sanford home and they will get a chance to see and try some of the activities around packing a box to send to the front, including bandages, food, mittens for the coming winter and other items the soldiers needed.”

Old World Wisconsin is providing opportunities for guests to experience what life was like on the home front and in soldiers’ camps during the War Between the States at “Civil War Encounters.” The month-long event runs through Sept. 1.
 Submitted photo

Van Haaften said often when you go to big re-enactments, you usually mostly look and listen, yet at Old World Wisconsin guests are encouraged to touch and try some things.

“We will also have telegraph arms for people to try Morse code with,” she said.

Old World Wisconsin has been around since 1976 and a lot of different events have occurred over the years, Van Haaften said.

“This year we hosted over 100 high wheel and antique bicycle riders from all over the country in conjunction with our new Catch Wheel Fever experience that we opened this year,” she explained. “This experience allows people to ride high wheel tricycles, but also to climb up on a stationary high wheel. It is part of what we offer on a daily basis and will be out here for the coming years. If you’ve never been to Old World Wisconsin, or haven’t been in a while, it is time to check out some of the new things we have on-site.”

Ryan Schwartz, a lead interpreter for Old World Wisconsin said he has been working toward bringing the Civil War back to Old World Wisconsin for some time, so seeing this event come to fruition is immensely satisfying.

“In many ways, ‘Gone for a Soldier’ is an innovative event: It is guided by the fundamental idea that history is best explored through experience,” he said. “It offers Old World Wisconsin’s guests the chance to immerse themselves for a weekend in what is perhaps the most traumatic era in our country’s past. The Civil War left a well-defined mark on the United States, and Wisconsin played a key role in shaping its story.”

Van Haaften said putting the event together is challenging and a lot of work, but the most challenging aspect is finding a group of re-enactors that are as dedicated as the staff is to educate the public.

“This event is meant to be very interactive with the public and we’ve partnered with a group that strongly believes that giving people the chance to be a soldier for 30 minutes or a day, makes a better connection with people. But once you find that group, you have very satisfied guests who have enjoyed the whole experience,” she said.

Schwartz said this era is integral to Wisconsin, because during the 1860s, Wisconsin was still very much on the frontier.  

“We had only been a state for 13 years when the Civil War broke out in 1861, and yet we provided a decisive contribution towards Union victory,” he said. “Of 91,000 men sent to war, 12,000 (13 percent) never returned home. Their sacrifice for the Union was only matched by their families and the state governments at home. The state of Wisconsin independently declared war on the Confederacy, trained troops, and saw to the needs of Wisconsin soldiers at the front.”

Schwartz explained the civilians founded Soldier’s Aid Societies to support and care for the troops and became champions for the development of hospitals and Soldier’s Homes, like the one in Milwaukee.  

“They took Lincoln’s direction to heart when he admonished them to “care for he who hath borne the battle, for his widow and orphan,” he said. “Civil War Encounters and the ‘Gone for a Soldier’ weekend draw all that together, depicting life on the home front throughout the month and the experiences of Wisconsinites at war during the reenactment weekend.”

Van Haaften said if people are interested in attending, she recommends only bringing the technology to take photographs.

“Parents should encourage their kids to do while here,” she said. “In fact, parents can set an example by doing it first themselves. This is true of our Civil War activities and all our other historical activities on the grounds. Adults should not be shy and should ask what they can try out at each store, building, house or farm. Using their hands to do things on-site will make a bigger impact on kids and they will remember their visit more.  And don’t worry about getting them dirty, we have lye soap and water around the site for families to experience as old-fashioned cleaning.”

Van Haaften said unlike traditional museums, Old World Wisconsin tries to have a lot of things that people can see, do, touch and even taste.

“Our setting creates more full immersion and you can really imagine what it was like to live in the past,” she said. “Our buildings are mostly originals from around Wisconsin and they have been restored to look like specific slices of time. There are heritage breed animals that round out the feeling that you are in a village or a farm from sometime in the past.”

The Civil War was a huge turning point in not just the nation’s history, but also in the history of each state, Van Haaften said. Most people may have an ancestor who served in the war.

“Fewer people are interested in re-enacting and telling the Civil War story, so we think it is important to keep this going so that people don’t forget about this immensely important time period in U.S. history.”

For more information, call 262-594-6301 or visit for a schedule of events, directions and ticket information. Old World Wisconsin is located at W372-S9727 Highway 67, Town of Eagle.