Floods challenge state historic site resilience

Mary Cary is proof that new careers can take hold late in life. She is 87 and has been working at the Wade House in Greenbush for 28 years.

We discovered her helping dozens of children carve pumpkins – and turnips! – this month during an autumn activities day at the former stagecoach inn, which is one of the state’s 10 designated historic sites.

Elsewhere on the Wade House’s 240 acres, a couple of docile English draft horses – Doc and Duke – were pulling wagons full of visitors. “If you’re a horse person, you can pick up a hoof,” deadpanned driver Don Klemme, an 18-year employee. “But like everything else in life, there’s a trick to it.”

No one took him up on the challenge, although the horses earned numerous pets and pats. They have been Wade House workers for many years, too, and the facility also is a survivor. It opened in 1953 as the state’s second historic site (Villa Louis, Prairie du Chien, opened one year earlier).

For most of the state’s historic attractions, the tourism season ends this month, and it has been a challenging year.

Severe flooding in June “meant three really bad weeks of attendance” for all sites, even though the Circus World Museum in Baraboo was the only one forced to close temporarily. The museum this year had 7.2 percent fewer visitors compared to 2007.

“The misconception was that other sites also were affected,” adds Alicia Goehring of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Attendance at the 10 sites was 8.2 percent lower than in 2007. Only Stonefield, Cassville, and the First Capitol, Belmont, had an increase in visitors. Then came the Wade House, which stayed even.

Pendarvis, Mineral Point, showed the biggest drop, 23.1 percent from 2007.

Post-season events at three locations will supplement revenue. These include Hearthside Dinners at the Wade House from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 1 and 8, Dec. 6, Jan. 17, Feb. 21, March 21 and April 18.

Staff and up to 20 guests use indigenous foods with old-time recipes and cooking methods. They prepare and eat squash soup, pork loin roast, red cabbage with apples, mashed turnips, glazed carrots, cranberry muffins, bread pudding and cider cake.

For reservations, call 920-526-3271. Cost is $45 per person. Private dinners on other dates are possible.

At Villa Louis, guests experience hands-on culinary history lessons during Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen. The 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. event costs $35; call 608-326-2721 for reservations. This season’s last sessions are Nov. 1-2.

At Old World Wisconsin, Eagle, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” Dinner Theater costs $60; call 262-594-6301 for reservations. The last show is Nov. 1, and guests don’t prepare the meal – but they do wander the darkened grounds with a “vampire hunter” after eating.

Expect new events to be introduced at the historic sites in 2009, including at least a couple that will acknowledge the bicentennial of Abe Lincoln’s birth. The comeback of the Great Circus Parade also continues, July 12 in downtown Milwaukee.

Alicia says Pendarvis will present a “Flavor of Wisconsin” food event. The name is the title of a definitive book about the history of Wisconsin cuisine, written (with recipes) by the late Harva Hachten.

An updated and expanded version of this 1981 book (researched and written by Terese Allen of Madison) soon will be published by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The state’s newest historic site, the one-room Reed School, opened in 2007 because of the generosity of Gordon V. Smith of Maryland, who briefly attended this school near Neillsville (Clark County) in 1939.

His family foundation bought the structure, restored it, then donated it to the historical society. “We all have lifetime experiences, with some of the most vivid recollections being those that occurred in the formative grade school years,” Gordon writes.

He described his time at Reed as “an enriching experience,” even though the teacher gave him a personal and “firm lecture on good behavior” while a student there.

“Restoring the Reed School is a means of paying back” for lessons and values taught, he says.

For more about the state’s official historic sites: www.wisconsinhistory.org. Overall attendance through Oct. 12 was about 110,000.

The change in attendance from 2007 to 2008 was:

Stonefield, Cassville, up 4.1 percent; First Capitol, Belmont, up 3.7 percent; Wade House, Greenbush, no change; Reed School, Neillsville, down 2.6 percent; Circus World Museum, Baraboo, down 7.2 percent; Villa Louis, Prairie du Chien, down 8.4 percent; Old World Wisconsin, Eagle, down 9.1 percent; Madeline Island Museum, down 13.7 percent; H.H. Bennett Studio, down 14.5 percent; and Pendarvis, Mineral Point, down 23.1 percent.