New Greenbush museum boosts Wade House visibility

exterior-hillOur family farm was three miles north of Greenbush, population 162, and much of what I grew up with there – a three-room schoolhouse, general store, restaurant and taverns – are long gone.

The biggest draw of what remains, a state historic site, for decades has been hidden from the view of harried travelers. That is thanks to the rerouting of Wisconsin’s Highway 23 in the 1970s, to bypass the community.

Out of sight, out of mind? Attendance at the Wade House and Wesley W. Jung Carriage Museum, like most other historic sites, has been seasonal and stagnant, but now the opening of a 38,000-square-foot visitor center aims to change this.

The building – whose looming frame looks weathered and rustic, artsy yet practical – sits atop the highest point of the property’s 240 acres, facing Highway 23.

You can’t miss it, yet it blends with surroundings.

“It’s in sync with the nature of the neighborhood,” acknowledges David Simmons, the site’s director. “The look and feel is what we wanted, to be sympathetic to the rural landscape” of farms and forests.

Vertical sheathing mimicks the look of 19th century barns, and the structure’s tower resembles a grain elevator. Instead of setting a GPS to find Greenbush, now Percheron horses take you there.

The animals are hitched to wagons and slowly transport visitors one-half mile – past heirloom apple orchards, through woods, over the Mullet River and to the 27-room, three-story Wade House. Tourists also can stroll this meandering limestone path or nearby boardwalk trail.

The 1850 Wade House, a once-popular stagecoach stop, was the midway point of rest between Fond du Lac and Sheboygan at a time when 40 miles of challenging forests and hills separated the two cities. Greenbush was a welcome and attractive respite, which tour guides have explained for 60 years.

Now we have new ways to feel what it was like to live during the era. At the entrance of the new Visitor Center, designed by Milwaukee’s Uihlein Wilson Architects, is a replica stagecoach to sit in. It sways with the bumps and thumps of the plank road beneath it.

David refers to the stagecoach as a “wow feature” that “speaks to the stories we tell.” Other interactive elements teach how to tie knots, tether horses, haul logs and more. We eavesdrop on conversations about chicken fricasse and marble games. We ponder how the arrival of railroad tracks will affect Greenbush and study a wall-sized enlargement of a 1913 postcard of local residents.

The carriage museum has doubled in size, so 75 percent of the collection can be displayed at once. That includes a “chemical fire wagon” of the late 1800s, which fought flames with a mix of vinegar and baking soda. About one-half of the museum’s vehicles were manufactured by the former Jung Carriage Company in Sheboygan.

Commissioned reproductions of a covered wagon and wooden omnibus with steel wheels soon will arrive for horses to pull. Although the Wade House remains a seasonal attraction, the Visitor Center will stay open all year.

A small restaurant, elevated deck and multipurpose rooms enhance the new site’s attractiveness for corporate events, neighborhood gatherings, barn dances and wedding receptions. On the menu are farmstead ice cream to beer and wine.

“We have very high hopes and very realistic expectations of attendance growth,” says David, who previously worked at Old Sturbridge Village, the nation’s largest living history museum.

“We can envision and plan a more focused curriculum that goes beyond social studies” for students on field trips.

The project is on track to be the state’s first historic site to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification at the silver level. The ecologically progressive design includes fieldstone from a nearby quarry and a geothermal heating system with five wells, each 300 feet deep and linked together.

Fundraising for this $12.1 million building project began with $6 million in donations from the Jung and Kohler families. The building’s grand opening is June 8, which marks the 60-year anniversary of the Wade House’s original dedication as a historic site.

The Wade House Visitor Center and Wesley W. Jung Carriage Museum, W7965 Hwy. 23, Greenbush, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (11 a.m. on Sundays). Admission is $11 ($5.50 for ages 5-17, free for ages younger than 5). For more: http://wadehouse.wisconsinhistory.org, 920-526-3271.

Upcoming events include an 1860s Dairy Day on June 8, where visitors help make cheese, butter and ice cream. Oldtime baseball is played at 1:30 p.m. June 16, July 21 and Aug. 11.

Visitors learn to make ginger beer on July 20, an open-hearth breakfast on July 21 and jams/jellies on Aug. 10.

Next up is rejuvenation of the Butternut House, at the historic site, to better explain domestic life in the 1850s. The grounds already are home to Java chickens (the second-oldest U.S. breed) and Cotswold-Merino sheep; eventually a barn and cow may be added.