American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2015      FAMILY FUN

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Hands-On History

by Deborah Kent Stein

Old World Wisconsin
W. 372 S. 9727 Hwy 67
P.O. Box 69
Eagle, WI 53119
Contact: (262) 594-6301
Open May 31-October 31 (check for hours)

A docent lets children help her in the garden.A pair of sheep shears is a lot heavier than you might expect. When you clip the wool, you have to hold the shears straight and very steady. Maybe the sheep will cooperate and stand still--or maybe not. And you have to catch the snippets of wool and drop them into your sack before they scatter in the wind.

How do I know anything about shearing a sheep? I didn't grow up on a farm, and I've never spent any time hanging around with shepherds. The explanation is simple. I tried my hand at shearing a very patient old ewe one afternoon at Old World Wisconsin.

Sprawling over more than five hundred acres of fields, woodlands, and gardens, Old World Wisconsin is the world's largest museum dedicated to rural life. It opened in 1976 after decades of careful planning and meticulous research. Teams of historians combed the state to find buildings that demonstrated the development of farming and crafts while also representing Wisconsin's ethnic diversity. Each of the sixty structures on the museum grounds today was disassembled, transported from its original site, and painstakingly reconstructed. Today visitors to Old World Wisconsin can explore the German Village, the Norwegian Village, the Welsh Village, and the African-American Village, among others. There is a working farm, a garden with heirloom herbs and flowers, and a nineteenth-century schoolhouse. There is even a bicycle shop where a visitor can mount a bike from the 1890s, its seat more than five feet above the ground.

In nearly every house, store, or workshop, costumed docents assume the roles of real people from the past. When visitors step into a house or cabin, a docent may be busy making soap, baking bread, stuffing sausages, or carding wool. In his workshop the wheelwright fashions the rim of a cart wheel, and at the smithy the blacksmith stokes his roaring fire and bends a bar of iron into a horseshoe.

Not only do the docents provide verbal explanations of the work they are doing. They also invite visitors to handle the tools of their trades. In many cases, as with the sheep shearing, visitors are encouraged to help out.

Old World Wisconsin is a place that will appeal to people of all ages. Furthermore, with its highly interactive, hands-on approach, it is fully accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. No special arrangements need to be made weeks in advance; no permission for tactile exploration has to be secured. Blind visitors can experience Old World Wisconsin as freely and fully as everyone else.

Living history museums large and small can be found across the United States, from Maine to Hawaii, from Florida to Alaska. Like Old World Wisconsin, most of these museums adhere to a hands-on approach as they present material to the public. The following list is a small selection of the living history museums you and your family may want to explore. Have fun!


Alaska Native Heritage Center
Anchorage, AK

Colonial Williamsburg
Williamsburg, VA

Empire Mine State Historic Park
Grass Valley, CA

Erie Canal Village
Rome, NY

Greenfield Village
Dearborn, MI

Kona Coffee Living History Farm
Kona District, HI

Lincoln's New Salem
Menard County, IL

Maine Forest and Logging Museum
Bradley, ME

Mystic Seaport
Mystic, CT

Old Sturbridge Village
Sturbridge, MA

Panhandle Pioneer Settlement Living History Museum
Blountstown, FL

Pioneer Living History Village
Phoenix, AZ

Plimoth Plantation
Plymouth, MA

This Is the Place Heritage Park
Salt Lake City, UT

Vermilionville Cajun and Creole Folk Life Park
Lafayette, LA

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