A battle, some bikes and a big top will give people a peek into the past this summer, as the state hopes for a repeat of last year’s increased attendance at its 12 historic sites and museums.
Last year all the sites had at least one positive number in either attendance or earned revenue, said Cheryl Sullivan, administrator of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s division of museums and historic sites.
“Some of it is weather,” Sullivan said, referring to higher attendance after the hot and dry summer of 2012. “By the same token, we really are putting our best minds at trying to develop experiences around our guests. It’s not your old-fashioned walking from one display case to the next. It’s hands-on living history.”
The site that had the highest jump in attendance last year — the Wade House in Sheboygan County — benefited from many things, Sullivan said. A new year-round visitor and learning center and carriage museum opened in June at the site that features a former stagecoach inn. Now visitors get a carriage ride to the inn and have more to do on the site, Sullivan said.
“It’s not simply a tour of an old stagecoach inn,” Sullivan said of the site that had a 53 percent jump in attendance. “That learning and visitors center was a game-changer.”
Immersive experiences are part of what led to growth at Old World Wisconsin, too, with more planned for this summer. Attendance was up 21 percent at the outdoor living history museum of farm life in Eagle, in Waukesha County.
A new exhibit dedicated to bicycles of the past will open at the site on June 14. “Catch Wheel Fever!” will explore the bicycle craze of the 1890s. Visitors will be able to ride replica bicycles and tricycles from the era, as well as tinker in an 1890s bicycle repair shop.
On July 19, the site will host a “Ride with the Wheelmen” event. The national convention of the Wheelmen, a group dedicated to preserving and riding bicycles built before 1918, is in Waukesha this summer and the Old World Wisconsin event gives visitors a rare chance to ride their bikes around the site. Some of the Wheelmen’s bikes include the high-wheel models that exhibit visitors will get a chance to try to climb onto.
“They make it look easy, so it’s pretty wild,” Lisa McGovern, the site’s communications manager, said of the Wheelmen.
McGovern said that along with better weather, she thought the immersion activities that expanded from one weekend to one month last summer helped boost attendance. Both are happening again this summer. “The World of Little House” (June 28-July 31) offers visitors the chance to live like author Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was born in Wisconsin in 1867, and her family. “Civil War Encounters” (Aug. 1-Sept. 1) explores life on the home front and in a reconstructed Army camp.
A true battlefield will be at the center of activities at Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien. It’s the bicentennial of an actual battle that happened in what is now Wisconsin, and many events at the 1870s mansion and its grounds will revolve around that.
On July 17, 1814, a British force attacked the American Fort Shelby, on what is now the grounds of Villa Louis, during the War of 1812. It was a three-day siege that ended with the British in control of the fort, a key site in the fur trade.
The Battle of Prairie du Chien has been re-enacted at Villa Louis in the past, but more events are planned this year. Events July 12-20 will include re-enactments on July 19 and 20. There will also be a period dance, featuring English country dancing and a caller, and archaeological digs that visitors can also take part in.
The last major dig at the site happened in 1997, and had to be cut short because of flooding. Technology has changed considerably since other digs were made, creating hopes for finding a treasure or two.
Dan Joyce, director of the Kenosha Public Museum, will lead the dig. A targeted area is what was once the officers’ outhouses.
“We have found some amazing things in the privies of the Dousman family — some broken teacups, kind of the back story of the family,” said site director Susan Caya-Slussser. “It will be interesting to see what he finds in the privies of the fort.”
A new exhibit at Circus World in Baraboo will also get visitors more involved. “Caught in the Act,” Circus World’s first new major exhibit since the 1980s, will put people in the midst of the circus – from learning about circus music, to experiencing the role of an animal trainer and walking on a simulated high wire. Antique and rare items from the collections will also be on display.
“You’ll get a sampling of all the elements that you’ll get to see live on our grounds,” said executive director Scott O’Donnell.
For the first time since 2005, the daily circus performance will be under a big top tent. It had moved away from a tent for budget reasons, but is returning this summer.
“It’s getting back to your roots,” O’Donnell said. “To sit under a tent 50 feet from the show, it really makes you feel part of it.”
While many activities are geared at children and families, sites also have events and programming geared toward grownups. Those include the Pendarvis Pub Night in Mineral Point on May 31, a “Bottoms Up” book and beer tasting event at Black Point Estate in Lake Geneva on Father’s Day and music and food heritage events at many sites.
In addition, Villa Louis has begun a monthly behind-the-scenes tour of the mansion that has already proved popular, Caya-Slusser said. Visitors can see areas of the home that aren’t on the regular tour and more items from the site’s collections.
“People love the idea of getting behind, as they say in the museum field, the velvet ropes,” Caya-Slusser said.
Residents won’t just have to travel to sites to experience history. A multi-year outreach effort that will bring pieces of the Society’s collections to various communities begins this summer when it travels to Wausau in June.
The tour will travel to Verona in August, and will be at the Verona Public Library.