Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Step Back to the Old World

Author's Note:  I apologize in advance because this post will undoubtedly become one of those long, rambling posts that's filled with wistful looks back on the past.  One of those posts that make you, the Reader, envision a specific topic based on your interpretation of the title, but after reading a paragraph or two, realize that you're in for a whole heady trip through my transgressing consciousness.  No diy tips here.  No pretty images to pin.  No links to other fascinating web pages that will fill the minutes until quitting time.  If you're looking for fluff, click on, my friend. If you're in a quiet, contemplative mood, scroll down memory lane with me.

This past week I visited a living history museum in the southeast corner of the state called Old World Wisconsin.  It was on the list of Summer Must Do's, and I knew the kids and I could squeeze it into the last hectic weeks of vacation.  This was not my first trip to the museum, however.  I had been an employee there for three glorious months, a Summer long ago between high school and college. This was my first trip back since then.

Old World Wisconsin is a collection of more than 60 historic buildings, relocated to the rolling hills of the Kettle Moraine.  Costumed interpreters staff each building and regale the visitors, who take a self-guided tour, on the life and times of the families who built and lived in the buildings.  The heart of the museum offers a typical Yankee village complete with a general store, blacksmith, stagecoach hotel and church.  Visitors can then walk out to the German, Polish, Norwegian, Finnish and Danish farmsteads, each house with something unique to offer, such as livestock, dairy or wool processing.

Just having turned eighteen when I started working at Old World Wisconsin, I yearned for a position in the 1880s Village.  The reason was quite simple: bustle dresses.  The girls who worked in the Village wore voluminous yards of florals and stripes, trimmed with ribbons and pleated ruffles, fitted smooth over the bust and draped over a ridiculous metal cage that swung temptingly off the hips...what vain teenager wouldn't want that?!

I got assigned to the Norwegian farm.

Gone in a puff of smoke were my fanciful daydreams of coquettish flirtations with the young farmers over the backyard fence.  Instead I was sentenced to three months in a faded, shapeless farm dress, complete with head scarf and grey utility apron.  To add further pain to punishment, I had to trudge each morning down the gravel road to the Norwegian area which was located on the outlying reaches of the museum, far from the chattering bustle of the Village.  I remember grumbling to my mother that I didn't even have Norwegian heritage.  A dowdy German farm dress would have at least been tolerable.  This was going to be the longest Summer job of my life.

The Kvaale Farmhouse photo source

The Norwegian farm, originally built by the Kvaale family and depicted as it was in 1865, raised sheep and made a good living selling wool to the U.S. Government during the Civil War.  To highlight that industry, the entire wool process, including shearing, picking, washing, dying, carding, spinning and knitting, is demonstrated on this farm at appropriate times throughout the season.

Back on that fateful day in 1990-something, one high school girl who'd never been within arm's reach of a sheep walked into that farmhouse, her utility apron tied tight, and the cogs in her life started moving, slowly at first, but sure and steady as the Summer progressed, and when she walked away three months later, the lanolin still fresh under her fingernails, she knew that bustle dresses didn't count for squat.

My Summer on the Norwegian farm was better than I had ever imagined.  I met wonderful co-workers, entertained squeamish visitors from Big City Somewhere, ate my own cookstove creations, and coerced numerous school children into hauling water and stacking wood.  Towards the end of Summer, I had even built up a little courage to smile sweetly at a certain young Civil War re-enactor, in spite my frumpy head scarf!  Of course, I am skirting the most important and lasting impression of my time at Old World:  the sheep.  Indeed this is where I learned how to spin, how to knit and how to love the smell of lanolin. 

I am roasting marshmallows in the fireplace of the summer kitchen,
not exactly sanctioned by the employee handbook.

Going back again with my children last week felt like visiting an old friend.  A friend who you can trust will be at the same address to receive your letter even though you haven't been in contact for years.  A friend who never changes the pictures on their walls or rearranges the furniture.  A friend who's house still smells...right.

Even though my daughter sees me spinning all the time, and has in fact treadled the wheel a bit on her own, she was interested in the carding combs and drop spindle that were on display inside the house.  The young gal interpreting that particular day was very gracious and told us the background on the family, house and daily tasks that are involved with wool processing.  While she was spinning up a small length of fleece that my daughter had carded, she said to me, "Funny question for you have a blog?  I think I recognize you, and I really like your skirt."

Admittedly I was a little shocked.  No one, and I can honestly say no one, has ever recognized me from my blog.  I replied, "Yes, the Willow Homestead," and she shook her head excitedly.  I guess traipsing around in a fringed skirt does sort of stick out.  I told her that, yes, I used to work in this house and that's why I raise sheep now, but rethinking the encounter, I fear I was slightly stand-offish and rude.  This conversation took place late in the afternoon, and I had a headache from not drinking enough water.  I completely failed to ask her (and I never properly introduced myself) how she found me or why she follows my blog.  And so Mrs. Kvaale, if you should happen to read this post, I offer my sincerest apologies for not holding up my end of the conversation.  Thank you, most humbly, for reading my blog!  Do you raise sheep, too?  Or spend your evenings spinning and knitting?  I would love for you to leave a comment so we may have a proper conversation.  And by the way, you carried off that farm dress with much more class than I ever did!!

Author's Note:  And so, Reader, that brings us to the end of the waltz down memory lane.  Now please prepare yourself for ramblings of my sub-consciousness.

Later that day I got to thinking about my blog, how I haven't posted anything since early June and how, quite frankly, I was considering shutting it down altogether.  I've seen it happen many times to other bloggers.  At first it's fun, the topics feel fresh, and it's no trouble to photograph, write and interact with readers.  But I've been writing this blog for over four years now, and from season to season, my cyclical, homesteading lifestyle is starting to feel a bit redundant.  The calendar year starts with snow, then planting a garden, then baby chicks, then lambs which leads to shearing, to cutting hay, to harvesting, to canning, to pumpkins and finally to holiday family parties.  Even with the sewing projects and one-time events thrown in, it became painfully obvious that life on the farm is a lesson in endurance.  Moreover, I do not think that I have a very large following nor do I make money from my blog, although neither of those were goals when I first started.  So why am I still spending hours at the computer, putting my life "out there" for complete strangers to peek at?

At this moment I am unsure if I will or won't continue to blog in the same manner I have maintained thus far.  But the significance of meeting one of my readers in the very place that started it all, the place that ultimately lead to the life and story behind this blog, is not lost on me.  And I happened to meet her exactly when I'm standing at this blogging crossroads, so to speak.  I do have more topics and ideas floating around in my head.  Lord knows I have enough photos waiting to be cleaned up and used!  So perhaps, Mrs. Kvaale, you were just the inspiration that I needed, just at the right moment, to jar me out of my blogging doldrums and push me out of my lazy Summer days.  The kids are back in school on September 1st.  This could be the perfect occasion to restructure my days around my own creativity rather than the business hours of the local library and city pool.

In an attempt to bring some sort of closure to these ramblings, I'd like to personally thank all of you who read, comment and follow me on facebook.  All in all, it does make me feel connected to the homesteading, shepherding, vintage-loving community that spans the entire globe.  And it is always heart-warming to see a familiar face pop up in the notifications tab!  Thank you again, and I suspect that you'll be seeing me again before too long!


  1. Oh No please don't stop and yes I know I did but let me say that since I stopped my last two summers have been dull and uninspired and well the rest off the time is too busy to think straight I think you will miss it and I certainly will miss reading what you right.

    1. Thanks Susan. I liked your blog, too, and was sad when it faded away!

  2. Please don't stop , I love seeing your lifestyle the kids growing up , your sheep , the ice , your sewing creations , cooking etc.... You are an insperation to this city Bumkin . Looking forward to many more blogs from Willow Homestead.

    1. Thank you Dar! You've been a long time reader!

  3. Love the story. The Blog. The endurance. The sheep. The sewing creations....

  4. I love reading your blog! I grew up on a farm with sheep, chickens and many other animals. Your posts about them bring back many wonderful memories for me. I also enjoy your vintage sewing-it makes me want to try it.


  5. No, please don't stop! I love reading your blog, especially your sewing and redesign projects. Daily life on the farm is also good reading.
    Greetings from Norway!

  6. i missed you!
    and i know what you mean - life in the railroad house is like a circle too. and i thought its boring. but the need to blog something let me see the the small differences, the little things that are new this year.... to run around with camera helps me enjoying that life i got very used to after 4 years here.
    and the museum - amazing story of you! and you look so cute by the fireplace!!!
    i´m sooooo happy to read from you!!!

  7. I like your blog you are a true inspiration for people who would like to learn about the way some farm wives operate and what is like to live on a farm.

  8. I love your blog! See at one point in my semi-city life I wanted to learn how to spin & no one in town offered lessons or cared. (this was before the internet) so I thought since I lived in Bakersfield Calif & there were lots of sheep people someone had to know about spinning. I looked into fancy sheeps, llamas & alpacas. Anyway I am rambling & live through your pictures & stories! xx and I have you on my facebook.
    Christine in Tucson, Az

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Christine. Learning a craft is certainly different now than it used to be. Everyone just says, "Look it up on youtube!" like it's the easiest thing! But I still prefer a sewing- or spinning-bee full of chatting women.

  9. Please keep up the blog! I grew up on a hobby farm of sorts west of you in Minnesota, with parents who were organic when organic wasn't hip and trendy. I will admit I am far more interested in posts about 50's car shows and sheep than sewing. :) But I miss the Midwest and this blog takes me back.


Thanks for your thoughts! Come back to visit again soon!