EAGLE — Civil discourse has returned to Harmony Town Hall.
The wood-framed structure with a pot-bellied stove, six windows, hardwood floors and stone foundation is where residents between Janesville and Milton gathered more than 140 years ago to vote, hold meetings and debate the issues of the day.
The simple building was constructed in 1876, moved to Old World Wisconsin 100 years later and has served as an example of rural government at the state-owned outdoor museum in this southwestern corner of Waukesha County.
Today at Old World, live chickens roam farmsteads, baseball is played without gloves, heirloom gardens are tended sans power tools and Valentine, a very pregnant milking shorthorn cow, is about to give birth.
But for a few weeks this fall, Harmony Town Hall, located in Old World Wisconsin’s Crossroads Village, will come alive with talk about one of the most polarizing issues of the day: immigration.
The discussions stem from “The Wisconsin Journey,” an interactive and immersive tour designed to help visitors understand the real-life travels of immigrants who came to Wisconsin from Sweden in the 1840s. And although their experiences are generations removed from the tourists who come here carrying cellphones and wearing fanny packs and sneakers, the program that started last fall has resonated with guests.
Their last stop on the 90-minute tour is at the town hall, where visitors sit on wooden benches and talk about the immigrants of the 1800s and reflect on their own heritages with the help of trained tour guides. It’s not uncommon for current events to enter the conversations.
“You don’t have to do anything but turn on the television or open up a newspaper and you’re going to see something about immigration,” said Dan Freas, Old World Wisconsin’s director. “It’s very timely. And people bring that with them.”
Immigrants have always been central to Old World Wisconsin since it was established in 1976. The state historic site is home to more than 60 historic structures that have been moved to the 600-acre property from around the state. They include Norwegian, Finnish, Danish and German farm buildings, Polish, Yankee and Irish homes, a blacksmith shop, general store and St. Peter’s Catholic Church, built in 1839 in Milwaukee on land donated by Solomon Juneau.
The nation’s current political climate has brought a spotlight on immigration, which was central to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign two years ago and continues to be a driver of his administration. The issues include funding for a border wall, eliminating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), banning entry to the U.S. from those coming from certain Muslim-majority nations, and separating children from their parents at the Mexican border.
Wisconsin not immune Wisconsin, where Trump narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, hasn’t been immune from the immigration debate. Over the course of time the state’s demographic makeup has changed drastically, with the additions of large Latino, Hmong, Chinese and Indian populations, among others.
In 1990, Wisconsin was home to 121,147 foreign-born residents. By 2016 that number had more than doubled to 288,544 foreign born residents, about 5 percent of the state’s population, according to data from MPI, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., that studies the movement of people worldwide.
Of the foreign-born residents in Wisconsin in 2016, 38.4 percent were born in Latin American countries while 37 percent were born in Asia, MPI said.
The Wisconsin Journey tour makes stops at two farmsteads, winds up at the Harmony Town Hall and concludes with a debriefing and guided discussion modeled after similar tours at the Tenement Museum in New York City and at museums and sites operated by the National Parks Service.
There have been times in the hall where some guests have opined about what “good” immigration looks like and felt strongly about their family identity, saying that it was the “real Wisconsin, Anglo-European immigrant identity.”
“That was totally a Wisconsin identity but it might not be the Wisconsin identity,” said Anna Altschwager, assistant director of guest experience at Old World Wisconsin and who last week led a group of journalists on the tour. “One of the fantastic things about our Wisconsin identity is that it’s so diverse. There’s so many different cultures that have come to call this place home.”
The tour follows a group of real immigrants — researched by the Wisconsin Historical Society — as they depart Stockholm, Sweden, headed for the Port of New York. Each Old World Wisconsin visitor on the tour is given a sheet with background on a particular immigrant, with updates added as the tour progresses.
And like many of the stories of immigrants trying to come from Mexico or Central America today, hardship hit the Swedes before they reached their destination in 1843. Their trip on a ship named Swea was supposed to take about six weeks but instead took 10 weeks, thanks to lack of winds in the North Atlantic. By the time they reached America, food was spoiled and the fresh water had turned rancid.
But the trip allowed Thure Kumlien, a member of the upper class in Sweden, and his soon-to-be wife, Christina Wallberg, a servant, the chance to convince a group of others on the boat to join them as they explored land along Lake Kohskonong in what is now Jefferson County.
They were joined by Christina’s sister, Sophia Wallberg, who was assigned by her parents to be a chaperone for Christina; Carl Mellberg, a minister; Charles Hammerquist, a farmer; and Charles Reuterskiold, a farmer with a wife and seven children, two of them twins under 1 year old.
“These are not composite, dramatic characters we’ve created for some sexy story,” said Altschwager, who was dressed in period clothing. “These are real people.”
Kumlien, who had a love of birds and ultimately became a renowned taxidermist, had read about Lake Koshkonong and was drawn to the area because of his interest in nature. And it’s Kumlien’s detailed journals, now stored at the Wisconsin Historical Society and at the Hoard Historical Museum in Fort Atkinson, that helped researchers put together the particulars of his travels and life in the Wisconsin Territory just prior to statehood.
Once they arrived in Milwaukee, Kumlien married Christina. The men then spent days walking to Lake Koshkonong to claim land in the town of Busseyville, walked back to Milwaukee, retrieved their families, and then returned to the lake where they began to carve out an existence.
The tour allows Old World guests a chance to get an up-close and personal view of the families, which includes learning intimate details of their lives and opening wooden trunks, cloth bags and baskets to get a glimpse at the few things they would have brought from Sweden. Kumlien’s trunk, for example, held a sewing kit, shirt, a petticoat for Christina, a tin cup and fork and a nature book written in Latin.
Sophia’s processions included a Bible; Hammerquist brought a shirt and the metal head of an axe while the Rueterskiold’s possessions included a few small toys, dried beans, an axe head, shirt, and a petticoat.
“We want everybody’s first experience with history to be about really interesting stories and getting to know people,” said Altschwager, a Columbus native whose ancestors came to the U.S. from Canada in the 1600s. “It’s that one-on-one that’s often missing in history class.”
The tour also presents challenges that guests, playing the role of an immigrant, must navigate. Some involve the death of a child, a lack of work or a need for more help on their farms. An 1847 tax assessment also reveals details of their lives four years after arriving. For Thure and Christina Kumlien, it showed they owned 80 acres, 38 pieces of clothing, 24 pieces of cookware, two oxen, a cow, calf and three pigs. They also had three stuffed birds.
Freas, Old World’s director and who has German heritage, said the tour is another way for the museum to create a deeper experience for its visitors. In the future, more immigrant experiences are likely to be added that reflects life from the 1940s, 1950s and beyond.
“One of the reasons for doing that is to be able to incorporate more recent stories (like) Mexican migrant farm workers that came to Wisconsin, Asian and other immigrant groups,” Freas said.
“Right now we’re very rural oriented and obviously there were a lot of immigrants that settled in cities,” he said. “Being able to kind of expand and think more broadly about these people, whether or not they lived in a rural, farm-like setting versus a town, is part of that.”
“You don’t have to do anything but turn on the television or open up a newspaper and you’re going to see something about immigration. It’s very timely. And people bring that with them.” — Dan Freas, Old World Wisconsin’s director