'Breadbasket' exhibit digs into Rock County's food, culture

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Thursday, June 13, 2013

JANESVILLE--In the past, Rock County Historical Society exhibits have been interesting but tame. Designed for people who were used to the "standing and looking" model of museum going, they provided a certain amount of intellectual pleasure.

The historical society's new exhibit, "Breadbasket: Seed to Spoon," is a new breed. Engaging, enlightening and interactive, the exhibit explores Rock County's role in the food chain in several different ways.

The show, which officially opens Saturday, draws from all four corners of the county. It touches on farming, farm- and food-related manufacturing and businesses, restaurant memories, recipes, soil science and even table manners used in the 19th century at the Tallman House.

Note to spouse: The rule to never explain at the dinner table why certain foods do not agree with you still holds true.

Michael Reuter said when he was hired last July as the historical society's executive director, he was charged with creating programs that would reach a larger audience, both in attendance numbers and demographics.

That's what he's trying to do here.

The exhibit even has a presence on Facebook, where a different food question is posted each day. Wednesday's question: Which bakeries have the best peanut butter cookies?

Food is woven into the county's history in many ways, and it has always been a cultural conversation-starter.

For example, mention the dearth of independent restaurants in Janesville, and you'll likely end up in a discussion about the city's culture, what residents are willing to pay for a meal and the search for the diner's trifecta: service, food quality and atmosphere. Part of the exhibit silently pays tribute to this debate with menus and advertisements from independent restaurants of the past.

Did you know that you once could buy sandwiches on a riverboat that churned through Janesville?

Another part of the exhibit looks at food and health. Rock County ranks at the bottom of the state in terms of resident health. One of measures used for the ranking? The number of fast-food restaurants the county supports.

The exhibit also finds new ways to engage people on an old topic: the strength of Rock County's crop and animal agriculture.

The museum took its Samson tractor out of storage and, instead of putting it behind ropes, is allowing visitors to sit on it and take photos. Put your hind end on that metal tractor for 30 seconds, and you'll have a good sense of the physical toll of farming on the body.

Another wall of the exhibit features interactive question-and-answer panels on farming. Test your knowledge and see what category you fall into: milkmaid, hired hand, skilled farmer or master cultivator.

A peddler's cart full of baskets of "food" features facts about farmers markets, organics and natural foods.

The Milwaukee Public Zoo also loaned the historical society its interactive touch-screen featuring a dairy cow quiz. Note to self: Cows have one stomach, not four.

MacFarlane Pheasant Farm, Larson Acres, Arndt Farms, Kerry Ingredients and Blue Farm, which produces blue corn tortilla chips, are just a few of the local agribusinesses highlighted.

Throughout the year, Reuter plans to have a calendar of activities that bring people not just to the exhibit, but also to the Tallman House, the historical Italianate mansion where Abraham Lincoln slept in 1859.

Saturday's Father's Day Eve Fun Dash, for example, will offer locally sourced food, activities for all ages and a variety of other tie-ins to the "Breadbasket" exhibit.

Runners will be given beards and hats, and the event is being billed as the "largest collection of Lincolns north of Springfield, Ill."

Other activities

The Rock County Historical Society has other activities going on this weekend besides the opening of "Breadbasket: Seed to Spoon."

The inaugural Lincoln-Tallman Father's Day Eve Fun Dash runs from 3-7 p.m. Saturday, June 15, at the Lincoln-Tallman Restorations on North Jackson Street. The run-complete with Lincoln beards and top hats-starts at 3:30 p.m. Other highlights include butter and ice cream making, a live cow and calf display, folk music by Fox & Branch, a toddler trot and a feast of local food and beer.

Early run registration is $20 adults, $15 for children younger than 18. Same-day registration is $25 adults, $20 children. Visit rchs.us/lth5k.

Last updated: 11:12 am Friday, June 14, 2013

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