Walworth County history part of children’s museum

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Monday, January 11, 2010
— Once upon a time in Troy Township the Faistel family dug, chopped and carved out a place in the world.

They cut oak logs and stacked them on a foundation of granite and other local stones. They filled the wide spaces between the logs with a mix of clay and horse hair or straw.

The 16-by-20-foot cabin was stuffed with a family bed, a dining table and tools.

It also was filled with the Faistels themselves. The little, 1830s German-style log cabin was home to two adults and six children.

The Faistels took pride in their home and almost immediately prepped the outside of the cabin for siding, which would have been more fashionable than plain logs.

The original siding, if it ever was installed, didn’t last.

But the foundation and the logs did. Historians describe them as part of the oldest structure in Walworth County and one of the oldest in the state.

Rebuilding history

You have to use your imagination a little to picture the Faistels’ cabin as it was in the 1830s.

While it has been professionally restored, the cabin also has a brand-new fire sprinkler system and utility lighting. Construction whistles scream and cars zoom by the cabin’s new home in the parking lot of the Madison Childrens Museum, 100 N. Hamilton St.

But rest assured, museum staff members have enlisted the best imaginations possible to help bring the cabin back to life.

As the museum moves toward its planned August opening, staff members are working with Madison Metropolitan School District third-graders to fill the cabin with historically accurate tools and furniture.

The team is re-working history a little. They’re pretending the cabin that was built in far eastern Walworth County was built on Madison’s isthmus.

“Kids are telling us what needs to be in here and how we tell the story of Madison’s first days as a community,” said John Robinson, the museum’s senior exhibit developer and manager.

It was Robinson who told the Gazette what the Faistels’ home probably looked like. The family did prep the outside of the cabin for siding almost as soon as they built it, he said.

Nature Conservancy workers discovered the cabin inside the interior drywall of a house they were demolishing as part of a restoration project.

The cabin’s style fits the early days of Madison, Robinson said. Families at the time would have moved to the area so the man of the house could get construction jobs at the state Capitol and other then-new buildings, Robinson said. Small cabins with lofts such as the one from Troy Township would have housed a family and as many construction workers as could fit, Robinson said.

Robinson has been supervising as the third-graders research the history of the period. The kids will choose materials to fill the cabin and think of ways to present the information without using museum signs to clutter the small cabin, he said.

Robinson has been a stickler for accuracy. For example, one student came in with a pile of research about tools for peeling and coring apples. He sent the student back to find out whether a Madison family in the late 1830s actually would have apple trees.

Apples are not native to North America, and it might take several years to get fruit from a newly planted tree, Robinson said.

Another student lamented having to research the not-so-glamorous cabbage, he said.

But a German family of the time “absolutely” would have grown cabbage in the kitchen garden, Robinson said.

A group of adults probably could have thought of 80 percent of the things third-graders would find interesting as they study Wisconsin history, Robinson said.

But the students really have honed in on a few things of which adults might not have thought, he said.

The kids have been particularly interested in creating historically accurate toilet facilities and including appropriate weapons in the cabin, Robinson said. They also have been interested in studying cross-cultural influences between European and Scandinavian settlers and the native Ho-Chunk people, Robinson said.

“That last 20 percent is magic,” he said.

About the museum

In August, the Madison Childrens Museum will open in its new—and permanent—location at 100 N. Hamilton Ave. near the Capitol Loop in downtown Madison.

Renovation currently is underway in the building that was originally a Montgomery-Ward department store. Construction will wrap up this month, and museum staff will spend six months moving and building exhibits, Executive Director Ruth Shelly said.

The museum was founded in 1980. In 1991, it moved to a bigger location on State Street, Shelly said.

This third location is the first one the museum has owned, and it has room to grow, she said.

“To be in a permanent space that we own and with room to expand is truly a dream come true,” Shelly said.

When the museum opens in August, the first two floors and the rooftop will be open for business. In future years, the museum will expand onto more floors.

Some of the features visitors can expect in August:

-- A “global village” with climbers and play areas designed to look like homes from around the world.

-- An art room with projects that will change monthly, windows you can really paint and giant “refrigerator” doors for displaying art.

-- Water play and the museum’s popular shadow room.

-- Window displays in the original Montgomery-Ward windows.

-- A free concourse area with a café that’s open to the public.

-- Age-appropriate spaces for infants as well as kids up to age 12.

-- A rooftop garden with trees, vegetables and chickens.

Last updated: 12:42 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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