Interview with Kathleen Ernst
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write "Settler’s Year?”
My friend and former colleague, Marty Perkins, had written the proposal shortly before he passed away. He was excited about the book, and I had the honor of stepping in to make sure it became a reality.
I was also thrilled with the opportunity to help create a book featuring Loyd Heath’s gorgeous photographs. Exploring Old World Wisconsin is a sensory experience, and Loyd manages to capture not just the sights, but suggestions of smell and sound and touch. Many of his images also convey a mood—sometimes sweet, sometimes poignant. It was great fun to pair the early immigrants’ words and experiences with Loyd’s photographs.
Finally, since moving to Wisconsin in 1982, and going to work at Old World Wisconsin, I have been fascinated by the broad topic of immigration. I have returned to the topic in scripts written for public television, in poetry, in my Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries. Writing A Settler’s Year allowed me to delve into a topic very dear to my heart.
WHS Press: What was Marty’s role at Old World Wisconsin?
Marty started working at Old World in 1974. He began on the restoration crew, helping to dismantle, move, and reconstruct some of the historic structures. He was a respected scholar who guided the historic site’s development for 37 years; he was also a consummate storyteller, at home with any audience. For most of his career he served as curator of research and interpretation. Marty chose to dedicate his professional life to the site he’d helped plan, develop, and interpret. No one knew more about Wisconsin’s ethnic history and architecture than he did. He is sorely missed, but his legacy lives on.
WHS Press: Was there one image/story in particular that speaks to you and/or captures your experience at Old World Wisconsin?
May I share two? First, one of my favorite photographs shows Marcia Carmichael, Old World’s Historic Gardens Coordinator (and author of Putting Down Roots: Gardening Insights from Wisconsin’s Early Settlers), walking away from the camera through a glorious field of lupines, with the Sanford Farm in the background. It conveys a sense of making a home within the Wisconsin landscape, and reminds viewers that although life in 19th-century Wisconsin contained many challenges, it held pleasures too.
Another favorite shows a woman walking down the Schulz Farm drive on a misty autumn day. The photo captures the profound change from the hectic pace of summer harvest to the slower, quieter winter months.
WHS Press: What do you want your readers to learn from this book?
I hope readers come away from A Settler’s Year with a heartfelt respect for those who made the momentous decision to immigrate to Wisconsin from Europe or the East Coast. It’s difficult for us today to truly imagine how much courage and strength those women, men, and children needed to embark on the journey and create a home in a new place.
WHS Press: What do you hope readers take away from "Settler’s Year?”
The experiences recounted within the pages have personal relevance for almost everyone, and I’d be delighted if the book serves as a springboard for exploring, documenting, or discussing readers’ family, ethnic, or community stories.
WHS Press: What do you find most fascinating about Old World Wisconsin; why have you used it as a setting for other books?
The historians who envisioned Old World Wisconsin in the 1970s had incredible vision, and wisely created the historic site on 576 sprawling acres within the Kettle Moraine State Forest. They also managed to save some spectacular examples of vernacular architecture. Curators, interpreters, farmers, and gardeners continue to create new programs that bring each restored building to life. Visitors today can stand in a farmwife’s restored kitchen and look out the window to see garden, field, and prairie or forest beyond. The environment makes wandering through the site an especially evocative experience, and the lack of modern intrusions is a rare gift that I hope will always be preserved.
I chose to create the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, featuring an Old World curator, in large part to help bring attention to the site, and introduce it to a broader audience. While Chloe does visit other sites and museums as the series progresses—allowing me to shine a little lamplight on other special historic places—I plan to keep her rooted at Old World Wisconsin.
And in broad terms, the stories told at Old World Wisconsin often have resonance in other projects. For example, the latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, Death on the Prairie, features historic sites and museums devoted to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilder’s famous Little House books are all about moving on, searching for a home, and the conflict between restlessness and becoming rooted. Those issues mirror perfectly the ideas explored in A Settler’s Year, and the themes Old World interpreters explore with visitors.
WHS Press: How can this book serve as a guide to Old World Wisconsin?
I think it beautifully reflects the size and scope of the historic site, and conveys the diversity found among the restored structures there. Loyd’s photographs will let armchair travelers "experience” Old World Wisconsin within the pages.
A Settler’s Year will also provide a poignant glimpse of the early immigrants depicted at the site. We took care to include many brief excerpts from original diaries, letters, and reminiscences, allowing the early arrivals to take a main role in telling their own stories within the pages.
WHS Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned from writing this book?
Some of the most powerful stories reflected settler’s first winter in Wisconsin. Although I helped develop Old World’s Christmas programming, we had few opportunities to interpret the winter season. For people who arrived in the fall, exhausted and penniless, the first winter could be brutal. However, there are also wonderful stories of people welcoming strangers into their homes, of caring for neighbors, of finding ways to have some fun even in bleak conditions.
WHS Press: What are the ways in which "Settler’s Year” is a uniquely Wisconsin story? In what ways does it tell a Midwestern or national story?
Just as Old World Wisconsin has collected, moved, and restored only structures found within the state borders, I only included the words and memories of Wisconsinites in A Settler’s Year. However, the experiences conveyed certainly tell a broader Midwestern story.
And at the book’s core is the overarching theme of children, women, and men in search of a new home.
WHS Press: Were there any photos not featured in the book that you wish you could have included?
Too many to count! Loyd’s database contains over four thousand images, and I made many difficult choices.
WHS Press: How was writing this book a personal experience?
I visited Old World Wisconsin for the first time in 1981, and although the site was new and much less developed, I knew at once that I wanted to work there. I moved to Wisconsin from the east coast the following spring and spent twelve seasons at the site. Writing this book allowed me to revisit a very special time.
WHS Press: What is your favorite season from the book?
Autumn—perhaps because I especially loved autumn when I worked at Old World Wisconsin. The seasonal cycle at the historic site echoes the agricultural cycle. After the hectic rush to open the site each spring, and a busy summer season, autumn’s cooler temperatures and changing leaves signaled a slower pace, with more time for reflection. Some of my favorite memories from my days on site include rainy autumn days spent baking in a cozy farm kitchen.
WHS Press: What’s next for you?
I’m looking forward to meeting readers at libraries, bookstores, and historic sites in the coming months. I hope some of them will share immigration stories from their own family.
I’m also working on my next Chloe Ellefson mystery, and on a collection of poetry about the immigrant experience.