The past is always present

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Lynn Greene | September 17, 2017

TOWN OF EAGLE -- If your grandparents lived and grew up in Walworth County, it's a good bet your ancestors would feel right at home at Old World Wisconsin, the outdoor living history museum located just south of Eagle.

Do you have German, English, Irish, Swedish, Danish or Norwegian heritage? Old World has separate “villages” representing the traditions of these ethnic groups who settled in the state. The housing and daily life of these settlers in 19th-century Wisconsin gives today's visitors a sense of their past.

The buildings at Old World come from near and far, but they all represent Wisconsin's past. Harmony Town Hall, built in 1876 in Rock County, was moved to Old World in 1976. It is part of the Yankee Village. The Sanford House, so named for the family that built it, also is located in the Yankee Village. Built in 1858 in the town of LaGrange, its original location would today be a skip and a jump away by car, yesteryear it would have been a four-hour drive with a team of horses.

Sue (Duerst) Earle grew up in the Sanford house. A family story recounts a first date with her future husband: “You know where I live, right?” she asked.

Sure he did, but when he got there, he found it empty and uninhabited; the Duersts had built a new house with modern conveniences just down the road. The home's uncertain fate was all too typical of outdated buildings. No longer habitable, they fell down, were razed or donated to a fire department for practice burns.

Fortunately, members of the Sanford family saw the empty house and approached the owners to inquire if they would donate the house to what was then the very beginnings of Old World. They did and now the Sanford and Duerst families and all of their relatives can visit the house at the museum, along with anyone else interested in the history of Wisconsin.

The museum opened with 10 buildings, including the Sanford House. Today there are more than 60 structures, representing different ethic groups. From the start, the museum enjoyed international interest. The queen of Denmark, Margrethe II, was on hand to dedicate the Danish exhibit on May 14, 1976. The museum officially opened at a time when U.S. citizens were particularly vulnerable to digressions of the past. The dedication ceremony was held June 30, 1976, just in time for the United States Bicentennial celebration.

According to genealogist Mary Evans, the anniversary of this country's birth sparked a renewed interest in the past and one's ancestors. This included people interested in re-enactment groups, genealogical research and membership in groups like DAR, Daughters of the American Revolution. The group has 3,000 chapters across the United States. Along with the Sons of the American Revolution, DAR works to preserve the legacy of the Revolutionary War patriots who made it happen.

Evans became a member of DAR after working on her family's genealogy.

“It was like a big puzzle, with more pieces added all the time,” she said. “Fortunately, I lived out East for a time and had access to a lot of the records I needed to prove my connection to a Revolutionary soldier.”

Applicants to DAR or SAR need to submit copies of original documents, including birth and death certificates, marriage certificates and supporting evidence such as census records and probate records. It can be challenging, but there are people, like Evans, who can help.

“Usually this means you have to trace your ancestors back to those years (1775 to 1783),” Evans said. “Once you find an ancestor that was alive during those years, you have a good chance of finding the connection you need.”

The research is a lot easier to do now, with more documents being digitized all the time. There are vital records and census records available online and through websites such as, a subscription-based service, or, a free service managed by the Church of Latter Day Saints.

Local genealogy groups and historical societies are available to help as well.

The Walworth County Genealogical Society maintains a staffed library in the Mary Bray Room of Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn. Martha Hay and Christine Brooks are co-presidents of the group.

Hay said she loves helping people discover their past.

“Most people want to know where they come from and if those family stories they heard growing up are true,” Hay said.

Today, renewed interest in genealogy is spurred on by TV shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots.” Advertising from DNA testing sites also encourages people to discover more about themselves. Sites like 23andMe offer tests that provide health and ancestry information.

Hay and Evans agreed there are pragmatic reasons to do family research. Evans said your history is full of records that can pinpoint health issues even before you go the route of having a DNA test done.

“Every family has a story,” Hay said. “Death records can indicate a health history that might be important to you. If you see that your grandfather and great-grandfather and great uncle all died of a heart attack, you pretty much know that runs in your family and it's something you should watch out for.”

Most genealogy research, though, is based on a natural curiosity of finding out who we are in a larger scheme of things. Hay recalled a particular instance of this when she was able to help.

"We had an older gentleman come in for help,” she said. “His older sisters had all passed away and because his mother had died when he was quite young, 5 years old, he didn't have any information about her.”

The gentleman had no idea how to go about finding anything about his mother, but the Walworth County genealogists were able to help him.

“We found his mother's obituary and from there her family,” Hay said. “He was like 'Wow, I have all this family I didn't know about.'

“It was one of the best days we've had around here.”





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