Friday, March 25, 2005

Learning is fun, except when it's depressing

As I've mentioned, I am an editor and teacher at the Simpson Street Free Press, a nonprofit teaching newspaper for teens. For my main gig there, I take kids to museums and historical sites and then help them write feature articles about what they have seen.

My readers from Wausau may be interested to know that last weekend I took a group to the Marathon County Historical Society, which operates a museum and a house tour in a neighborhood of stately old homes in downtown Wausau. We first viewed the Yawkey house, a mansion built by a logging magnate in 1901. Much of the house is in disrepair, but a handful of rooms on the ground floor are exquisitely preserved, including a study with an oak theme: oak paneling, murals of oak forests, acorns carved into the mantelpiece. In the basement is, oddly enough, a massive electric train set made to resemble a timber railroad.

Across the street from the Yawkey house is the historical society proper, which is in a mansion that also once belonged to the Yawkey family, and later to a Baptist church. I have learned that touring historical societies in Wisconsin towns can be hit or miss, but I'm happy to report that the Marathon County Historical Society is very much a hit. Some historical societies show local artifacts willy nilly, without much organizing or explaining, but staffers at this one plan exhibits around interesting themes and carefully document everything they display. This year's exhibit is about the history of leisure in Marathon County and features a generous section on the county fair, known formally as the Wisconsin Valley Fair. (I have a soft spot for the Wisconsin Valley Fair, because I saw a transforming George Jones performance at it a couple of years ago.)

But the real treat came when the curator gave us a special tour of the archives, which are in the large sanctuary the Baptists added to the house in the 1950s. The room is full of shelves stacked floor to ceiling with farm implements, logging tools, baby carriages, clothes, toys and other donated items from Marathon County's past. It's a marvelous collection, and I could have spent the day looking at it all.

It was getting late, though, so we drove to our hotel in Stevens Point. The next morning we visited the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame, on the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point's Schmeeckle Reserve. It's a nice facility with a small museum exhibit and, then, the hall of fame itself, whose inductees include John Muir and Gaylord Nelson, the Wisconsin senator who created Earth Day. The place made me a little sad: I looked at old photographs of Wisconsin's lush forests, now gone, and I couldn't stop thinking about the opulent Yawkey house, a timber baron's monument to himself and, implicitly, to the plunder of old-growth forests. With an oak-themed study, no less.

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