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Old World Wisconsin begins cleanup process after tornado

Crews clear debris from Old World Wisconsin in Eagle recently. A June 21 tornado hit the attraction, causing major damage. It's scheduled to reopen this weekend. (Photo courtesy of Friends of Old World Wisconsin)

Crews clear debris from Old World Wisconsin in Eagle recently. A June 21 tornado hit the attraction, causing major damage. It is scheduled to reopen this weekend. (Photo courtesy of Friends of Old World Wisconsin)

The Janesville Gazette

EAGLE, Wis. (AP) – What once was a canopy is now wide-open sky.

The 40-foot pine trees that once lined Old World Wisconsin’s parking lot now lay strewn about the gravel.

As one of the lumber crews carries off cords of downed pine for processing, the group stops its truck beside curator Marty Perkins after surveying other parts of the park.

“It’s amazing the stuff that didn’t get broken here” one worker said. “You know, except your heart.”

Perkins could only agree with a nod and pursed lips.

Perkins, who’s been with Old World Wisconsin since 1976, had been looking forward to the park’s annual Fourth of July festivities. Workers at the historic attraction expected to celebrate with barn dancing, cannon firing, patriotic recitations and the recreation of 19th century Wisconsin life for which they were known.

Then came the tornado. On June 21, the storm moved through portions of the restoration center, wreaked havoc on the visitor’s center and then crossed Highway 67 into the subdivisions of Eagle.

“When we came in Tuesday morning after the tornado hit, we couldn’t even get through the entrance drive,” Perkins said.

The Department of Natural Resources estimated the storm downed 2,500 trees, most of which are still being cleaned up and carried off by DNR-contracted loggers. Crews had planned to thin out the woods, but are now taking away nearly the entire plantation.

All that remained recently was a sole tree next to Ramsey Barn.

Perkins said the parking lot, once clear, will remain bare. Park operators will likely create a new landscaping plan to plant new trees, but will focus on the basics for necessary operation for now.

Miraculously, the historic collections and buildings escaped with only minimal damage. The historic villages had only a few broken windows and missing boards. Perkins noted the Thomas General Store in the Crossroads Village had been hit by a tornado in 1880, when it only lost its chimney. This time, the chimney was only missing a few bricks.

“These buildings were framed to expect this sort of weather, which is probably why they’ve held up so well,” Perkins said.

Not all structures were spared however. The Clausing Barn had the roof of its cupola blown off. The brick walkway leading behind the barn has been partially ripped out of the ground, its metal railing bowed by falling trees. All but one light post in the visitor’s center have been destroyed.

Ramsey Barn, which operates as a gift shop, had severe damage to its roof and is being replaced by Paul Davis restoration. Two modern-day sheds built to supplement park operations were flattened, and only a concrete base remains in each spot. Although one of those sheds housed sheep and pigs, the animals were found huddled together uninjured.

The park is insured for most of the damage, though it still is taking donations through the Old World Wisconsin Foundation for other incidental cleanup costs.

The storm is taking a toll on the 60 to 70 workers employed there as well. Until the museum is reopened, those employees – most seasonal costumed interpreters – are without jobs. Perkins said workers recently came to the park to discuss the plan going forward, including what needs to happen before the attraction reopens.

“For some of them who have long-term attachments to the historical nature of this place, it was an emotional experience,” Perkins said. “It’s just something you never expect to happen.”

The park’s activities haven’t ceased completely, however. Park interpreters were invited to the Waukesha County Museum to demonstrate wool carding and spinning before their Fourth of July festivities. Old World also has taken their vintage baseball team on the road.

“Those are things we would have never been able to do before, because we had a need for all hands on deck here,” Perkins said. “So it’s kind of an interesting outreach.”

Perkins said they expect to have the parking lot cleared sometime soon, and expect to announce a reopening date following that cleanup.

Information from: The Janesville Gazette, http://www.gazetteextra.com

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