When Bea Jacobson goes to work in the morning, she doesn't have to dress up or down -- just way back, to the clothes her forebears wore in the late 1800s. Her outfit includes a chemise, drawers, corset, long cotton stockings, petticoats, a bustle, all that before slipping on a simple, long red- or green-pinstriped dress. Jacobson's job: She's an interpreter at Old World Wisconsin, a living-history museum in Kettle Moraine State Forest southwest of Milwaukee.
And if you think life was simpler back then, think again. It's a job just to put on all those clothes, and that's before she gets to work.For those in search of the past, living-history museums come in various scopes and sizes -- one of the largest and best known in this country is Colonial Williamsburg, the restored 18th Century Virginia capital where decisions ultimately defined our nation. But other, less famous museums are within easy striking distance of Chicago, places where you can lose yourself for a day, be fascinated, be educated, be inspired; where you can dine, picnic, hike, bike and enjoy a host of special events such as concerts, craft fairs and old-fashioned baseball games. You can even stay overnight.
* Old World Wisconsin -- Located in Eagle, about 100 miles from downtown Chicago, the outdoor museum is operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The collection of some 65 authentic buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s were relocated from across the state to this 600-acre site. Fanning out from Crossroads Village, abuzz with a working blacksmith shop, shoemaker and general store, are five settlements, each with buildings constructed by Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, German and African-American families who settled the state.
Period-dressed farmers raise heirloom vegetables, flowers and herbs on small farms as well as heritage breeds of sheep, pigs, chickens, horses and oxen. Interpreters such as Jacobson demonstrate how settlers made soap, sheered sheep, plowed fields, braided rugs and made pies. A treat for kids: the Eagle Diamonds Base Ball (that's how it was spelled in the 1860s) team, whose players wear wool uniforms no matter the weather, don't wear cleats and don't use mitts.
Open daily 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until June 14, then 10 to 5 p.m. and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission: Adults $16, students/seniors $14, children (5-17) $9, family rate $43 (up to two adults and two or more dependent children 5-17). 262-594-6301, oldworldwisconsin.org
*Greenfield Village -- Part of the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich., the complex, established in 1929, is akin to the Smithsonian in Washington. Greenfield Village and its 83 historic structures include famous homes and buildings acquired and moved there by automotive pioneer Henry Ford. Among them are the homes of Noah Webster, William McGuffey, Robert Frost, George Washington Carver, Stephen Foster, Luther Burbank, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers' bicycle shop and home, Thomas Edison's Menlo Park lab and the Logan County (Ill.) courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law. Laid out like a New England village, Greenfield Village covers 90 acres -- the whole spread is 240 acres -- and reveals how several centuries of Americans lived and toiled.
Greenfield Village, 275 miles east of Chicago, is open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Adults $22, seniors $21, youths 8-12 $16, and children younger than 5 free. 800-835-5237, thehenryford.org
*Conner Prairie -- This Smithsonian affiliate is in Fishers, Ind., 6 miles northeast of Indianapolis, 190 miles southeast of Chicago. This 200-acre spread with a 19th Century flavor contains Liberty Corner, an 1886 Victorian rural farm community where you can visit the Zimmerman home and farm and do chores; Prairietown, a re-created 1836 village with a school, an inn, a general store, a blacksmith shop; and the 1816 Lenape Indian camp, with a working trading post and two wigwams, occupying a bluff above the White River. New in June: An 1859 Balloon Voyage, which allows you to soar to 350 feet in a 10-story tethered, helium balloon for $15.
Conner Prairie hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: Adults $12, seniors $11, and youths (ages 2-12) $8. 800-966-1836. Check connerprairie.org prior to visiting because prices change though out the year.
*Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill -- The largest restored Shaker community in America sits on nearly 3,000 acres of bucolic Kentucky farmland 25 miles southwest of Lexington, 375 miles southeast of Chicago. In the 19th Century, Shakers were the country's largest and best known communal society. You can stroll the tree-shaded grounds, take a wagon ride, tour the elegantly simple buildings, attend lectures about Shaker life, watch crafters at work, even stay overnight at the 73-room inn. Three shops sell handmade items, including Shaker furniture, candles and remarkably efficient brooms.
Open daily 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Oct. 31. Admission: In season $15 for ages 13 and older, $5 for ages 6-12. Out of season $7 for ages 13 and older, $2.50 for ages 6-12. 800-734-5611, shakervillageky.org
*Living History Farms -- This open-air museum tells the story of 300 years of Iowa farming history through three well-tended farms covering 550 acres -- the 1700 Ioway Indian farm, the 1850 Pioneer farm and the 1900 Horse-Powered farm. Located in Urbandale, near Des Moines, 340 miles west of Chicago, Living History Farms also includes an 1875 town that re-creates a working frontier community with craftsmen and merchants in 18 shops and homes along the town's main street.
Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 22, and then Wednesday through Sunday Aug. 25 through Oct. 15. Admission: Adults $11.50, seniors (50 and older) $10.50 and children (4-12) $7. 515-278-5286, lhf.org
*New Salem State Historic Site -- Lincoln's New Salem, 20 miles northwest of Springfield and 206 miles southwest of Chicago, is especially worth noting this year, the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. New Salem, where Lincoln worked as a young man, is a re-creation of an 1830s log village, with 23 historically furnished buildings constructed in the 1930s and 1940s. Included are a one-room schoolhouse, homes, stores, tradesmen's shops, barns, Rutledge Tavern and a sawmill and gristmill.
New Salem is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sept. 15. Admission: Free but with a suggested donation of $4 for adults, $2 for children or $10 for a family. 217-632-4000, lincolnsnewsalem.com
For other living history museums, check out www.outdoorhistory.org.