“There is a ‘culture of the dinner table’ that goes back to our country’s roots,” Doug explains. “Today we’re seeing kids who don’t understand the concept of passing a dish around the table. Taking food for yourself and leaving enough for others is not something they’re used to. Compare sharing a meal together with the fast-food experience that’s the norm for many kids and you have a microcosm of what’s happening in our culture,” he says.
For more than 35 years, Folklore Village has worked to preserve and strengthen our country’s diverse culture by shining a spotlight on folklife learning-what Doug defines as “the things we learn by watching, listening and copying the people around us. It’s important,” he continues, “because it defines how we play and celebrate, the foods we eat, the jokes and stories we share, our craft and work skills, our dances and songs, and the values and beliefs we pass on. It’s often all but invisible under the tidal wave of mass marketing and commercialism.”
Folklore Village aims to help people discover and appreciate their own heritage and traditions and those of others. How? Simply by having fun, says Doug. “When people have fun, they get the best part of what we offer.”
The strategy seems to work, judging by the more than ten thousand people per year-thousands of them children-who show up for the candlelight potluck suppers, barn and folk dances, retreats, cooking demonstrations, crafts classes, holiday and seasonal festivals, concerts with music ranging from Cajun to Slovenian polkas to Ojibwa flutes, and myriad other activities-more than one hundred per year all together. Around 90 percent of the events feature live music and almost always include a mix of kids, seniors and adults. Local hotels and musicians also benefit from the steady flow of visitors.
While Folklore Village programs highlight Wisconsin’s rural traditions, they also showcase craftspeople and artists from around the world. Art, food, dancing and music speak a universal language that people everywhere can understand.
The idea for Folklore Village came from its founder and guiding spirit, Jane Farwell. Since the 1870s, Farwell’s family had lived on the farm that makes up the present-day site. Young Jane grew up there in the 1920s and ’30s, surrounded by the rural and cultural traditions of her Iowa County home. It wasn’t unusual for neighbors to roll back the rug, bring out the fiddle and enjoy an impromptu dance.
But as she got older, Jane noticed that some of the traditions she loved as a girl were being lost to the industrialization that was overtaking agriculture. She went away to Antioch College and in 1938 graduated with honors with a degree in rural recreation leadership. Not long afterward, she decided to put her efforts into preserving and spreading the rural traditions she loved. She became a renowned folk dance teacher, gaining a national reputation, and even toured as a U.S. cultural ambassador to Japan in the 1950s.
In 1967, Farwell bought an abandoned one-room schoolhouse near her farm and, with the help of friends and neighbors, fixed it up for performances. Thus, Folklore Village was born. In the 1980s, Farwell Hall, an airy, barn-red structure with hardwood floors, colorful murals, large windows, a kitchen and space for cultural exhibits was built. It’s where most of Folklore Village’s gatherings and events are held today. In 1993, Folklore Village added more space by purchasing and restoring an 1882 church and moving it to the property.
Doug came to Folklore Village in 1991. He worked alongside Jane to create high-quality programs and extend Folklore Village’s community and outreach efforts until her death in 1993. Since then, Doug has continued to build on Folklore Village’s reputation, adding environmental stewardship to its goals in 2002 with a 40-acre on-site prairie restoration. In a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the project is restoring native plants and revitalizing the area as habitat for grassland birds. When it’s completed, school children and members of the local community can experience firsthand the prairie ecosystem and its importance for wildlife.
In 2002, Folklore Village embarked on another significant task-the restoration of the 1848 Aslak Olsen Lie house. Lie was a master craftsman, carpenter, cabinetmaker, blacksmith and community leader who lived in Norway and immigrated to the United States.
Once listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 40-by-17-foot log house had fallen into a state of disrepair. To preserve it for future generations, the home’s owners donated it to Folklore Village. It was disassembled piece by piece and moved to the farm where it will be restored and serve as a place where people can appreciate Lie’s artistry and his Norwegian culture.
In 2003, Folklore Village won the Governor’s Award in Support of the Arts, sponsored by the Wisconsin Energy Corporation of Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Foundation for the Arts. Many local and state businesses, along with private individuals, provide financial support.
Over the years, Folklore Village has faced its share of challenges. Like most nonprofit organizations, it relies heavily on volunteers. “There’s a decline in the volunteer time available-especially in a rural area,” Doug says. And good leadership can sometimes be hard to find. “The best leadership is when people don’t know there’s a leader,” Doug believes. In fact, he thinks that a place like Folklore Village could be replicated elsewhere if it had good leadership. The key, he believes, is to find a location where people feel respected and nurtured.
Doug likes to talk about the invisible threads that connect us to people and traditions in our past. “There’s an old fiddler’s tune called ‘Soldier’s Joy’ that goes back to the Revolutionary War,'” he says. “That song has been passed along from person to person to person. We’re not just learners-we’re also teachers for future generations.”