A wealth of history is to be appreciated in the Kenosha Area. Five museums, two historical mansions open to the public, four National Register Historic Districts, and an authentic Electric Streetcar system are among many historic treasures found here in Southeast Wisconsin. And then there are those places, those experiences where history literally comes alive.
Historical characters from the Civil War era come to life as part of the Civil War Museum Theatre Program. The Theatre Program adds a personal connection to the exhibits, which focus on the people of the Upper Middle West. Professional actors and actresses portray each of the authentic historical characters, who share their stories in live performances. The characters include Cordelia Harvey, Ida B. Wells, William Herndon, and Caroline Quarlls. Harvey Elementary School in Kenosha is named after Cordelia Harvey. At her program, you learn about the former First Lady of Wisconsin’s efforts on behalf of Wisconsin soldiers and veterans for better medical and hospital care. William Herndon shares stories about his law partner Abraham Lincoln. Born a slave in 1862, Ida B. Wells began her civil rights activist career after refusing to leave a first-class ladies' train car in Memphis. Here, you meet her as she continues her activist work in 1893 Chicago. Caroline Quarlls was an escaped slave who won freedom through passage on the Underground Railroad. Much of her journey was through southeast Wisconsin. Quarlls later wrote letters to her Underground Railroad "conductor" expressing her gratitude for safe passage and documenting her new life in Canada. These letters are on display at the Civil War Museum. Performances are held throughout the year, including at the Museum's special events such as Salute to Freedom in June. Also, groups can book a presentation at the Museum, or a presentation can be taken off-site to schools, libraries, civic groups, and the like. Theatre Program presentations are funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin.
The 16th Century lives on at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, open for nine weekends each summer. The Faire is set within the framework of the summer day in 1574 when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth visited the English hamlet of Bristol. You'll find games, rides, arts, crafts, food, music, and clothing fit for the time period. You are even welcome to come dressed in 16th Century attire. And be sure to come prepared to have memorable encounters with a colorful cast of characters. The 30-acre village is filled with 1,200 inhabitants, including noble knights, strolling minstrels, swashbuckling swordsmen, mud beggars, rope-walkers, jesters, jugglers, and comedians. Fun facts: Bristol's Queen Elizabeth is probably the best-dressed performer on the Renaissance Faire circuit. She has six exquisitely detailed gowns from which to choose. The Queen “knights” around 1,280 children every season. First year performers are required to complete 45 hours of classes in the Bristol Academy of Performing Arts prior to the start of the season. This is certainly a one-of-a-kind destination for proposals, weddings, parties, scout trips, and more! In fact, more than 100 couples have been married at the Faire in its more than 20 years of existence. Dozens of pre-arranged proposals take place each summer.
The Pike River Rendezvous has become an August tradition in the Kenosha Area. What better way to spend a summer weekend than beside Lake Michigan, with a tomahawk in hand, the scent of wild game cooking over a wood fire, wafting through the air, and the lonesome call of the Native American flute droning in the distance? Here, you leave your car and the present-day behind at Kennedy Park and let yourself be transported back to another time and place at Simmons Island Park. A time when there were no cell phones, satellite tv,Wii,Wi-Fi, GPS, or microwaves. This is the time period when Native Americans and fur traders gathered to exchange goods and services and to celebrate! More than 200 re-enactors encamp on Simmons Island for this event. You'll walk among tents, tipis, and wigwams and talk with re-enactors about what life was like at a rendezvous and during the fur-trading era. You'll see jugglers, blacksmiths, and merchants - men, women, and children. Typical activities for attendees to participate in include tomahawk throwing, primitive archery, fire starting contests, and children's games. Music, food, games, and activities abound throughout the weekend. Admission is free! Historic side note: Simmons Island, once known as Washington Island, hosted two separate occupations by the Potawatomi peoples. In fact, the name Kenosha is a variation of the name Kenozia (meaning “pike”) given by the Potawatomi.
Kenosha County history is not only preserved, but it too is brought to life, thanks to the continued efforts of the Kenosha History Center, home of the Kenosha County Historical Society. Area students are given the chance to experience “A Day in a One-Room Schoolhouse”. In the Yesteryear Gallery of the museum, a one-room school is among the early Kenosha scenes on display. Many local students have been able to do more than just look at that scene; they have actually been part of a one-room schoolhouse re-enactment. Two schoolhouses, one built in 1906 and one in 1847, can be found today at Hawthorn Hollow Nature Sanctuary & Arboretum. Both were at one time used nearby as the Pike River School. The Historical Society, in conjunction with Hawthorn Hollow and funded by the Elizabeth J. Riley Charitable Trust of Kenosha, makes it possible for Kenosha County third grade classes to use the 1906 Pike River School. The program takes students through a reenactment of a typical 1906 school day. The program provides a school teacher, dressed in period costume, who guides the students through a reading class using McGuffey's Reader, an arithmetic class using lap slates, a penmanship lesson using dip pens and bottle ink, a 1906 social studies class and an old-fashioned spelling bee. Recess consists of a nature walk through the woods and old-fashioned field games. Students and classroom teachers are encouraged to come dressed in period costume as well.
The Kenosha History Center also holds a free Green Ridge Cemetery History Walk each October in honor of Cemetery Preservation Week. Here, you meet characters from Kenosha's past as re-enactors in period dress tell the stories of those whose final resting place is Green Ridge. Each year's walk revolves around a different theme, such as important figures from the Civil War time period, from the archives of maritime history, or from Kenosha’s Industrial boom. The Kenosha Area - a place where history is both celebrated and brought to life!