Wisconsin sisters visit 11 state historic sites in 10 days, with surprises along the way

Sisters Haley Dolata, left, and Julia Silvers pose in front of a stagecoach at Wade House in Greenbush during a Wisconsin history road trip.

On Memorial Day weekend 2022, Julia Silvers and her sister, Haley Dolata, kicked off their summer with a trip to the Madeline Island museum in La Pointe.

As they relaxed over a drink, Silvers — who had just purchased a Wisconsin Historical Society membership — brought up the idea of visiting all 12 Wisconsin historic museums and sites in one summer.

Dolata, 29, was on board, but then the 27-year-old Silvers — who, along with her husband, runs a Wisconsin travel blog (thatwisconsincouple.com) — upped the ante. What if they visited all the sites in one epic road trip?

Dolata was still game, so the sisters started planning their Wisconsin history road trip — 11 historical sites in 10 days (The 12th site, the history museum in Madison, is closed until the new center is built in 2026).

Silvers contacted the Wisconsin Historical Society with her plan, and they put her in touch with the historic site directors to arrange tours and meetings to accommodate the sisters’ itinerary. And since she would be blogging about the road trip, she also secured partnerships and sponsorships with hotels, visitor centers and — because this is Wisconsin — Kwik Trip.

The Journal Sentinel caught up with Silvers, who grew up in Mukwonago and now lives in Baraboo, shortly after the sisters returned from their journey on Sept. 1. Here’s what she said about the experience, including what she learned, what surprised her, and her advice for those who want to replicate the trip.

What was the itinerary for your trip?

Day 1: Circus World Museum in Baraboo, followed by H.H. Bennett Studio and Museum in Wisconsin Dells

Day 2: Black Point Estate & Gardens in Lake Geneva, followed by an evening at Old World Wisconsin’s Flashback Adult Field Trip

Day 3: Old World Wisconsin in Eagle

Day 4: Wade House in Greenbush, followed by Reed School in Neillsville

Day 5: Madeline Island Museum in La Pointe

Day 6: Rest day

Day 7: Drive to Prairie du Chien

Day 8: Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien

Day 9:Stonefield in Cassville, followed by First Capitol in Belmont

Day 10: Pendarvis in Mineral Point

Haley Dolata, pictured, enjoys a drink with her sister, Julia Silvers, at the Old World Wisconsin Brewhouse in Eagle during a Wisconsin history road trip.

Had you been to any of the sites before?

Old World Wisconsin is definitely a favorite of ours because we grew up in Mukwonago. I think I went four times last year, and Haley went three times; it’s definitely a go-to for us.

But Old World Wisconsin is different than the other sites since it’s kind of a place that has a collection of a lot of different historic buildings. … The other places are more like you’re stepping back into a very specific period of time in a place where something specific took place.

There were several sites we hadn’t been to before so we didn’t know what to expect, but we knew the time periods we were going into ahead of time so we were excited.

Did you learn anything that surprised you about Wisconsin’s historic sites?

Something that took us both by good surprise is that there is all this ongoing, active research still going on to learn new things about the sites and to add new stories that weren’t included before.

Like on Madeline Island, there’s a historic marker that they’re changing because it only talks about the French settlers who arrived there. But the site director explained that the sign didn’t talk about the people who were already there when the settlers arrived. So they’re working with the Ojibwe people to correct that. At First Capitol, too, they’re making changes to the markers. It’s good to see that historians are still working to uncover these stories.

It was also really interesting to learn about how these stories are discovered and how the historical sites are preserved. Like part of the story of Pendarvis is about these two gentlemen who preserved a lot of these 1850s buildings back in the 1930s before people knew a lot about how to preserve historic buildings. They were learning as they went, and now we’re learning from them.

As a person who grew up in Wisconsin, what did you learn that you hadn’t learned in school?

There was a lot about Wisconsin’s native history that I learned. Like I don’t think we really learned in school the ways that people didn’t think twice about the land they were taking and who lived on it before. For example, Villa Louis is built on a burial mound. I live close to Devil’s Lake, and there are signs telling people to stay off the mounds, but the people who built Villa Louis didn’t think twice about building their house there because it was the tallest part of the island.

Also, we learned at First Capitol that enslaved people lived in Wisconsin. We don’t really think about that in our history because we think Wisconsin didn’t enslave people, but some people moved here with enslaved people, and those families impacted history as well.

And the buildings at Pendarvis were saved by a gay couple. One of the people in my tour asked how they had been treated in the 1930s as a gay couple, and the tour guide said we don’t have a lot of documentation about how they felt. I was glad the tour guide was OK saying when we don’t know the answers to things.

I like that they’re telling stories like these at the historic sites rather than turning their heads blindly or burying those hard questions under the rug.

Haley Dolata gets a tintype photo at the H.H. Bennett Studio in Wisconsin Dells during a Wisconsin history road trip with her sister, Julia Sivers.

Is a trip like this something you would recommend for everyone, or specific groups of people?

I honestly think this type of trip is for everybody. Everyone has something to learn about Wisconsin’s history, and you can walk through every site and be impressed no matter what age you are.

I think you’re interested in different things at different points in your life. All these sites have demonstrations that are great for kids, like baking and canning and preserving at Old World Wisconsin and a blacksmith demonstration at Wade House. You can also see a saw mill in action there. And at H.H. Bennett studio, you can get your photo developed on a plate.

I also learned a lot that was relatable to me at my age. Like at Villa Louis, it was interesting to learn about expectations of women and how the clothes they wore and their hairstyles told other people about their age and status. It was also interesting how many stories of different historic places we know because women were the ones to document that history. Even though they didn’t have a lot of say at that time, they found the way to preserve that history.

Haley Dolata, left, and Julia Silvers pose in front of a painting at Wisconsin historical site Pendarvis in Mineral Point during a Wisconsin history road trip.

Do you have any interesting anecdotes from your travels?

I appreciated my sister’s personality and enthusiasm on the trip. She decided to dress in a different outfit for every site, and if we were going to two sites in one day, she would have an outfit change in the middle of the day.

We were at Circus World and it was 100 degrees outside and she was wearing a long-sleeved ringmaster shirt with yoga pants. The next day at Black Point Estate, she wore a black high-neck dress. I love that she was committed to the bit.

Would you recommend your history road trip to other Wisconsinites?

I would not recommend somebody do this trip the way we did, in 10 days, for a few reasons. Some sites are only open on the weekends so the only reason we got to see them was because they opened special for us. Also, weekends are better days to go in general because there’s a lot more going on during those times like events and historic demonstrations and hands-on activities.

We also would have enjoyed more time at some of the sites we went to. On our longest day, we woke up in Port Washington, drove to Greenbush, then to Neilsville, then ended the night in Bayfield. We literally drove a crazy amount in that day, and we would have loved to spend more time at Wade House (in Greenbush), but we felt rushed to get to the next thing.

However, if people decided to do the trip like we originally planned, like see all the sites in a summer, or even break up the trip into two Thursdays through Sundays, then you’re in for a really good time.

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