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Dirk Hildebrandt, farm manager at Old World Wisconsin, poses next to a recently acquired old wagon that the farm’s Percherons will pull around the grounds, hauling crops and other goods.<br />

Dirk Hildebrandt, farm manager at Old World Wisconsin, poses next to a recently acquired old wagon that the farm’s Percherons will pull around the grounds, hauling crops and other goods.
Photo By Gloria Hafemeister

Farming the old-fashioned way

June 20, 2013 | 0 comments

Most farmers are rushing this time of year, trying to cover as many acres as possible on the days when fields are dry enough to get into them.

Dirk Hildebrandt, manager of the farm at Old World Wisconsin in Eagle is doing just the opposite. He is taking his time, stretching out the process over as many days as possible.

That's because Hildebrandt is not only in the farming business, but he is also an entertainer and educator at a living history museum.

Hildebrandt has worked for Old World Wisconsin for the last 20 seasons as an interpreter and working with the oxen team at the farm.

He began full time duties four years ago following the retirement of the previous farm manager, Bryan Zaeske.

The farm at Old World Wisconsin is about as diversified as they come. There are only about 30 acres of cropland but considering that animals are the power source for operating the small equipment at the farm, the acreage is adequate.

The Jefferson County Draft Horse Association usually helps with the major tillage work each spring, bringing in their animals and equipment for a special demonstration day.

This year, rain prevented them from tilling the first day so the group opted to demonstrate logging with the draft horses and then till the fields on another day.

He says, "The small fields are ideal for horses and smaller equipment."

Old World does have its own draft horses, a pair of Percherons that do everything from planting and logging to pulling fancy carriages for weddings.


Crops at Old World farm are not the typical crops of today and planting and harvesting is coordinated according to visitor schedules as much as possible.

"The land isn't the best," Hildebrandt says. "It is sandy and has a lot of rocks. If it was good for farming it wouldn't have been turned into a museum."

It does well, however, for demonstration purposes. Even the crop failures are an opportunity to educate visitors.

He notes, "We can interpret the failures as well as the successes. Last year, for instance, we had very few apples and we told visitors about how frost hurt the blossoming trees."

One field on the farm is used as a continual demonstration field. It doesn't actually produce anything but serves as a means of demonstrating old-time tillage methods during the growing season.

Hildebrandt and two other Old World employees (two full-time and two half-time) perform daily tasks around the farm. Early in the morning they are able to use ATV's to get around from one mini-farm to another but later in the day they need to use old-time equipment.

He says, "The hardest thing to learn on the job is where everything is located. There are so many different ethnic farmsteads and buildings scattered around the site and each has crops and animals according to what would have been common for that ethnic group during the time period featured."

Dairy cattle, for instance, are Shorthorns. Holsteins came to Wisconsin in the 1880s but never really took off as the breed of choice until the early 1900s.

Mareno sheep are in the 1860s village and are the breed the Yankee farmers would have had during that period.

Oxen live on the German farm because they were likely used by that group in the 1860s.


Research is a collaborative effort between Hildebrandt and other Old World historians.

They determine the crops and livestock that were common during particular time periods and among various ethnic groups. Then they locate the old-time heritage variety seeds and find sources for the old livestock breeds.

Heirloom varieties of vegetables are included in all the gardens around the farmsteads but they also preset a challenge in growing because of diseases.

Today's varieties are more resistant to insect pressure and bred to grow in particular climatic conditions.

The farm includes orchards with varieties common in the 1800s.

There are also gooseberries, raspberries, elderberries, strawberries and currants. These varieties are becoming popular again as people seek fruit that tastes like it did when they were young.

Newer varieties are bred for mechanical harvest and to withstand long-distance shipping.

They plant rye in the German area and harvest the grain and then grind it into flour for the baking that is done in the homes on the site.

Hildebrandt says, "We planted five acres in September and will harvest it, a little each day, during July."

"We slow the haying process so it takes more days and more people can see it," he says.

Livestock are scattered all around the 576-acre site. The farm currently has five horses, two oxen, two cows, nine pigs, several dozen chickens and about 30 sheep.

Hildebrandt says, "We milk one cow each season. We use all the milk on site. The other cow, due to freshen this month, will stay with her calf on pasture."

He adds, "We keep all the heifer calves and ship the bull calves."

All animals stay on sight during the winter months but they are brought together to a central area where they can stay protected from cold, snow and predators.

"A big part of my responsibility here is interpretation - explaining to visitors how things were done in the 1800s and explaining what we are doing," he says.


Hildebrandt holds a degree in history and has a great interest in historic preservation.

He grew up on a historic farm in Dodge County.

The Schulz house, moved from Dodge County to the Old World Site, has a special meaning to the Hildebrandt family.

A highlight at that site at Old World is the well-manicured, geometric garden beds that fill the front yard of the German Schulz farm with vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

His parents still live on the family homestead south of Mayville and he lives nearby in a house that had been the one-room school house where his dad and grandfather went to school.

He comes to work every day in period clothing. His love for history is evident and he says, "The neat thing about this job is that I can actually live it."

For many years he demonstrated how oxen were used on farms. His work with the oxen at Old World led him to purchase his own oxen and work with him on his family's farm.

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