Marcia C. Carmichael is the historical gardener at the 576-acre Old World Wisconsin, the largest of the Wisconsin Historical Society's living history museums, where she exercises her passion for historical accuracy and enjoys the research as much as the design, creation, and nurturing of the museum's heritage gardens. She supervises and works alongside a dedicated group of historical garden volunteers to create period-appropriate gardens and appreciates all aspects of heirloom plants, from propagation to harvest and from folklore to fact.Author Q&A
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write "Putting Down Roots?"
Marcia Carmichael: Writing "Putting Down Roots" gave me the opportunity to share a wealth of information about the plants and gardens grown by early settlers in the Upper Midwest, based on extensive research of original 19th and early 20th century sources, including material collected by Old World Wisconsin staff over the last 35 years. By focusing on the garden and food traditions of different immigrant populations, I was able to showcase the rich ethnic diversity of early Wisconsin settlers.
WHS Press: Since you work with historical gardens at Old World Wisconsin, how was writing "Putting Down Roots" a personal experience?
MC: The opportunity to pursue extensive research has brought me an even greater appreciation for the strengths, challenges, and triumphs of early settlers. I feel a close connection to and continuity with people of previous generations who dreamed, planned, planted, nurtured, and harvested their gardens. At Old World Wisconsin, I strive to create gardens with which the original settlers would be comfortable and pleased. I feel a special warmth for the women who brought precious plants as remembrances from their homeland, and generously passed them on, allowing others to enjoy them.
WHS Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned about the different gardening techniques of Wisconsin's immigrants?
MC: I have been surprised by how little gardening advice has changed through the years. Gardeners of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries could easily converse with each other, commiserate over the universal challenges of weather, weeds, and pests, and rejoice in each other's successes.
And gardeners have always found the creativity to design whatever tool or device is needed to accomplish the task at hand.
WHS Press: How is this book unique to Wisconsin? Why is it important to know the history of gardening in Wisconsin?
MC: "Putting Down Roots" examines the contents of 19th and early 20th century Wisconsin gardens, as well as the implements and printed resources commonly used by the state’s residents. The book also provides a sampling of typical period-appropriate recipes, highlighting various ethnic groups. Photographs of re-created gardens planted and maintained at Old World Wisconsin are evidence that gardens can exist despite the climatic challenges of the Upper Midwest!
Gardens provided sustenance as well as beauty for early Wisconsin settlers. Food, medicine, insect repellents, dyes for coloring, sweet fragrances – so many of life's essentials depended on harvests from the garden. With the current interest in treating the environment gently, gardening organically, and eating locally grown food, many people are looking back to the gardening practices of previous generations.
WHS Press: What is your favorite recipe from the book?
MC: The recipes included in "Putting Down Roots" were chosen to highlight garden produce that may be as easily grown in and harvested from today's gardens as it was more than 100 years ago. Great satisfaction may be found in growing and using heirloom varieties when preparing recipes of our ancestors. I enjoy the unusual, and am pleased to share historical recipes for pickling radish pods and for soothing coughs. I’m partial to desserts, so I also searched 19th century recipe collections for sweets to include in the book.
WHS Press: What do you hope readers take away from "Putting Down Roots?"
MC: I hope readers will take pride in their own ethnic heritage and perhaps become interested in looking to their own roots. I hope they find inspiration to create their own gardens and possibly include at least a few old fashioned plants. If we continue the tradition of sharing treasured plants, cut bouquets, recipes, family memories – whatever we value – with others, we will experience the joys of generations.