Lifting weights hasn’t prepared me for a hand-crank eggbeater. When the translucent whites for my Wisconsin cake finally whip into a foamy mass, I look over at the omelet crew battling two dozen eggs. How did our great-grandmothers do this?
I’m finding out at Villa Louis, a historic mansion in the Mississippi River town of Prairie du Chien. Held a few times each year, Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen invites visitors inside the life of the Dousman family—or rather, their servants—to prepare a meal using the tools and recipes of the time. Working in teams, we make the cake, fried bacon and peppers, Mississippi catfish, rice waffles with strawberry-rhubarb sauce, and omelets. My partner and I brave a cast-iron woodstove. (It looks like a dream compared to the steamy preserves kitchen!) Thankfully, the costumed staff steps in to help when we need it.
By 10 o’clock we join the other teams at communal tables decked with jars of fresh-picked flowers. Surveying the feast, I have a new appreciation for my ancestors—and my electric mixer. Reservations are required; the $40 fee includes a tour of the estate. (608) 326-2721; villalouis.wisconsinhistory.org
More fun history
1820 Benjamin Stephenson House One of the founding fathers of Illinois lived at this newly restored site northeast of St. Louis in Edwardsville, Illinois. Visitors explore the house freely, touching toys, books and cookware. (618) 692-1818; stephensonhouse.org
Fort Abraham Lincoln In Mandan, North Dakota, costumed guides lead lively in-character tours of the reconstructed prairie home of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. (701) 667-6340; parkrec.nd.gov
Historic Forestville An 1800s town survives as a historic site southeast of Minneapolis, where you can lend a hand in the garden. (507) 765-2785; www.mnhs.org
Zoar People live in this former communal village in northwest Ohio, but costumed guides lead tours of many buildings. You’ll find B&Bs in the cobbler shop and cider mill. (800) 262-6195; ohiohistory.org