Hands-On History

Musee de Venoge plans
second annual Open House

Switzerland County historic cottage
to present traditional cooking and music

By Lela Jane Bradshaw
Contributing Writer

VEVAY, Ind. (May 2012) – Hidden away in southern Indiana, the Venoge Farmstead Cottage stands as a rare example of French Colonial architecture that remains from the Swiss-French settlement of Switzerland County. This circa 1805 building was once in danger of being used as a controlled burn to educate firefighters but thanks to the work of dedicated volunteers the site now serves to give visitors a glimpse of times past.

Charlie Horton

Photo provided

Charlie Horton, a stone
mason from Jefferson County,
Ind., works on the foundation
of the new Bake Oven.

Now listed on the Register of Historic Places the cottage displays the unique building style used by some of the earliest European settlers to the area featuring a post on sill construction that raises the frame of the house off the ground.
Last year, the Musee de Venoge welcomed about 250 guests to an open house to celebrate the culmination of 16 years of renovations. “It was the first time the house had been open to the public, and we’re hoping we get the same response this year,” says Friends of Venoge President Donna Weaver, who organized the event.
This year’s Open House will take place the weekend of May 5-6. On Saturday, events will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The Open House will allow visitors a glimpse into what everyday life in the 1800s would have looked like with cooking, spinning, and sewing demonstrations. Events are free, with donations gratefully accepted.
Weaver encourages families to come out “to see how food used to happen.” She notes that this is good way to show children that cooking years ago was “really very labor intensive.”
Visitors will have the chance to see how butter was churned and ways of venison stew and roasting chicken. The site includes a period garden, and even though it will be too early for many crops, a few things such as radishes are expected to be ready. “We’re hoping to have a lot of fun! We’ve got some good recipes,” Weaver says.
One of the highlights of this year’s gathering will be the building of an outdoor French Bake Oven. John Marsh and Orbin Ash, both of Madison, will be working to build the oven with help from those gathering. Several kids will be getting their feet dirty for a good cause as they stomp clay and straw to form the mixture that will serve as the outer structure for the oven, which Weaver says “will look like a big half basket” when completed.
Once the clay has had time to cure over the summer, Weaver hopes that the open house visitors will return for the Oct. 13-14 Rural Heritage Tour when the oven will see its first public use. While the building process is “not going to be quick and easy” the resulting structure “should last for quite a while” says Weaver. While it is not known whether the Venoge site originally housed such ovens, it would have been typical for houses built in the same style as the cottage to have such an outbuilding where the family’s bread would have been baked.
One of the participants helping to bring the past to life during the open house will be Michael Rennels Thompson. Thompson explains that he is a bit of a “Tom Sawyer” when it comes to his style of demonstration and education. Thompson will start off working at a typical chore that would have been an everyday skill years ago such as spinning, dyeing, or woodworking. The activity quickly catches the attention of children and adults who may never have seen such things done – and want to try them out.
“The skills that I teach go back to before the times of the Romans. I teach things that were common for many years,” he says.
In addition to demonstrating examples of work from the early 1800s, Thompson also brings his talents at entertainment. While he has dedicated 20 years to the study of the early culture of music and dance, he is very quick to encourage those who might not consider themselves musical to join in when he is playing the fiddle. He stresses that back before CDs or radios, people would “play an instrument and not be afraid to sing and dance.”
There was no “perfect recording” for musicians to compare themselves to and the important things were “to move people” and “capture emotions. “People were happy if anybody tried to scratch out a tune on a fiddle,” he said, laughing. Much of the music that Thompson plays is very accessible – in times where few people could read words much less music it was important that songs and tunes be memorable and catchy. For this reason some of the songs he performs will be familiar tunes such as Yankee Doodle Dandy.
“It’s OK to sing along, and don’t tell me that you can’t sing,” he says.
Thompson believes that the open house will encourage a sense of community similar to the barn raisings and gatherings of years past. He describes the power of the cottage to transport people to another era noting how the experience of sitting in front of the kitchen fire will “put people in a contemplative mood. You even start to talk slower.”

• The Venoge Farmstead is one mile north on State Route 129 just west of Vevay. Contact Donna Weaver at (812) 593-5726 for appointments to visit the site or for volunteer opportunities. For more information, please visit http://www.venoge.org.

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