An update at the Milwaukee County Zoo turned out to be a look back, and the heroes are members of a stalwart group of rural historians.
Pondering the approach to the Family Farm exhibit, Zoo curators saw a lot of asphalt and lawn grass – not much to suggest what was inside, and not very friendly to the environment.
They had an inspiration, one that could solve both those problems and add something that's been missing from the main exhibit itself: The story of the history of family farming in Wisconsin in the materials and equipment of the times.
"When you're driving in the country, you'll sometimes see an old piece of farm equipment sitting out in a field," said deputy zoo director Bruce Beehler. "It seems to want to tell a story."
By replacing asphalt with brick and stone, lawn grass with a pasture strewn with straw and the implements of a bygone day, the Zoo could tell that story, and at the same time reduce stormwater runoff and lawn maintenance.
Northwestern Mutual, the principal sponsor of the Family Farm, agreed to fund the restoration, which would include interpretive signage as well as the landscaping.
But then there was the matter of finding the farm equipment that fit the vision – pieces not just old but deeply old, from a time when horsepower would have been a literal term. What was wanted was a reminder that once a man or woman walked behind a plow, sat a hard metal seat on a hay mower, holding the reins to a huffing brace of workhorses.
These are museum pieces today, replaced long since by mechanized equipment. Horsedrawn implements are antiques now, and they're not a dime a dozen. So the Zoological Society of Milwaukee went into action to try to find donors.
First stop in their search was the Richfield Historical Society, which operates a historic site that includes an old grist mill and a pioneer homestead on 29 acres.
It was the only stop needed.
"We donated every piece," said Lois Hessenauer of the Richfield group. "We have a barn with a lot in it that's becoming a museum, but there was a lot just sitting outside. And we thought, 'What a wonderful place for it that would be.'
"So we were happy to donate it and know how many people will see it now."
A lot indeed. The Zoo drew 1.3 million visitors in 2011 – probably a few more than the Richfield Historical Park.
The new exhibit opened to the public Friday after a ribbon-cutting Thursday evening featuring dignitaries from Northwestern Mutual, the Zoo and the Zoological Society – and special guests, the generous members of the Richfield Historical Society.