- Associated Press - Saturday, August 16, 2014

ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) - Leah Nelson loves to spend her summer looking back - way back into the late 1800s.

Nelson is one of the rotating band of re-enactors you’ll find on weekends at Midway Village and Museum Center’s Victorian Village from March into October.

Nelson’s weekly occupation is coordinator for community outreach for Rockford University. She has spent many of her weekends for the past seven years at the Victorian Village, giving tours, demonstrating handiwork or just telling stories while strolling the grounds in late 1800s-style dresses.

“I am actually the former executive director for the Erlander Home Museum, and I serve on the boards for the Swedish Historical Society and the (Frank Lloyd Wright-designed) Laurent House,” Nelson said. “I enjoy museums. This is another way of teaching. A lot of us need to have the kinesthetic ways of learning, and living history is a part of that.”

When asked, Nelson declined to reveal her age.

“In Victorian times, you simply wouldn’t ask a lady that question.”

Midway Village’s Victorian Village has more than 20 structures, some original, based on late 1800 to early 1900 architecture. They range from a hardware store, general store, print shop and blacksmith to a school, church, hospital, police station and family homes.

Of course, Midway also has a doll house museum and a nearly 53,000-square-foot museum center featuring exhibits on early aviation pioneer Bert “Fish” Hassel, the Rockford Peaches - the women’s professional baseball team from the 1940s to mid-1950s - and Rockford industry, including a new exhibit about Rockford’s furniture industry that dominated the city from 1900 until the Great Depression.

In 2013, Midway drew about 58,000 people to all of its various attractions.

“There are a number of these living history museums in the U.S., but it is a nice attraction to have in Rockford,” said John Groh, head of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Perhaps the most famous living history museum is in Williamsburg, Virginia. Eagle, Wisconsin, has Old World Wisconsin, the largest outdoor museum dedicated to the history of rural life.

“What is unique about Midway is that it has a lot of land which allows it to have special events like World War II and World War I days. Those are becoming increasingly popular.”

Some of the re-enactors are strictly volunteer and others, like Nelson, are paid staff. Nelson said she gets excited each spring when opening weekend for Victorian Village nears. She said that there really isn’t anything about her side occupation that she doesn’t like.

“Even when it’s really hot we don’t feel it as much because we are wearing cottons and wools,” she said. “The polyesters you are wearing are much more restrictive.”

And the recurring role allows her to talk about one of her favorite subjects - the role of women in Rockford’s history.

“So much of what history is about is both sexes certainly, but I love to talk about women such as Jane Addams, who graduated from Rockford University and went on to found Hull House in Chicago helping immigrants to get a start here.”

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