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Children’s museum hopes to bolster Black Earth economy

June 11, 2017 GMT

Volunteers have helped to lay the flooring, stock the shelves of the make-believe grocery store and fashion curtains for the do-it-yourself play stage.

It’s all coming together at the Black Earth Children’s Museum, a nonprofit founded by an area mom in this village of 1,363 people 30 miles west of Madison.

“It’s nice to have some positive things happening here,” said Cathy Campbell, who along with her 12-year-old son, Casey, has volunteered many hours helping to prepare the museum for its grand opening Monday afternoon.

“Hopefully it will spark a little more happening. We don’t have a pool — Mazo(manie) has a pool, Cross Plains has a pool,” she said. Except for a few parks, “there’s nothing for the kids to do here.”

But soon there will be a bright, 5,000-square-foot indoor space made expressly for children to explore, learn and play in. At the center of the Black Earth Children’s Museum is a vast tree house for climbing, a wall to weave with yarn, a birch bark wigwam to crawl through, and an observation tower based on the real-life ones at nearby Blue Mound State Park.

Still, it’s largely with a development mission in mind that Karen Carlock is launching the museum, housed in a historic downtown building owned by her and her husband, Aaron.

“Black Earth has no restaurant right now,” said Carlock, who notes that currently the Shoe Box shoe store is the village’s main commercial draw. “We’re really hopeful that, with families coming in, we can prompt some economic impact.”

The museum’s opening celebration will be catered by the local bowling alley. There will be free museum entry from 4-7 p.m., music by children’s songwriter Ken Lonnquist and a Bubble Wonders show. There was so much interest in a special VIP entry from 3 to 4 p.m. Monday — it got more than 1,000 RSVPs via the museum’s Facebook page — that Carlock had to scale back that offering to museum sponsors only.

Starting Tuesday, the museum will charge a $6 entry fee for adults and children (free for under age 1; annual family memberships are $95). Carlock and the museum’s board are estimating at least 6,000 admissions a year.

“Right now we have some day cares and school groups that are bringing 60 kids at a time,” said Carlock, the mother of three children under age 5.

Interest has come from Richland Center, Baraboo, Sauk City, Dodgeville, even Monroe, Illinois, she said.

“We haven’t had huge donors, and we’ve been able to get the space filled on a really low budget. I think with low overhead and the numbers that we’re expecting right now, we should be OK.”

‘Miracle after miracle’

The Carlocks have spent about $100,000 on the project, she said. That total includes a new roof and the cost of the building, which also is home to a food pantry and has basement office space for a possible future business.

Eventually, Carlock hopes the museum can add an elevator to allow public use of the building’s second floor; another goal is to offer programming for middle and high school students in the future.

Right now, most exhibits are geared toward children 10 and younger. They’ve been built largely with donated labor and materials, plus the help of more than 75 volunteers.

“It will have been one year to get everything off the ground and going. It’s been one miracle after miracle of people that have come at the right time to help,” Carlock said. “The whole community has been incredibly supportive.”

Just a week ago, a large whiteboard in the museum’s front window at 1131 Mills Street listed materials the museum could use and chores that needed to be done, so passers-by knew how to lend a hand.

Helping rebuild

Shellie Benish, administrator/clerk/treasurer for the village of Black Earth, noted that one of the museum’s byproducts is to offer residents the chance “to give back to our community.”

Not only will the museum “attract visitors to a new destination area for us, but it’s going to contribute to the local economy through museum admissions, building of new exhibits, daily operations including marketing efforts, wages to employees and through spending by visitors to our local establishments,” Benish said.

“With the recent recession and everything that’s hit Black Earth, it’s really important for us to rebuild,” she said.

“And this museum is going to help us do that. It’s already created stronger ties with families and individuals and area businesses, and we believe the success of the museum is going to be valuable as a recruiting tool to attract existing and future families. We’re super excited to have them here.”

The village has settled the lawsuit involving its contentious fight with organic meat processor Black Earth Meats and is also recovering from an embezzlement case involving its former village clerk-treasurer, Benish said.

A handful of small businesses have newly opened, including a hair salon and a karate and fitness studio. A Kwik Trip is being built along Highway 14.

Trip inspires museum

The Carlocks first met while working at Epic right out of college. After Aaron left to start up a health care consulting firm, Vonlay, Karen worked as clerk of the town of Vermont, located right outside Black Earth, so she had more time for their young children.

After the sale of Vonlay in 2014, the Carlocks bought the Mercantile Co-Op building — with no particular plan in place.

“My husband’s really interested in economic development,” said Carlock, 35. “So we wanted to do something in this space — maybe a new company. I’ve always wanted to do a nonprofit of some kind.”

It was on a family road trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula last June that they happened to stop at the children’s museum in Marquette, Michigan.

“It was beautiful, because it was all homemade – kind of the way that ours feels,” she said. “Locally made, (with) input from the community. It felt like a community space.

“We were sitting in one of their exhibits, and Aaron and I said at the same time, ‘This is what we could do with the building,’” she said.

The rest of that road trip, they looked up case studies of “how people start these things. In August, we put signs up on the building saying ‘Coming June 2017: Black Earth Children’s Museum.’”

The Carlocks continued visiting children’s museums across the region — a task their children didn’t mind at all, she noted — to see which features were the biggest hits with young visitors. They used that information, along with input from a community open house last October, to outfit the Black Earth Children’s Museum.

Along the way, Carlock met Kay Butcher, a former preschool teacher in Black Earth for 19 years. The two women will share a full-time position at the museum, which will be open daily through the summer.

The staff also will include three part-time employees.

“I know the grandmas and the moms and the dads, and all the local kids here,” said Butcher, who with her husband Jim helped build the museum’s birch bark wigwam. “So I feel like I’m coming back home.”