Gordon Segal’s vested interest in southeastern Wisconsin goes far beyond the 2005 opening of the Crate and Barrel store at Mayfair Mallin Wauwatosa.
Segal and his wife, Carole, own 400 acres of land near East Troy, including Cobblestone Farm, a noted Scotch Highland cattle breeding and show farm with more than 30 cattle.
The Segal’s vast acreage contains ponds, streams, a lake, rolling hills and woods. The Segals recently finished the restoration of the namesake of the breeding farm, a cobblestone house originally built by Mormons in 1848.
Scattered among the vegetable garden, horses, goats, sheep, the main country home and the conference lodge are three log homes that the Segals have collected and refurbished back to their original state.
At their Wisconsin retreat, Segal and his family build bridges over streams and cut down trees, living a pioneer lifestyle when they spend time away from their home base in Chicago.
So, perhaps it isn’t surprising that Segal feels a connection and passion for Old World Wisconsin, the nearby living history museum that documents and recreates the lives of immigrants who moved to the Midwest to become Wisconsin’s earliest settlers.
“I think (Old World Wisconsin) is one of the most undiscovered places in the world,” Segal said. “It is a beautiful historical site, a beautiful history museum and nobody knows about it.”
Old World Wisconsin is located on 600 acres near Segal’s East Troy property. The museum officially opened in 1976, the same year the Segals bought their country home and first 44 acres of property.
Segal often takes his children, grandchildren, co-workers and business affiliates to the living museum, whether it is to witness Civil War encampments on Labor Day weekend or to celebrate the Fourth of July by reliving the signing of the Declaration of Independence through the stories of people who were living in America in 1776.
In addition to his commitment to growing his retail company, Segal has a passion for Old World Wisconsin. He is among a group of volunteers who have written a proposal to the state legislature requesting an earmark for more funds to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the majority of which the group hopes will go to Old World Wisconsin to help it reach its true potential.
“I believe they should put more money into marketing, because they spent an enormous fortune building this museum,” Segal said. “It is like my building a store and never sending out a catalog or running an ad. Today, you put millions into building a store and then you advertise so people come. Well, the state built this museum, spent a lot of money and doesn’t tell anybody about it.”
The museum includes more than 60 authentic historic buildings that researchers collected from around the state and relocated to the property. Before the museum opened, researchers also had collected documentation of the lives of rural Americans who lived in the area through more than 50,000 found artifacts. Interpreters use the materials to tell the stories of Finnish, Danish, Polish, German and Norwegian settlers and African-American pioneers.
Local residents participate on a vintage baseball team. Visitors can walk through the Heirloom Gardens to witness plants and flowers reflecting those that existed during that time period.
Segal enjoys the museum, which is the largest of its kind in the Midwest, for the hands-on history lesson it provides and for the inspirations he has gained, both for Crate and Barrel and for his own restoration projects in East Troy.
Segal says his sense of history sometimes helps him in his business. He said each Crate and Barrel store is built to account for local tastes and environments. For instance, the Mayfair store was built using local stone for interior and exterior architectural elements and Wisconsin prairie plants for landscaping and a roof garden.
“It is important to stop just doing things sometimes,” Segal said. “It’s more important to be thoughtful, reflective, to gain perspective, and that is what the museum does for you.”
Segal sits on the boards of the Chicago History Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. Like Old World Wisconsin, both of those Chicago museums have seen a decline in attendance in the past few years.
When he retires from Crate and Barrel, Segal plans to help Old World Wisconsin any way he can by finding donors and volunteers and by using his marketing experience to make residents of other states aware of the museum.
Marketing to the Chicago market alone has the potential to reach 8 million people, he said.
“You don’t build something without a marketing budget,” Segal said. “The State of Wisconsin deserves this. Invest a little now, and it will become a more thriving place and everybody will have more fun. Everything about it will become better with more attendance, but you have to first bring the crowd to the door.”