Child’s Play at the Black Earth Children’s Museum

By Julia Richards | Photographed by Lisa Wilcox

Whole trees lend the support for a climbing structure where kids can test their bravery crossing a net bridge. A pretend shopping market and a performance stage with costumes and instruments invite interactive play. Each exhibit is designed to provide at least 15 minutes of activity, and with art, science and engineering experiments, there’s a strong educational component. That my 4-year-old dove right in and could have stayed for hours attests to the high quality of this children’s museum.

It’s an unexpected find in Black Earth, population 1,415, and one of only a handful of children’s museums across the country in towns under 10,000. To make such a project work in such a small town takes lots of community support.

“We don’t have the level of corporate funding that a larger museum will, since we don’t have the traffic,” says Karen Carlock, who started the museum with her husband. “But we’ve had a lot of local business support and individual support to be able to get our cool exhibits built and keep running,” she adds. Many of the offerings have a regional focus, including a barn, a wigwam and a wetland.

Since opening in June 2017, the Black Earth Children’s Museum has grown to 350 memberships. Its first year it hosted 15,000 visitors, mainly from a 50-mile radius including Baraboo, Dodgeville, Sauk City, Verona and Middleton.

The museum now has a full-time operations director in addition to several part-time staff. Carlock has never been paid in her role as executive director, and while she plans to stay involved, she’s pleased the museum is becoming self-sustaining. “My vision was to start something that would belong to the community. So, with the formation of a nonprofit we have that; it’s actually a community-owned resource,” she says.

Carlock and her husband met working at Epic Systems. After he sold his spinoff healthcare consulting firm in 2014, they decided to buy a building on Black Earth’s Main Street. “I had always had a dream of starting some sort of nonprofit, and it just seemed perfect to use that space to give back to the community,” Carlock explains.

On a family road trip with their kids, now ages 5, 4 and 2, they visited a children’s museum in Marquette, Michigan, and thought, why not in Black Earth?

Area volunteers helped develop and build the exhibits, which Carlock says adds to the museum’s specialness. “It’s almost all been handmade by someone local. I really like that. It feels more charming.”

The community rallied around the museum in the wake of the late summer flooding, which filled the basement of their building. They reopened in September after cleaning up and replacing the electrical system. While it was an expensive setback, Carlock is grateful the flooding didn’t affect any exhibits on the main floor.

So are the area families who are frequent visitors.

“My kids love all of the exhibits and activities,” says museum member Kim Siebecker. “As a parent, I am thrilled that my kids have the opportunity to learn and explore in such a creative and interactive space!”

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