Sunday, February 23, 2014

Raising Your Kids in History

August 1888---er...19 88. This is my wife and I with our first born, who was only around 6 weeks old at the time this picture was taken, at one of those "old time" picture places at fairs where you can put on the velcro clothing to have an 'old-fashioned' photo taken. We used to show him this picture and tell him we were from the past and got transported into the future.

When I found out that I was going to be a grandfather for the first time, I was informed in this modern manner by my daughter-in-law:

“Happy Valentine’s Day!!!...
Looks like Eva’s going to be a big sister-ish…(Eva is their dog)
This is not a drill!!!!
repeat, NOT A DRILL!!!!
No April fooling, here!....It’s not even April!”

Was I excited? Oh, you betcha!! My wife and I and our other three kids were beyond giddy!
In fact, after we got the news, I announced it on Facebook and wrote somewhere in the many comments I received that "I'm already getting excited about taking my grandchild to Greenfield Village!!!"
Yep, I'm that kind of grandpa. You know, giving my grandchild a historical upbringing. I love being able to show him the 'good old days'!
Here I am with my tiny grandson inside of the 1750 Daggett House.
Hmmm...maybe he can even reenact with me at some point...
You see, as far as kids and history, I've been very lucky - or maybe blessed is the correct word to use - because my four kids have always loved the subject. They were raised in history and grew up appreciating it. Because we visited the open-air museums so often they almost (in a sense) lived history and even have a sort of nostalgia for it at times.
An example of this is knowing that their autumn memories consists of heading to the Fall Harvest Festival and seeing, among other things, the threshing machine at work as well as witnessing the other harvest activities.
It also meant our annual visit to one of the many cider mills in our area and going apple picking. They loved this! Still do!

One of the oldest mills still in operation in Michigan is the Yates Cider Mill, up and running since 1863! This is one of the places we get our cider from.

Yep - doing traditional things is also a part of giving your children a sense of history.
I know a couple who have children and tried their best to raise them with the same passion for history as they themselves have. Like me, they had taken their kids to the local area historical villages like Greenfield and Crossroads and local area museums such as the Detroit Historical Museum, as well as to the great historical hotspots located outside of Michigan such as Gettysburg, Mt. Vernon, and Colonial Williamsburg.
It was unfortunate that even with going to all of these wonderful places, their kids just did not show a love for history. Virtually none.
We spoke about this at length one day and that's when I realized why their children were not history buffs: it was because at every step and stop there was a lecture; the kids had to listen to their parents speak to them as if they were students on a field trip.
No wonder they didn't like it very much - it was too much like a school history lesson!
Many times adults treat history with white-gloved hands, making it almost like visiting that grandma or aunt who has her furniture covered with plastic and has lots of 'don't touch' items lying about.
I believe one of the main reasons I got my kids to love this seemingly dreaded subject is that I've tried to make history fun for them - fun for them on their terms. And in this way I used a certain amount of psychology where I combined history with fun to give that positive association.
A simple answer, wouldn't you say? I mean, at the cider mill they could get cider and doughnuts, maybe a candy or caramel apple and play on the hay stacks or on the corn maze. By allowing fun they wanted to go back.
But there's more: I didn't lecture.
I spoke often of history, but I didn't lecture.
My four kids have been going to historic places such as Greenfield Village and Crossroads Village since they were in their mother's womb. And then as babies and toddlers I would take them there on beautiful spring, summer, and fall days and we would just walk around amidst all of those wonderful 18th and 19th century structures.
As they grew beyond the toddler stage we would go and take part in some of the activities they had, including playing the old time games on the village green such as hoops, walking on stilts, and the game of graces, all being favorites.

See the two boys playing 'hoops' near the sidewalk? Yep - that's my two oldest in (I believe) 1995. They were only 7 and 4 at the time.

Then there was candle dipping. Each of them would hand-dip their own beeswax candles and then I would hang them from the sconce in wait for Thanksgiving or Christmas to light them. How excited they would get when we would let them know it was their candles giving us the beautiful atmosphere! That's when they would get excited and couldn't wait for the following year to dip more.
My seven year old daughter dipping candles.

They loved going to the Colonial Days Festival and the Civil War Remembrance (before we began reenacting) and seeing the reenactors with their muskets, fifes, and drums. The surrounding atmosphere was very festive indeed and my kids felt as if it was a very special celebration. In a very real sense, it was a celebration - a celebration of history!

The now defunct Colonial Days Festival was a fine way to celebrate our Nation's birth, with the pomp and circumstance of 1776! We loved it!


My three sons during the Colonial Days Festival back in 1997. They loved wearing period clothing even then!

Of course, we can't forget riding the train, the carousel, the horse and carriage, and even the Model T's. And how about that steamboat!!
And while on these authentic period rides we did speak of travel in the old days so they would get a sense of history, but at their age level so they could associate these historic rides with their own lives. "Remember when Laura and Mary Ingalls rode the wagon with Pa and Ma?"
We didn't lecture. We instead gave them a connection to something they liked, in some cases by way of Little House on the Prairie.
And it worked!

My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter on the steamboat at Greenfield Village. This was our favorite ride there and we rode it at each and every visit. Even before we became reenactors we dressed her in 'old time' clothes. She loved it.

In between all of the fun rides we would also visit the historic houses to see up close and in person how life was lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. The presenters, many times, would engage our kids, supplementing the outdoor activities with the stories of life in the home.
All made for a well-rounded history lesson that our children enjoyed and remember fondly.
Now, do you see what we did here? There were no lectures, no straight mono-toned history lessons. Instead we interspersed things we knew they would find to be fun with history. So they, as I stated above, associated history with something enjoyable.
And because of that, they took my love of history as their own.

Here's the father of the baby I am holding at the top of this post, a long time ago, when he was a still just a colonial kid in breeches and tennis shoes.

Here is my son Miles. I've never been fond of Thomas the Train at Greenfield and Crossroads Villages, but Miles loved it. So we went. But it worked out: Miles got to see all of the very fun Thomas activities and we also were able to visit the historical portions as well.

My kids inside the Henry Ford Museum. That's the 1840's kitchen display directly behind them. Since they enjoyed cooking with their mother at home, they had fun seeing and comparing the 250, 175, 120, and 80 year old kitchen vignettes on display (see below). There is enough cool stuff inside the museum (besides the kitchens), such as classic cars, real trains they could climb on and in, and cool gigantic farm equipment that held their interest enough so we could also check out the more serious displays of furniture and historic Rev War documents.
Kitchen - Late 1700's

Kitchen - 1840

Kitchen - 1890

Kitchen - 1930's

History played such an important role in my kid's lives that they included it in their major accomplishments, such as high school graduation photos:

Here's my son Tom in one of his 2006 high school graduation pictures. He just had to have a few grad pics in his Civil War uniform, and we went around to some of the older areas in town for him to pose.

And my son Robert had his 2009 high school graduation pictures taken at the Henry Ford Museum, and posed with numerous very cool mid-19th century artifacts to go with his clothing style. Would you like a Lucky Strike or Pall Mall?

My daughter loves trying on the fancy hats at the late 19th-century millinery shop.
Here is my family - my wife and our four children - at Devil's Den in Gettysburg back in 2005. Don't we look like we're posing for a folk rock music album cover?

Apple picking is a family affair.

My kids, three of which are now full-fledged adults (with one married!), are very contemporary in every sense of the word with their ipods, smart phones, pinterest, and networking sites. But that doesn't take away their passion for the past. In fact, my daughter-in-law has asked me about taking her to Greenfield Village again. She and I have gone a few times now together and she really enjoys going.
She even joined us for a day at Civil War Remembrance!
Our love of history must be rubbing off on her!
My family and I at Civil War Remembrance 2013
So I have no doubt of my historical influence on my grandchild. I believe this passion will be passed down for generations to come.
As long as we can catch their interest.....
These two people are the greatest grandparents a kid could have. Yep - they're my grandpa and grandma Giorlando, both born in the 1890's. To me they were the epitome of what grandparents should be and I plan to base my own grandparent-hood upon their ways.

*Postscript: They recently built a playground at Greenfield Village. I know it has a period feel, with its Model T and the like that kids can climb on, but it's still a very modern playground. I would have rather seen a wooden swing set.
I also noticed that since it was built, games on the green, where children had the chance to play the period games of old, took a dive. When they do have it, hardly any kids are there - they're all at the playground. It sorta reminds me now of how teens and young twenties need to be connected via smart phones; one can't seem to get away from the 21st century, even for a little while.
You may disagree with me, but I dislike the play area - I'd have rather seen the cooper shop and cobbler shop brought back. But that's just me.

For more reading on the traditional and historical traditions of my family, check out some of these posts:
A Trip to the Cider Mill: Michigan Apples, Cider, and Raspberries
History in School Musings
How One Family Became Living Historians 
My Passion for History Did Not Begin With Reenacting (or...And How Long Have YOU Been Into History?) 







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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The 21st Michigan Winter 2014 Civilian Meeting

My wife, Patty,
wearing her new paletot
Yes, it's that time of year again - it's time for the annual civilian meeting for the members of the 21st Michigan. I normally have one civilian meeting held in late winter or early spring, and every-so-often I might hold one in the fall.
This year the plan is to have two meetings for our civilians, and the first one was held in this very snowy month of February.
The point of the meetings are three-fold:
1) A chance to wear our period clothing in the winter time when nothing (or very little) else is going on in the living history world, at least in this cold north country.

2) Learning to improve our personal experience in our time-travel endeavors as well as learning how to improve our presentations for the public.

3) To keep the momentum going that had taken hold in December and to build on that momentum.

There is a fourth reason, by the way: because it's a great excuse to see friends you haven't seen in a while.
The subject matter wasn't new to my meetings: immersion and bringing the past to life has been the topic of discussion for a number of years now, and I'm finding that the more we teach and learn, the better we become.
And yet we still have a long way to go.
But what a journey!
I'm not going to get into the whats and wherefores of immersion, for I wrote about that HERE. I would just like to reiterate that learning of the time period you pertain to be in during a reenactment is every bit as important as the accuracy of your clothing. For what good is perfect-to-a-"T" period clothing if your historical knowledge is no better than the typical Hollywood historian or worse?
We, as living historians, need to spend more time involved in social history research. That really is the only way to teach the whole story as well as to have one feel like they have traveled through time. In fact, since there is so much more to learn about in the everyday life of the mid-19th century, I will venture to say that we need to make the study of social history a top priority.
This is one of the things that I imparted on our membership, and they responded very enthusiastically, pulling together to come up with numerous ways to improve our future past endeavors for this coming season.
And, no, not all of our events will be immersion.
So I'd like to share a few of the meeting photographs with you.
I hope you enjoy them.

Here are the 21st Michigan members that attended the meeting. Well, all but one (she had to leave early). Period dress meetings really are a lot more fun than the plain modern dress meetings, especially for those who had done some sewing or received period gifts for Christmas so they can show them off (such as my wife and her paletot!).

Kristen poses pensively.
 
Our own Dave Tennies portrays Michigan Senator Jacob Howard in many of our reenactments. Although he's been reenacting for around 15 years, he experienced immersion for the first time in December of 2013 and loved it. He's looking forward to doing more this coming year.

Dave tells of his experiences in the world of living history. Our meetings are not one person speaks and all others listen. We encourage everyone to participate and share their knowledge and experiences.

No matter how recent or how long one's been in this hobby, there are always new things to learn from others. It's interesting to hear the observances and ideas from numerous perspectives. Put them all in one big pot, stir gently, and see what comes out.

The young lady at the forefront here has been a reenactor her entire life. She has seen changes like very few others have and still attends nearly every local event (and even a national here and there). Yes, she still is very passionate about this hobby.

Winter wear...sans one!
Upon seeing how many of our members arrived in their period outdoor winter wear, I thought it would be neat to take a photograph of all of us in the winter weather. It struck me that this is something we don't see very often. The picture turned out, literally, pretty cool. Just ask Larissa, 2nd from right.
Yes, that's nearly two feet of snow in front of us.


After the meeting, a few members remained on for a bit - sort of like an afterglow. It was not even planned that way; just a couple folks that stayed after the meeting had ended, and we had a fine visit in the midst of a period setting...

...not 'full' immersion, mind you. But the atmosphere of an oil lamp and candle lit room filled with antique furniture can really set a mood, especially if there are a few folks wearing period clothing.


I was happy that Kristen was willing to pose for me in this manner during the afterglow.

And there you have it. It was quite an enjoyable day for all who attended.
I plan to have another period-dress civilian meeting in the near future - definitely before the actual season begins in the later spring, probably sometime in March. When that happens, I hope to do an actual immersion workshop to where we can actively work on how to get into the mindset of 'being there.'.

Yeah...I must say, I do appreciate the civilian members of the 21st Michigan (and a few from other local units as well) and their want to raise the living history bar higher each year. For without them...well...you know...

Remember the momentum I spoke of at the top of this article? These next couple of photos will show you exactly what I mean of immersion in action:

Here is a photo that was taken in December of 2013 while we were doing one of the finest immersion experiences that we have ever had the pleasure of participating in - Christmas at the Fort. Nothing is staged here: we were an 1863 family eating our Christmas Eve dinner, domestic servants at our beck and call. We had conversations that I am certain could have taken place during that time, including, among other subjects, reminisces of our lives before oil lamps when, as children, we helped to dip tallow candles.


Here is another photo that was taken at the same event as the picture directly above. Once again, this unposed picture shows 19th century life during our 1863 Christmas Eve celebration while we were in the parlor and I was reading aloud from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Just as the above photo, it did not matter whether there were visitors to see or hear this or not: as far as we were concerned, it was only us, and because we continued this immersion non-stop, I feel we actually were back 'there' in 1863.
Doing living history/immersion at Christmas at the Fort is truly one of our reenacting year's highlights. If you are interested in this particular event please click HERE to read more about how we brought days of Christmas past to life through immersion.

Well, my friends, until next time - God Be With You and I hope to see you in days of future past.

~ ~ ~ 
Hey! Did you know I had a table of contents for Passion for the Past? Yup - sure do! Just click HERE to check it out!










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Friday, February 7, 2014

School Wasn't Canceled for Bad Weather in 1882: A story from one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books proves we've all gone soft

The following comes from an article written by Eleanor Barkhorn that was recently published on the internet in the news magazine The Atlantic.
Many times previously I have linked history-oriented news stories in this blog, but after a while the links no longer work and the story is lost, so I have decided to print this particular article here with all credit going to the author and giving a link to the home page of the source, in this case (as mentioned) The Atlantic in hopes this will be acceptable.
With the extreme cold and snow we in the upper Midwest and eastern/New England United States have been having here in this winter of 2014, I feel this is a very timely story:


~ Record-low temperatures caused by the Polar Vortex have forced schools across the country to close this week. Weather-related school cancellations tend to raise anxieties about whether we're a nation of wimps. In response to this latest round of school closings, a Virginia mom sighed, "Hasn’t anyone heard of gloves, scarf and a hat when it’s cold?? Just bundle up—people do it all over the world. We are such wimps to cancel school."
A story about a teacher assigned to a one-room schoolhouse in South Dakota in the 1880s will confirm suspicions that America has gone soft when it comes to dealing with the cold. The story is from “These Happy Golden Years,” the second-to-last book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved "Little House" series about growing up on the American frontier. It describes the protagonist, a 15-year-old teacher named Laura, traveling a half a mile in the snow to get to school: 
There had been a snowstorm in the night. She had to break her path to the schoolhouse again. The early sunshine was faintly pink on miles of pure snow and every little shadow was thin blue. As Laura plunged and plowed through the soft drifts, she saw Clarence breaking a path for Tommy and Ruby behind him. They floundered to the school-shanty's door at the same time.
Little Ruby was covered from head to foot with snow, even her hood and her braids were snowy. Laura brushed her and told her to keep her wraps on until the room was warmer. Clarence put more coal on the fire while Laura shook her own wraps and swept the snow through the cracks between the floorboards. The sunshine streaming through the window made the shanty look warm, but it was colder than outdoors. But soon the good stove's warmth made their breaths invisible; it was nine o'clock, and Laura said, "School will come to order."
The first thing to point out is that there is no pause between "There had been a snowstorm in the night" and "She had to break her path to the schoolhouse again." No moment to wonder whether school would be called off, whether she'd be able to spend the day at home by the fire. School was happening.
And then there's the description of the journey itself: Laura and her students didn't have the benefit of snowplows or sidewalk salt to clear their path to school the morning after a storm. They had to break their own ways through untouched snow. And when they arrived at school, what did they find? A room that was even colder than the frigid outdoors.
What happened next is equally surprising to a modern reader. Two students came in a few minutes after Laura called class to order. She had to decide whether to penalize them for being tardy:
Martha and Charles came in panting, three minutes late. Laura did not want to mark them tardy; they had to break their path, the whole mile. A few steps in deep snow are easy, and fun, but breaking a path is work that grows harder with every step. For a moment Laura thought of excusing Martha and Charles, this one time. But that would not be honest. No excuse could change the fact; they were tardy.
"I am sorry I must mark you tardy," she said. "But you may come to the stove and get warm before you take your seat."
Martha and Charlie were three measly minutes late after walking a whole mile through deep snow. But even these heart-wrenching circumstances weren't enough to turn this young teacher from her commitment to honesty. She marked them tardy.
Finally we get to yet another remarkable part of the story: the students' reaction to Laura's decision. 
"We're sorry, Miss Ingalls," Martha said. "We didn't know it would take so long."
"Breaking a path is hard work, I know," said Laura, and suddenly she and Martha were smiling to each other, a friendly smile that made Laura feel as if teaching school were easy.
Martha didn't throw a fit at being marked tardy. She simply apologized. In fact, Wilder seems to imply that this episode made Martha like her teacher more. Notice the description of the student and teacher smiling at one another, and Laura's subsequent determination that teaching school was "easy."
It's important to recognize that the "Little House" books were written decades after the events that they describe. As author Wendy McClure, who wrote a book about the series, put in an interview a few years ago, "You have to admit that the Little House books are constructed, and there were definite artistic decisions and efforts to portray things a certain way, and leave out other things." Anyone with a grandparent who reminisces about walking five miles to school, uphill both ways, knows that people sometimes exaggerate the hardships they faced in their youth. Still, we can trust the basic facts about life a century and a half ago: School was open, even the day after a snowstorm. Getting to school was very difficult without the technologies we have now. School was cold once you got there. And, yes, by comparison, today we're all wimps.~
Eleanor Barkhorn
  ~ ~ ~


And here is an addendum concerning the above article from historian Melanie Stringer:  

Interesting but entirely inaccurate, I'm afraid. Schools DID close when weather was particularly challenging, and people were well aware of the very real and lingering dangers of frostbite. If anything, school districts and teachers were used to, and in fact expected, students not attending regularly when their presence and or labor was required at home.
As for using Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels to support the argument, the author (of the article) conveniently ignored the sixth book in the series, “The Long Winter,” which, like all in Wilder's Little House series, includes many historic events as well as fictional embellishments or omissions to tell an interesting story. “The Long Winter” tells of the notorious Hard Winter of 1880-1881, and in Wilder's telling, school that year was closed long before Christmas with the intention that it would not reopen until the next train could come through with coal and other dwindling supplies for the fledgling town. The next train did not get through until the blizzards stopped and the weather warmed enough to clear the tracks again-- in MAY. See chapter 15, "No Trains:"
'Slowly Pa grew warm and without saying anything more he sat down by the window to read the Chicago Inter-Ocean that had come in the last mail. 'By the way,' he said, looking up, 'school is closed until coal comes.'
If a fictional series written by an iconic and beloved author is to be used to support one's nonsensical and ill-informed statement regarding the supposed history of social behavior in America, it would serve such a commentator well to read the whole series and note the discrepancies with their own argument before citing it as a "source."


Ms. Stringer does a first-person history program as an adult Laura Wilder. She is also a social historian who has studied a great many aspects of Westward Expansion, American migration patterns, cultural and regional practices, education, and occupational opportunities from settlement to c. 1960 for over two decades. She portrays the historical person of Wilder and not the fictional character.

As I try to give factual information on social history in Passion for the Past, I felt it was important to include Ms. Stringer’s comments in this posting. Ms. Stringer and I have been in contact and she has noted to me that her commentary here is directed at the original author of this article and not me.


By the way, if you are interested in a typical school day during the late 19th century, check this posting out that I wrote not too long ago:
The World of 19th Century Rural Michigan Teachers



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