Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Staunton, VA, American Frontier Culture Museum

American Frontier Culture

At the 1820s Bowman house a re-enactor demonstrates making wood tools.Bottom of Form

The Museum of American Frontier Culture in Staunton, Va., is a remarkable outdoor living history museum that shows how immigrants from Germany, Ireland, England and Africa adapted to the new world and helped form the way of life we now think of as unique to America. Most started here as farmers.

They imported their variable cultures related to improving farm buildings, equipment, animals and choices in planting crops. Ultimately, these groups came together to create the American culture.

We started our tour with a brief movie narrated by biographer David McCullough, who felt this living history museum is one of the best and most unusual in the United States.

Most of the buildings were staffed with re-enactors in costume, engaging in a variety of activities a person of that time and place would have done. These actors were well instructed on background information and had no problem answering questions about their life and skills.

Even catching one of the frequently appearing golf carts for a ride, the tour was a long trip covering the 10 farms. Visitors should plan on spending a minimum of three hours here.

We began at the 1700s West African farm that is surrounded with low walls to enclose the animals. Starting in 1619, the English brought enslaved Africans to help on the farms.

A re-enactor discussed the rough-looking buildings, one of which was for the husband and two for his wives and children under 7 years old. Boys over 7 moved in with him. Our guide described how one of the young women had been captured and sent to America as a slave.

Because growing yams was hard on the soil, farmers had to frequently move yam plantings to different fields. They often moved their small buildings as well.

In the yard of the 1600-era English farm, a young woman sat pulling scrap out of the wool until she had a basket full. Then she put the wool in an ammonia solution to soak until white, then dried and finally had it ready for the spinning wheel. Making material for clothes and curtains was no easy job.

The house, imported from England’s West Midlands, was fitted in the interior with the simple tools and furniture used at that time.

The 1850s American farm was based on ideas and materials brought to this country by farmers from many countries.

At the 1700s Irish farm, a small building held the forge that was staffed with a knowledgeable blacksmith. He explained how all tools and equipment used on the farms and in the homes actually were made on the farm. The blacksmith worked on whatever was needed to run the farms, and, if there were extra items, they could be sold to visitors.

Skilled craftsmen like blacksmiths often came from Ireland

This particular shop from the 18th century reflected the work of immigrants who often were skilled craftsmen from Ulster, a province in Ireland. They were greatly needed in the colonies.

At this point in our tour, we noticed a number of children working their way through the museum buildings. Later, we encountered whole classes of second- and third-graders who had re-enactors giving them hands-on experiences with tools and equipment.

A large number of Irish Protestants from Northern Ireland migrated, too and were prominent among frontier settlers. They raised chickens, pigs and goats. They grew flax to make linen. The re-enactor pointed out his clothes were made of linen; cotton was too expensive because the cotton gin had not yet been invented.

The quarters were crowded, with parents sleeping in a small bed, the girls on mattresses on the floor and the boys in the kitchen on the floor. Sheds outside contained the wood pile, and space for farming machinery and tools.

Besides barns, the 1700s German farm had a house from a Rhineland village that had been taken apart and each piece numbered, with pictures to help with reconstruction.

The re-enactor explained how the walls had been constructed of what sounded like gunk: a mixture of soil, straw, lime, sand and manure. Since it has lasted hundreds of years, it must have been quite sturdy and durable.

By 1775, about 250,000 German-speaking colonists were in America. The re-enactor, complete with a German accent and wearing lederhosen, explained how special attention is given to children who visit the museum to engage them in how our ancestors lived.

A small 1700 American Indian compound had two buildings with various kinds of hides and basic living equipment. The Indians in this Eastern area could be generous in helping the immigrants — without their help, survival would have been nearly impossible at times. Here children were learning Indian arts and being introduced to the Indian lifestyle.

The re-enactor at the American 1820s farm demonstrated how to make handles for brooms, rakes and axes. He pointed out articles used on these farms were made here by original methods of construction. This building, the Bowman House, was a large one that would have been owned by someone who had a successful farming business.

At a Chautauqua we attended in Staunton, Va., Ray Wright, a specialist in historic restoration, discussed how much restoration was needed on the Bowman house before it became an integral part of the Frontier Cultural Museum.

At the 1820s American farm, we could see in some ways how the blending had advanced in improving the culture and living conditions since 1740.

At the 1850 American farm, the settlers were American citizens often with slaves. Here two women were sewing and stopped to give a tour of the house and explain living conditions during that time. There had been some economic, social and political changes — much for the better, but settlers still had their share of challenges.

A one-room school was between the two farms where classes were held for visiting students. This is an example of a school in a rural area between 1820 and 1850. By the 1870s, most states had not funded school systems.

The main message we carried away from this experience was how American farming was an interesting blend of learning about buildings, crops and the ways of foreign immigrants coming to a new world.

Children learn the use of basic tools

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