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Tess just spent a week playing a 19th century farm girl. She’s done camps at this living-history museum every summer since she was 4. (You haven’t seen cute until you’ve seen 4-year-olds dressed like Laura Ingalls.) But the previous camps were a little of this, a little of that, a sampler of life in the 1800s.

Now that she’s 7, Tess got to pick a themed camp, and 19th Century Farm Kids it was, held at the Pioneer Farmstead at Genesee Country Village & Museum, about 30 minutes from where we live in western New York.

Over the week, the kids learned about the animals (sheep, oxen, ducks, geese, chickens, turkeys, cows and pigs), collected eggs and dabbled in cheesemaking. They pulled purslane for salads. And soaked flax to extract the fibers for linen-making. They even picked and tasted hops. (There’s a working 19th century brewery on-site.)

There was barn-cleaning and wood-stacking, work followed by the fun of 19th century games. They shelled corn and sewed corn bags (like bean bags), then made them again after chipmunks raided the barn.

Every day they recorded their experiences in journals, using fountain pens and ink.

I’ve written about GCVM before, in posts on maple sugaring and teaching kids about industrial meat production. The village offers immersion-style history, with costumed role-players sharing the mundane yet fascinating rhythms of early American life. That of course includes the routines and rituals of food and farming. And for kids, especially, it’s a great lesson in agriculture at its most basic. Sure, the kids immerse for only a few hours a day, and they go home in air-conditioned cars to houses with refrigerators and packaged snacks, but it all sinks in, you know?

It’s the reason (along with the “Little House” picture books) that Tess wanted a pioneer party for her 5th birthday, which we  managed to pull off by renting a 1938 log cabin (itself a replica of a 1721 fort) in a nearby park. How authentic? No heat. Only a fireplace. In December. Looking back, it seems a little nuts. But there was sledding and butter-making and running around in bonnets and straw hats. And everyone went home with maple candy and an appreciation for central heat. (Oh: Renting a cabin with no heat in December? Cheap.)

This summer, when we visited Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., we found fantastic exhibits and stories about how the Wampanoag and the colonists ate seasonally, in sync with nature. And these museums are everywhere. Check out the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums, with members throughout the U.S. and Canada.

My only complaint about farm camp?  Though kids brought their own snacks and lunches (stored in cloth-covered baskets), the camp supplied drinks. Two choices: water and “lemonade.”  As in: Country Time. As in: artificial colors and other chemical additives that no way, no how existed in the 1800s. And, oh, by the way, no actual lemon. Next time, I’d like to see the kids make their own real lemonade. Just like Mrs. Oleson.


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