Hands On Learning at the Frontier Culture Museum

IMG_1792Spring is short but sweet in Virginia. A few precious weeks, maybe a month, of pleasant weather between the chill of winter and the oppressive heat and humidity of summer. I also get the road trip bug in the spring; the last two years, I loaded the girls in the van and drove across the country soon after the snow melted. So recently I was looking for something new to do – something 1) outdoors; 2) requiring a drive; 3) preferably educational. I quickly settled on the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, VA, “one of the best small towns in America.”

The Frontier Culture Museum is an outdoor living history museum of the immigrant cultures that influenced the New World settlements of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and, by extension, early rural America. I was blown away by the concept; what an intuitive way to teach history, and yet I’d never heard of anything like it. The self-guided, self-paced tour includes five stops at traditional Old World farms and four American settlements. The signs, demonstrations, and costumed interpretive staff illustrate how each immigrant culture impacted early America, from farming and building to cooking, education, play, and music.

The first stop is a 1700’s West African Igbo farm, with mud and grass huts that we could enter and explore, and a cook fire shelter where they were demonstrating the preparation of black-eyed peas. More than a million Igbo men, women, and children were kidnapped from their villages and put aboard slave ships bound for the New World. By 1800, slaves and free blacks made up almost 20 per cent of the Shenandoah Valley’s population. Africans made numerous contributions to American culture – obviously labor, and also foodways, music, speech patterns, folklore, and handicrafts.IMG_1812

At the 1600’s English farm, we found staff and volunteers picking, washing, and boiling wool from the spring sheep shearing a few weeks earlier. While the girls wandered the grounds and farmhouse, I took a moment to help pick the wool, a meticulous job of pulling apart the dirty, matted locks into fluffy poofs so that they will get clean in the boiling water that follows. Some of the enduring contributions of English immigrants on American culture are the English language as well as law and governmental principles.

At the 1700’s Irish and German farms, we experienced combing, spinning, and weaving flax; making Irish oat cakes and German egg noodles; caring for pigs and horses; blacksmithing; and furniture-making. The Irish contributed schools and churches and were among the first to support America’s independence from England. Germans also valued their freedom in America, but liberty was more personal than political for them. They also brought enduring influence in pottery, furniture, and the Pennsylvania, or “Kentucky”, Rifle.

The Ganatastwi (“village”) settlement represents how a small group of native Americans might have been living in western central Virginia around 1730. Interpretive staff were present to teach native children’s games and explain the lifestyle and order of tribal communities. Most profound were the consequences of colonial trade, disease, and territorial expansion on their way of life.IMG_1861

At the 1740’s, 1820’s, and 1850’s American farms, and the American schoolhouse, we observed the historical application of the cultural influences we’d learned earlier in the day. Settlers built their own homes and furniture, forged their own tools, spun and wove their own textiles, and cooked traditional food from ingredients they raised themselves. By the mid-nineteenth century, through improved trade and mass communication, descendants of European colonists had begun to create a common American identity. At the same time, slavery and inequality continued to be the legacy inherited by the descendants of African captives.

Being physically present in each authentic setting gave me a chance to point out to my daughters the cultures from which we are descended, and to let them see how our European ancestors may have lived and worked. It was also meaningful to be able to show them how other American’s – our neighbors, friends, and people in our community – ancestors lived as well. My children loved drawing water from the well in Germany, grinding corn in the Ganatastwi, listening to stories in West Africa, and learning about herbs and vegetables in Ireland. I loved using the experience as a springboard for discussions – now and in future – of current American culture and cultural issues that continue today. Overall, a day remarkably well-spent.

IMG_1855How much do your children know about the cultures from which they are descended? Or, the immigrant or native cultures that have had the most influence on your state or region? Are there cultural or living history museums in your area you can visit? Have your family bring a sketchbook or camera, and use what they learn to make a cultural poster or collage about what they learn.

Living History, Agricultural, and Open-Air Museums – Search by geographic region to find living history museums near you
National Museum of African American History and Culture – The newest Smithsonian museum isn’t scheduled to open until 2016, but its website and blog are already rich sources of historical American cultural information
Kid World Citizen – An incredible blog chock-full of “activities that help young minds go global”
Immigration: Stories of Yesterday and Today ( – Explore the history of immigration in America and learn what it’s like to be an immigrant today. Includes videos, interactive maps and timelines, book lists and more.