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Battle Creek third graders visit historic Pioneer Cabin

April 29, 2019

DOWLING, Mich. (AP) — Tori Richardson raised her ax and dropped it down in an attempt to split wood.

The wood was to be used to keep a nearby fire going, which had a pot of stew with chopped carrots and potatoes steaming above it, prepared by Richardson and the other kids in her third grade class at Verona Elementary.

Richardson also helped to make soap and a candle and churned butter.

It was a busy day.

“But it was fun work,” Richardson told the Battle Creek Enquirer cheerfully. “I liked when we made the soap and did the carving with wood. I think it can help you learn, because you understand more what it looks like.”

The class was on a field trip recently at the Battle Creek Public Schools Outdoor Education Center at Clear Lake Camp in Dowling for the Pioneer Cabin Program.

The living history program is devoted to the study of the history of Battle Creek as well as pioneer concepts from social studies.

And it has been a rite of passage for third grade students in Battle Creek since its inaugural season in 1972, save for a few years when the program was on hiatus.

For one day at the cabin, third grade students travel back in time to the year 1838 and visit the homestead of Harlow Merrill and Ada Merrill, helping them with chores and, in the process, learning about the everyday life of a pioneer family.

The performers who play the Merrills, whom the children refer to as “Pa” and “Ma,” stay in character for the entire day.

The original cabin was an authentic one-and-a-half story structure found in Alpena and dating back to the nineteenth century. It burned in 2004 and the program was discontinued for a time. The replica cabin now in use was constructed in 2007.

“We have pictures of the tools and things, but unless you are actually holding it,” said Rebeeca Burns, third grade teacher at Verona Elementary. “Which is why this is so great. For these kids, being outdoors, doing all of this, living as a pioneer, it’s just not an experience that a lot of kids get. It’s just a really special program.”

Burns added that the hands-on-learning experience is a benefit to all of her students, regardless of where they are academically.

“I have 27 kids in my room and have everything from kindergarten and first grade readers that struggle to kids above grade level. This is a great equalizer,” she said. “Kids who might have trouble with some of the academics but have the knowledge in their head, they are a little stronger today in what we’re sharing. I was a little concerned about a few because they are very active, but they stay busy and are learning as they are doing and having fun.”

The Verona class was the first to visit the Merrill homestead this season. Third grade students from Battle Creek, Harper Creek, Lakeview, Pennfield, St. Joseph and Plainwell schools are set to visit this spring, as well as fifth grade students from Century Park Learning Center in Wyoming. The program, which costs $15 per participant, with a $300 minimum, is also open to students who are home schooled.

The program’s living history approach is specific to the area.

When the program began, research was done on Johnstown Township in Barry County, which was established in 1838. Harlow Merrill was an actual pioneer who purchased 80 acres of land in the township in 1835.

A fictional diary written by Harlow Merrill, based on factual information, is provided to the classroom ahead of their visit.

When students arrive at the Outdoor Education Center, they walk down a “time trail” until they are stumbled upon by Harlow Merrill while he is out hunting in the year 1838.

Portrayed by Kristoffer Tierce, a bearded history buff in period costume, he greets the “voyagers” with a perplexed look on his face.

“We’re from Verona Elementary,” they say.

“Verona School, I haven’t heard of that one?”

“It’s by Little Caesars.”

“I don’t know what a Little Caesars is. Is it near Battle Creek? That’s where I do a lot of my trading.”

Whitney Beaird is the Pioneer Cabin Program manager. She also portrays Ada Merrill, complete with an authentic Tennessee accent and a period dress she fashioned herself.

After introducing herself to the students and explaining that the Merrills’ fictional children are away at school, she tells them, “We can’t stand around and jaw all day, we’ve got a lot of work to do to take care of this homestead.”

Throughout the nearly five-hour visit, students peppered Beaird and Tierce with questions like “Do you know what Fortnite is?”

In a deadpan response, Beaird declared, “A fortnight is two weeks.”

“It’s a pretty interesting experience that these kids get to go and be immersed. It’s like a cultural exchange but with time periods,” she said before getting into character. “As a kid, the wonderment and imagination of it - you are time traveling back - and there is this sense of wonder, and seeing these folks and the smiles on their faces, that part is really cool.”

After a day of hard work on the homestead, the students are treated to meal of stew, cornbread and applesauce that they helped prepare.

“In this day, we’ve got kids with phones, gaming systems, all of that is a given for them, ” Burns said. “I love we are spending a day without electronics, learning how to do all of these things as a pioneer would.”

As the students gave hugs and said their goodbyes to the Merrills before embarking back to 2019, one asked Burns, “When we get back, can we watch ‘Little House on the Praire?’”

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Information from: Battle Creek Enquirer, http://www.battlecreekenquirer.com

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