Cultivating farm history

Museum: Carroll directors hope to emulate Colonial Williamsburg's success by bringing lost farm arts to life.

July 10, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

In Colonial Williamsburg, they use a musket to mark history. In Westminster, it's the pitchfork.

At the Carroll County Farm Museum, officials are finding that by re-creating the lost art of daily life on a 19th-century farm -- much like the approach of their 300-year-old neighbor to the south -- they may finally come of age.

The museum's board hopes to capture some of the excitement of interactive Williamsburg on the sprawling, 33-year-old site outside Westminster.

Farm museum officials are working to convert the property into a living tribute to daily farm life in the late 1800s, hoping to emulate the success of Williamsburg, which draws 4 million visitors each year to the historic triangle that includes Jamestown and Yorktown.

"It would move the museum from a venue of holding events to an attraction in classification," said George E. Williams, director of tourism for the state's Department of Business and Economic Development. "It gives it another asset."

This year, as 100,000 people stream through the rustic gates of the 140-acre site, they'll see firsthand how simple folk and farmhands lived, as guides dressed in billowing calico skirts and overalls with straw hats lead demonstrations and teach crafts.

"People are coming here to do hands-on things like quilting, blacksmithing and basket weaving," said Dottie Freeman, the museum's administrator.

"We sort of missed a generation with those skills and now it's being revived. We want it to be a more educational facility -- to teach everyone as life was on a Carroll County farm," Freeman said.

With suburban sprawl continuing to eat up Carroll's farmland, the museum -- a former poorhouse built in 1852 -- offers a window on the qualities of rural life before automobiles, telephones and computers.

If the museum board has its way, the location will soon be home to the county's newest middle school classroom. Talks between Freeman and Carroll Public Schools Superintendent William H. Hyde are under way to explore instituting a living history course for pre-teens.

So far, the concept is a success, at least for the younger crowd.

"I just learned how to make ice cream," said 7-year-old Eric Forbes, who attended a popular weeklong history camp for children at the museum this week. "When I get older I can be a teacher and tell my students about the old days."

Added 8-year-old Amy Newbauer, who learned to make a toy from straw she gathered in a nearby field: "It's really different to learn how they did things -- they didn't have a lot of stuff."

The farm museum has for years been known for holding the Maryland Wine Festival in the fall and annual Fourth of July festivities.

Not until recently has it become a draw for history buffs eager to join its Academy of Traditional Arts, where crafts like wood carving, open-hearth cooking, soap making, chair caning and tinsmithing are offered each year. Last year, a group even learned how to carve a Santa from a yam.

The board this year decided to aggressively refocus the mission of the museum to include the live displays -- and visits by 10,000 schoolchildren from Maryland and Pennsylvania have provided a vote of confidence, Freeman said.

Others, though, simply come to find peace of mind.

"I go at least once a week," said Jean Mason, who brings her toddler to see the live farm animals. "The kids love it and they mimic the old way of life."

The demonstrations are staffed by a core of 150 dedicated volunteers, including a former Central Intelligence Agency official who teaches blacksmithing and a tinsmith who was named one of the nation's most talented craftsmen by Early American Life Magazine.

"We have to do more and more exciting things to keep these children interested," said Freeman who, like most of the officials who work at the museum was raised on a farm and steadfastly hopes to preserve her simple country roots.

Similar farm museums in Cooperstown, N.Y., and Lancaster, Pa., offer living displays that "help draw people" who love to see the rich costumes of the late 1800s, said Belle Peters, of the Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, where displays of 19th-century farm life attract 45,000 visitors each year.

But neither the Fly Creek Cider Mill and Orchard in Cooperstown nor Landis Valley is locally owned, as the Carroll County Farm Museum is -- or operated on a taxpayer-supported budget of $500,000 a year, board member George Grier said.

"We're equipping young people coming up," he said. "We think that if children come here and learn the value of a farm, they'll participate and say one day, `We want to preserve a farm.' "

The idea for a farm museum in Carroll was born in 1960 after a panel of residents recommended converting the almshouse into a museum as a way to promote tourism in the county, then a rural back road of Baltimore, and preserve a way of life that was rapidly being overrun by modern technology.

The facility opened in 1966 and since then, a 4-acre lake, windmill and Amish barn have been added to the site. It also has a springhouse, an antiques-filled display of an 1800s house and a unique collection of horse-drawn buggies that soon will have its own mini-museum.

Says Emma Beaver, who runs the arts academy at the museum and grew up on a 100-acre farm in Smallwood, south of Westminster: "If you don't know your roots, you won't know your future. What I want to give back is the gift of what I learned -- the joy of the farm."

Pub Date: 7/10/99

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