Christmas Past is revisited

Memories: The farm museum's diaries and decorations evoke how Carroll celebrated long ago.

Westminster

December 03, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County Farm Museum has filled its annual holiday tour with fond memories of Christmas, borrowing words from diaries that speak of an era when families gathered at grandmother's house, sang songs around the piano and played masquerade games.

At the 1850s brick farmhouse in Westminster, the decor of "A Christmas Diary" recalls gifts as simple as a pair of skates, a little red wagon and an orange in a stocking.

Museum staff and volunteers wove snippets from diaries, long-yellowed newspapers and scrapbooks into the re-creation of a long-ago holiday, when battery-operated, digitally enhanced and electronically produced items were unknown.

"The pages of diaries unfold in our decorations," said Dottie Freeman, museum administrator. "We are asking visitors to take themselves back to that time. You can almost hear voices unfolding."

The Historical Society of Carroll County lent the museum several diaries and artifacts, including holiday advertisements from Westminster merchants. One writer detailed Christmas 1871, when masqueraders "fantastically dressed went through town to the amusement of all the people." Such memories became the foundation of the exhibit.

Since early October, volunteers have stitched wool ornaments, painted Fraktur - a German-style colored drawing - and put together centerpieces, swags and garlands. Expecting about 2,500 visitors during the two-weekend run, which begins today at the museum, staff and volunteers decorated the stately farmhouse, attending to the most minute details.

Debbie Leister, a volunteer who was still ironing table linens and dusting the tea room Wednesday, will serve as a tour guide. She hopes to engage visitors in conversation and gather more memories.

"We all learn more than all the information we give them," she said.

She also will usher guests into the traditional arts workshops, where they will see woven penny rugs, painted tin and pottery, and stenciled velvet.

"That is a traditional art from the 1600s," Leister said. "Long before they began painting Elvises on velvet, people used oil paint to stencil on fabric."

In the foyer, one of many trees shows how people decorated with what they had. It features popcorn strings winding around chromolithograph photos trimmed with tinsel, reproduced pages of diaries and hand-stenciled flags, a popular decoration that began during the Civil War. Visitors who look hard enough will also find on the tree the traditional pickle ornament and a bird's nest for good luck.

Notes detailing the Christmas memories of members of the Taneytown Lions Club are pinned to the garland adorning the staircase. One man wrote of opening presents with his 99-year-old grandmother; another wrote of cutting a tree and gathering holly and laurel. Taneytown Mayor Robert Flickinger recalled his little red wagon.

On Christmas Eve 1866, Mary Shellman, a pioneering working woman and civic activist in Carroll County, wrote, "we were standing in Ever-green, up to our knees. We have the library dressed beautifully. We have wreaths round all the large pictures, and over the windows and doors."

The seven farmhouse rooms provide details gleaned from the diaries of a teenager in Frizzellburg, a doctor in Uniontown, a tailor who became mayor of Frederick, a Finksburg farm family and a Westminster civic leader. Ada Florence Royer, age 16 in 1890, wrote of visits with friends and family at Christmas, viewing Christmas trees at local churches, and costume parties that went door to door.

"Twenty-six masqueraders went up the road all from New Windsor. Had lots of fun with them, they stopped out front," she wrote.

In the farmhouse parlor, a lifelike model of an elderly woman sits at a desk, pen in hand, poised to write in her diary. Teddy bears at work fill the children's bedroom, where cookies and tea await Santa, and a mother reads a bedtime story. In the master suite, a night-capped figure of a man reads a magazine in bed.

The farmhouse's dining room and kitchen are festooned with dried fruit, colorful candy, sugar-coated nuts and gingerbread houses. The museum held a seminar on how to make fake food, and those students piled the dining table with replicas of roasted turkey, coconut cake, scoops of ice cream formed into a pyramid, and a decanter of dandelion wine.

"It is really great to decorate in period, honing themes that work with that time," Freeman said. "People decorated with what they had and, often, what they would normally eat."

The museum is also compiling its own scrapbook of memories, many of them gathered from interviews with Carroll's senior citizens.

They spoke of roller skates, 2-cent Christmas cards, farm chores that did not stop for a holiday, and the crowds at Sunday school when the teacher doled out hard candy - "everyone showed up for the candy," one senior wrote.

"It is amazing how gifts have evolved into battery-operated games and something really big under the tree," Freeman said. "I remember when my grandmother redressed my doll in a Navy uniform to match my father's."

The museum is at 500 S. Center St., Westminster. Tours will be held today, tomorrow and Sunday and Dec. 10, 11 and 12. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $1 per person; children age 6 and younger with a paying adult will be admitted free.

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