Children experiencing the 19th century

Second-, third- and fourth-graders are learning about the past this summer at Living History Camp.

July 24, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Decked out in a matching ankle-length skirt and long-sleeve shirt -- an outfit similar to what women wore during the 19th century -- Rebeqah Bystrak's hair dripped with sweat as she struggled to keep her smile from wilting on a humid 90-plus-degree day.

"It's fun feeling like we're back in time," said Rebeqah, 13, one of about 20 student volunteer camp counselors for the Living History Camp at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster. "But it's getting kind of hot."

Rebeqah, who will be a freshman at Century High in Eldersburg this fall, said she had it pretty easy because she wasn't wearing all the pieces of the typical woman's outfit from the 1800s -- including a hoop skirt or a corset under her clothes.

Nonetheless, draped in her handmade garb, she captured the essence of what it was like to do chores without the benefit of modern-day conveniences, such as central air-conditioning, that most of the campers realized they have been taking for granted.

The three-week camp, offered for more than two decades, exposes about 120 second-, third- and fourth-graders each summer to the way life was during the 1800s.

"It shows the children where the world has been and what it has come to," said Marian Witiak, who has been directing the camp for the past 10 years.

Most years, so many children express an interest in attending the camp that Witiak has to accept registrations using a lottery system.

"Some years we've had twice as many as we can accommodate," said Witiak, who teaches family and consumer science at North Carroll High in Hampstead. "We try to keep it small, so the children can get the most out of it."

Each week, a different grade of about 40 children attends the camp, where they learn how people in the 19th century lived, worked and played. Each day, the children do four activities that teach them such things as how laundry was done before washers and dryers were invented, how rugs were made from weaving looms and how thread was made from wool using a wooden drop spindle.

But it wasn't all work for the campers. They also learned how to make paper fans as well as kites that were made from newspaper, wooden rods and string.

"We're teaching them the kinds of crafts that children in that time would've done," said Kim Henn, 16, a junior at Westminster High who has worked as a volunteer camp counselor for the past six years. "We're educating them in a fun way [with the hands-on projects] ... and they're really getting into the history, which a lot of times is harder to do in the classroom."

Allison Harkness, 9, who will be in fourth grade this fall at Mechanicsville Elementary in Sykesville, said the camp experience will be helpful to her when she returns to school next month.

"We'll know a lot more and be able to picture better what we're learning [in history] because of what we're learning here," she said.

Hannah Webster, 9, of Port Allegany, Pa., agreed.

"I have learned a lot more here by seeing what people did a long time ago," said Hannah, who donned a bonnet and a 19th-century-inspired dress that her grandmother made for her. "This makes you feel like you understand better how they lived."

As they worked their way through projects in their exploration of the 1800s, one particular assignment seemed to challenge campers more than the others.

Trying to master the drop spindle -- a wooden rod with a round disc at one end and a piece of yarn tied to the other end -- to make thread, the campers moaned and groaned in mostly futile attempts to wrap a bushy wad of wool around the yarn's frayed end.

The goal was to attach the wool and the yarn, and then spin the spindle to twist the wool into a thin strand of thread. For those who managed to get the wool attached to the yarn, getting the two fibers to stay that way was much trickier. The drop spindles did more dropping than twisting.

"It's an ancient way of making thread," Witiak said as she helped one camper and then another and another get the hang of the spindle. "This is probably one of the hardest things they'll do this week."

Campers agreed life was much harder in the old days.

"It's much more complicated than I imagined," Allison said. "I wouldn't want to live in that time."

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