Visit brings history home for kids

Freedom Elementary students take a tour through the past as they enter a Westminster house and step back 200 years

May 13, 2007|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

In a matter of minutes, the third-graders from Freedom District Elementary stepped off their yellow school bus in 2007 and leapt back in time to 1807.

There were no screens on house windows to keep out flies.

No electric lights to illuminate their homework at night.

And, for once, the students had to consider that bedbugs were real -- and might actually bite.

Those revelations, interspersed with games and a taste of 19th-century fashion, were part of a tour of a historic Westminster home on Main Street, and a lesson on life in Carroll County two centuries ago.

Named for its different owners, the Sherman-Fisher-Shellman House was built in 1807 and restored in 1991, said Timmi Pierce, the Historical Society of Carroll County's executive director.

The historical society's founders saved the home from demolition in 1939, and it served as the society's headquarters "for many years," Pierce said.

Freedom's pilot tour sprang out of a partnership between the school system and historical society, which had given tours to students about a decade ago, Pierce said. The house was then occasionally used as a gallery, before the society decided to return it to a museum , Pierce said.

"It's reinforcing the history of the county for the children," Pierce said.

At the Sherman-Fisher-Shellman House on Thursday, students were steeped in history, as women dressed in long pink and blue dresses guided them through the parlor, kitchen, dining room and bedroom.

Debbie Leister, a volunteer docent, stood in the parlor, which had been "straightened up" for visitors, with its furniture pushed against the walls to make room in the center. Leister pointed to the gilded rectangular mirror above the fireplace.

"What is it for?" Leister asked, adding that the mirror was obviously too high for someone to peer into.

After several guessed, 9-year-old Ben Potthast raised his hand.

"It reflects the candlelight?" he said.

"You are very good," Leister said.

Before moving into the dining room, Ben and his peers tried their hands at parlor games, such as "Jack Straws" -- similar to pick-up sticks -- "ball in a cup" and wooden pinball.

Those experiences make history more vivid, said Stephanie King, supervisor of elementary social studies.

"You can read about things in a book, but to actually come here ... this really solidifies it for them," King said.

The tour was also designed to correlate with Maryland's Voluntary State Curriculum for elementary social studies, King said, which aims to show children how people and societies change over time and to teach them how people lived in the past.

Once all the elementary school principals know of the tours, King said, she hopes more student groups will participate in the coming school year.

During their morning visit, a group of Freedom students walked into the small bedroom next to the dining room in the Shellman House, where Barbara Guthrie, chair of the society's education committee, waited for them.

The bed was called a "rope bed," she explained, because a rope underneath allowed people to tighten the mattress to keep it from sagging while they slept.

"When you go to bed, has anyone ever said to you, `sleep tight?'" Guthrie said.

The students nodded.

"That's where that expression came from," Guthrie said.

The same goes for the second part of the saying, when finding little critters in bed was a real possibility, she added: "Don't let the bedbugs bite."

Barbara Greaves, a costume adviser and member of the education committee, pulled items out of a chest sitting in a corner of the room: a hat, a white bonnet, a baby's long, white christening gown. The kids took turns trying on different articles of clothing.

"Would you like to live in the olden days?" Greaves asked as they prepared to move toward the kitchen.

"Yeah," said Colin Burke, 8, with enthusiasm.

But John Shopman, 8, wasn't quite so thrilled with the idea.

"No," John said, "No TV."

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

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