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History - It's Alive!
The Frontier Culture Museum

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History - It's Alive!
At the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia

By Rochelle Caviness - December 3, 2002

History is the story of our past. It serves as a window through which we can explore the events and personalities that have shaped our development - personally, culturally, and on a national level. The study of history can be a lively and engaging endeavor. Unfortunately, some people find the study of history to be a bit on the dull side. In part, this is because they can find it difficult to relate to past events or to envision what day to day life was like in a period that is vastly different from their own. For most people, their only forays into the past are conducted via books. Granted, books provide an unparalleled window to the world, but let's face it, nothing beats experiencing the real thing. Since time travel is not yet possible, can one ever really "experience" the past? It just isn't possible, or is it?

One mechanism that can be used to experience the past is to visit a living history museum where costumed 'interpreters' help visitors explore a unique period in history. There are many such museums around the world. Most just demonstrate one specific culture or time span. There is, however, one living history museum that covers a wide cross section of time and cultures. This museum, the Frontier Culture Museum, is located in Staunton, Virginia.

The Frontier Culture Museum focuses on the history and culture of the Valley of Virginia and the many peoples that settle in the area. Spread throughout the grounds of the museum there are four working farms; the German Farm, the Scotch-Irish Farm and forge, the English Farm and the American Farm. These farms are currently demonstrating what farm life was like during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. Each farm in the museum represents an authentic recreation of a typical farmstead associated with a particular immigrant culture that settled in the region, and during a specific period. Each farm is inhabited by interpreters dressed in period costumes, who try to accurately depict what life was like on the farm, during the period that they are demonstrating.

Before touring the museum's farms, be sure to stop by the visitor's center (this is also the location where you buy your tickets, so you cannot miss it.) Here you will discover rotating exhibits that describe various aspect of Virginian and American history. You can also sit in on a short movie that describes the background of the museum, how it came into the being, and the history of the various groups that settled in the Valley of Virginia. I highly recommend that you watch to this film before touring the museum as it will provide you with important background information that will increase your understanding of the history you will be witnessing while touring the museum, and it will explain how the museum came into being.

The buildings on each farm are original buildings, and not facsimiles. All the buildings were relocated from their original locations to the museum's grounds. For example, the German Farm represents a typical farm set-up from the Rhineland-Palatinate are of Germany around the time of 1710. The main farmhouse on this farm is an original peasant farmhouse, from Hördt, Germany, which was built around 1688. The house, barns, and associated outbuildings, were acquired by the museum and then dissembled, transported from their original locations to the museum, and then painstakingly reassembled on the grounds of the museum.

The museum's farms are set around a 5/8 mile loop. As you visit each farm, you will be greeted by costumed interpreters dressed in period clothing. They will give you a tour of their 'home' and tell you about their day to day life, including the work that they do in the house and in the fields, and what they do for fun. Each farm has an assortment of animals that represent the livestock that a typical farmer of the same class and period would have had. The interpreters will also explain to you why they left their country of origin and why they choose to settle in the Valley of Virginia. The interpreters will also answer questions - but only from the viewpoint of their historical persona!

Throughout the museum you will see people working in the fields, cooking, playing, spinning, in other words, the interpreters try to portray what day to day life was like on the various farms. However what really makes this museum an unforgettable experience is the enthusiasm of the interpreters and their ability to "really" get into their roles. For example, they refer to the farm as 'theirs' and speak of their cattle, their fields, how cold it gets in the winter and what it is like when they have to huddle around the stove or fireplace in order to keep warm. If you have a good imagination, you can truly imagine that you have been transported back into time - save for the smell. The modern interpreters at the museum bathe regularly - something their historic counterparts where unlikely to have done. In the past people did not bathe as often as we do today, in part because without running water, and water heaters, taking a bath was a real chore. The only other item that the museum lacks, in the realm of authenticity, are out houses or other similar facilities. You will find, however, that the museum does have modern bathroom facilities for visitors.

In keeping with their goal of complete authenticity, the museum strives to grown only authentic strains of crops and to raise livestock authentic to the various periods being 'interpreted'. Often they have found that a particular plant strain, or livestock breeds is now rare and hard to find - or worse, extint. When they discover one of these rare varieties, the museum takes the role of conservator, preserving these varieties for future generations. By growing period crops, visitors can see, feel, smell, and often taste, how the crops have changed over time. Visitors can also get an idea of just how much work was involved in planting, harvesting, and preserving enough food to last a family through until the next harvest. While touring the museum, you can also observe many rare animal breeds. These animals range from the Silver Spangled Hamburg chickens that have massive feathery heads that look like they are wearing huge hats covered with feathers, to Cotswold sheep which can be found on the English farm. In some case, original species could not be procured. In such cases the museum has elected to use the closest cousin that they could find. For example on the Scotts-Irish farm you will see white Landrace pigs, rather than the now extinct Irish Greyhound pigs, which would have been found on an Ulster tenant farm in the early 1700's. Other animals you might see on your tour include Percheron horses, Toulouse geese, Ossabaw Island pigs, Milking Shorthorn cattle, Spitzhauben chickens, and Kerry cattle, to name but a few.

Walking around the museum is very easy. The pathway maintains a slop of 3 degrees or less, and the pathway is constructed of a hard material that is comfortable to walk on. It is also easy to navigate using a wheel chair or with a white cane. Benches are scattered throughout the grounds, should you wish to take a rest. As well, if you are vising the museum with small children you can rent a red wagon to cart them around in. Electric 'golf' carts that holds 4 to 6 people are also available for rent. This is a perfect way for groups to tour the museum if one or more of their party might have difficulty walking from farm to farm. Plus, the museum also offers the use of motorized wheelchairs to mobility impaired visitors. Visually impaired visitors will find the museum particularly interesting, as you can touch just about everything! Plus the interpreters provide an excellent overview of the farms, and they are more than willing to go into more detail if you have any questions. And, upon request, the museum can provide you with a map and information on the museum in large print.

The Frontier Culture Museum is constantly expanding! A wetlands area is currently being developed along the main road leading to the museum. And, the museum has recently deconstructed the Bowman House in preparation to moving it to the museum. This 3 to 4 room house is an original structure to the Shenandoah Valley, and was built around 1773 by German immigrants. It is scheduled to be reconstructed on the museum grounds sometime in the Fall of 2003. Other plans currently underdevelopment included the addition of an African-American farm, as well as a Native American Farm.

On the museum grounds you will also find a 1915 Octagonal Barn and a refurbished 1950's dairy barn that can be rented for groups or meetings. The museum also offers the use of its 100-seat lecture hall and 80-seat theater. The museum also offers special events and programs throughout the year, such as food tasting extravaganzas, witnessing historic food preservation techniques, and musical events.

When planning your visit to the museum, plan on spending at least 2 ½ - 3 hours on site. But be forewarned, you could easily spend a whole day at the museum as there is a lot to see and experience here - and you'll want to take your time so that you can enjoy it all. Also, be prepared for changes in the weather. By its very nature, most of the museum is located 'outdoors' so, depending on the forecast, you may want to take an umbrella, sun screen, or a winter coat along with you - depending on the time of year you will be visiting.

In brief, the Frontier Culture Museum offers visitors - of all ages - an unprecedented opportunity to step back in time and get a first hand glimpse of what life was like for the early settlers to the Valley of Virginia. Best yet, it helps to show how the area changed over time, and how these changes still influence us today, thereby not only bringing the history of the region to life, but also making it relevant to the modern 'student'. Until such time as a time machine is invented, a visit to this museum represents one of the best ways - and the most fun means - of really getting a "taste" of history.

Detailed information about the Frontier Culture Museum, which is also known as the Museum of American Frontier Culture, can be found online at:
http://frontiermuseum.org/.

Here you will find directions to the museum, as well as information about the history of the museum, admission fees, hours of operations, special events, and related information. You can also request information about the museum by writing, or calling:

Frontier Culture Museum
P.O. Box 810
Staunton, VA 24402-0810

Phone: (540) 332-7850

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