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Daniel Webster Birthplace
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Wednesday, May 12, 1999
Franklin, New Hampshire
by Michelle M. Silvestri, Neighbors Staff

Stepping back in time
   Living history museum provides some hands-on lessons

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Maybe taking out the trash isn't so bad after all.

When a chamber pot was pulled out from under the bed, a few gasps came from the group of fourth-graders. They had no trouble identifying what the pot was used for.

"Who do you think had to empty it in the morning?" asked Sharon Burnston, who runs the Daniel Webster Birthplace Living History Project in Franklin.

A few kids turned up their noses.

"This job was probably for kids your age," Burnston said.

One boy dramatically pinched his nose and squinted his eyes. "Ew, gross," he squealed, echoing his classmates.

Life sure was a lot different for a child growing up in the 18th century. That was just one of the things students took away from their visit to the birthplace of the famous Franklin orator and politician.

Students from the Bessie C. Rowell Elementary School play a game of hoop-and-stick during
a field trip to Daniel Webster's birthplace. Photo by Andrea Bruce, Monitor Staff

Three crews of about 40 fourth-graders from Bessie C. Rowell School in Franklin visited the birthplace in conjunction with their year-long study of New Hampshire history. They learned what is was like to live in the 1700's by cooking by a hearth, learning the basics of spinning wool and playing with period toys.

The field trip was paid for by the Franklin Historical Society, which helped get the living history museum started two years ago.

Norman Bushman, president of the society, said the birthplace is a valuable teaching tool for students, but the school couldn't afford a trip. The society didn't want the kids to lose out on the historical gem in their own back yard.

"The whole society voted and we decided to pick up the tab because it was our project, and we're proud of it," Bushman said.

They paid the $5.00 per child fee for the 114 fourth-graders and the transportation costs for three bus trips.

Watching one group of students get their introduction to the birthplace was a treat for Raymond Beaupre, president of the society. "This is the best way to educate - hands-on involvement," he said.

And that's exactly what the students got.

Sitting at a wooden table in front of an open hearth, a group of students made applesauce, 18th century-style. They carefully used knives to peel and cut up a bowl full of apples, giving each other sidelong glances to see if they were doing it correctly.

"I've always used a potato peeler," said one girl to a classmate.

"It must have been hard for them."

In brass mortars - small bowl-like containers used in the 1700's - the students took turns breaking up the basic applesauce ingredients of cinnamon and sugar.

Over the clangs of pounding cinnamon, 10-year old Danny Berwick said, "This is better. You have more fun, plus it's easier to cook."

They watched Burnston mash up the apples in a pail over the fire and learned about the history of the birthplace.

Most of the students were amazed that households like Daniel Webster's lived without running water, refridgerators and microwaves. But that wasn't 10-year old Aaron Smith's biggest shock.

"No video games," he said.

What he learned children did play with, when they weren't doing chores, were hoop-and-stick, tops and even a yo-yo.

Despite a light mist, many students rolled up their long pants and took to the grass to get their chance at trying the outdated toys.

Jayson Andrews, dressed in a period costume,
is seen through a window of Webster's home.

Hoop-and-stick was traditionally played by boys back in Webster's day, said their guide Jayson Andrews, who was dressed in period clothing. "Graces," a group game where a wooden ring is tossed back and forth with two wooden sticks, was usually played by girls.

But it's a different era now and last week, the girls primarily played with the hoops and the boys played "Graces."

When 10-year old Page Proux first tried her hand at the hoop-and-stick game, she couldn't keep the hoop vertical. But after a few practices, she was off and running down the grass, smacking the hoop with the stick.

"It was hard when I first tried, but it gets fun after while," she said.

Nine-year old Stacie Benoit usually plays with baby dolls or rides her bike for fun. But this afternoon she played with a whizzer, a circular piece of wood that whizzes back and forth on a piece of string.

"It's cool being back in the olden days when they made stuff like this," she said.

Getting a hands-on approach to learning is what Andrews thinks is important in education.

"It really reinforces the understanding of that time period," Andrews said.

Hands-on experience is used often in music and science courses, she said, but is missing from history. A full-time graduate student majoring in education and heritage studies, Andrews said she hopes the birthplace visit will make students like history better.

"It's cool to learn about the way they lived," said 9-year old Nicole Omeara. "But I'm glad it was back then, because, well, I hate dresses."

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