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We Went Uphill, Both Ways

A school-led trip to the Wilton Historical Society is magical for the town's fourth grade kids, teaching what life was really like in town during the 18th century.

“Mom, when am I gonna get an iPhone?”

“Well, if I lose this one, can’t we just buy another one?”

“Timmy has soccer Monday, lax on Tuesday, tutoring Wednesday, soccer again on Thursday, and guitar lessons Friday. Between driving all three kids to different games on Saturday and Sunday, I’m sorry, we just can’t fit in any playdates.”

So goes life for a 10 year old in Wilton, CT circa 2012.

Thanks to the , that same 10 year old just got a glimpse of what life was like for a child in Wilton in the 1700s.

With the help of a grant from the Trust, ’s almost 300 fourth graders recently spent a day at the Historical Society, immersing themselves in the way life was in 18th century Wilton. It’s a trip the schools have been taking the fourth graders on for almost the last 10 years, and it’s an annual treat for the kids as well as the adults who give of their time to help out.

Dozens of those volunteers, many dressed in period costume, took part in the exercise, helping the students try hands-on tasks like needlepoint, weaving, spinning wool, woodworking, sawing and more. The re-enactors and docents demonstrated what it was like for a family to live in a one room house, and what life would have been like for a child alive in a much different time-gone-by.

I was privileged to accompany my son’s class on their trip as a chaperone, and I think I got just as much out of the experience as they did. Perhaps the best part of the day was the early realization of how much the kids were looking forward to this trip.

When my son woke early that day and insisted on getting dressed like a colonial character, tucking his pants into knee-high socks and donning a button up shirt, I knew it had to be something very special for him to forego his usual uniform of colorful lacrosse shorts and soccer jersey.

As much as I anticipated a bus ride of teasing for him, it was a pleasant (and relieving) surprise to see so many of the other fourth graders dressed just like him. Dozens of boys who looked just as colonial as mine, and just as many girls ran through Cider Mill’s halls wearing bonnets and aprons. Even many of the teachers dressed up in costumes as well.

The kids have been learning about local history for a few years, as the schools have taken them on field trips to the Hurlbutt Street Schoolhouse in second grade, to Ambler Farm several times, and now with this trip.

My son’s social studies teacher had been prepping them with a participatory role-playing lesson over several weeks in which each student took on a character from the era to learn about how the government formed, how they traded goods, and how they amassed land.  For this trip to the Historical Society, they’d also been given a Wilton historical figure to play—my son was a Hurlbutt patriarch who was a weaver—and learned from a dossier on their character what they could barter and trade at Captain Belden’s store.

Almost everything was hands-on, or at least interactive and sensory. For our first stop, we sat in a small, darkened, smoky outbuilding watching a blacksmith hammer a nail out of iron that he’d heated to over  600 degrees. That was the museum complex’s Abbott Blacksmith Shop, a fully functioning iron workshop.

The kids got to saw, level wood, separate flax fibers to make linen and write with quill pens. They climbed up narrow, steep stairs and crowded around the loom to learn about blanket weaving. And each child got to take home their own needlepoint sampler after trying different stitches while they heard how both boys and girls learned to sew in the 1700s.

We all learned such interesting facts—did you know the word ‘spinster’ came from the single unmarried sister who lived with her brother’s family and earned her keep by spinning wool? Who also knew that, unlike men, women of the time didn’t have pockets on their skirts, and instead they wore a small sac around their waist.

As all the fourth graders sat on one of the old building’s hard wood floors to eat their brown bagged lunch, they listened to a demonstrator who was wearing the clothes of a revolutionary soldier and holding a rather large musket. He described how the soldiers of the time fought, and what war would have been like.

The kids sat rapt with attention, and I got a chuckle at how most of the boys were especially entertained during this time, asking question after question about how the musket would be shot, how the musket would be held and cleaned, and whether the man would shoot it today. The historical society completely knew its crowd and played it to the hilt.

Everything was masterful that day—to see how the town had come alive for these kids in such a different way was so inspiring. The names Belden and Hurlbutt took on such different meaning beyond road names, and I’m sure the kids will look at some of the local architecture—perhaps even their own houses—in a new way.

But for me it was discovering how the most valuable thing in the museum that day was the partnership between the town, two community organizations, our school, and local volunteer residents. We are fortunate our children got the opportunity to see the heritage of this town from the inside out.

The experience also empowered me with a new parenting tool.  Now that we know what life was like for kids in colonial Wilton, it will be an easy memory my son can reference if I ever need him to.

“Mom, why can’t I play the Wii today? It’s just not fair!”

“Well, gee son, since we’re in Wilton, I thought you could get in touch with our town roots and do a little sewing for me, and there’s a big pile of wood that needs a good sawing. You know, those revolutionary Wilton kids never had a Wii.”

“Mom, all my friends have iPhones!”

“Well, we know that once upon a time, other kids in Wilton made do with a whole lot less, so I think you can go a little longer without such an unnecessary gadget.”

Thank you, Wilton Historical Society, for so many, many reasons.

Eustace Tilley June 04, 2012 at 11:09 AM
A gem in our own backyard...wouldn't it be nice if we had the resources to add a replica of old Wilton along the lines of Sturbridge Village
Lee Aydelotte June 04, 2012 at 12:27 PM
I went on that field trip and was so impressed. My Son, who loves this period of history, was even more impressed. Kudo's to all that were involved.

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