How 5th-graders step back into the 18th century; Old Gaol Museum is 'Living History'

''I lived two days in 1789!'' The 10-year-old's eyes were wide with excitement as he explained how he took a giant step back in time to become the sea captain's son.

''The Old Gaol was wicked excellent! You got to make fish nets and you had to cook your own lunch. And you learned to weave and make candles and cider. You also had to card and tease wool and gather wood. And you would have to mind your manners too!''

The Old Gaol Museum, in the sea coast town of York, was built in 1719 as the King's Prison for the Province of Maine, then part of Massachusetts. Along with its sister building, the Emerson-Wilcox House (1742), which at various times through its colorful past served as general store, tailor shop, tavern, and post office, it is open from mid-June through mid-October.

Costumed interpreters provide visitors with historical tours of authentic period rooms which served as living quarters for gaolers' families, stone dungeons, and prisoners' cells. Colonial recipes can be sampled from the kitchen hearth, and a resident weaver demonstrates her skills turning homespun, naturally dyed yarn into cloth.

However, the Old Gaol is not just another historical building to enjoy touring.

For two weeks in late autumn the museum comes back to 18th century life when every local fifth-grader actively participates in its past. The Living History Program, created by museum director Eldridge Pendleton, with the education committee and initially funded by a small grant from the Maine State Commission on the Arts and Humanities, has become an event involving the entire community.

It is now sponsored by Historic Landmarks Inc., the Old York Historical and Improvement Society, the York school system, and the Old Gaol Museum. Its overwhelming success these past five years has depended to a great extent upon the large number of volunteers who role-play actual farmers' wives, members of the gaolers' family, fishermen, weavers, sheriffs, and even prisoners of postrevolutionary York.

Dr. Pendleton believes the museum, with its emphasis on local collections, has the responsibility of community outreach through education. And not just the standard museum visits by schoolchildren. He explains:

''This program has touched the lives of more people in this community than anything else we've done. It is important that the museum is used by students, rather than just being toured or looked at.''

Living history, or understanding the past by having experienced it directly, thus bringing history to life outside the pages of textbooks, has become increasingly popular all over the country.

Teachers and museum personnel often work together to develop programs enabling students to become actively involved with the material culture of their ancestors. Through such experiential learning, young people become doers of history and understand in a personal way what life was like in early America. They relate to history far better than by memorizing dates on the blackboard. Apparently what makes living history at the Old Gaol Museum unique though is the emphasis on local history.

''They're not just learning wool and butter here,'' Dr. Pendleton explains. ''They're learning firsthand what life was like for a child who lived in their town 200 years ago!''

Each youngster actually assumes the identity of a York child of 1789.

Several weeks before their scheduled visit to the Old Gaol, members of the education committee visit classes in costume to talk about what life was like when ours was a new nation and George Washington its President.

They discuss artifacts which people used, chores expected of children then, and how children were expected to behave. Then each child receives an 18 th-century name and has to stick to it throughout the program.

Skills in researching primary sources are developed when the students work with genealogies, wills, and probate inventories to learn about their Colonial counterparts. The classroom is noisy with the excitement of learning.

''I grew up to be a judge. And look at this! My father was the representative to Continental Congress.''

''I had 13 children and lived to be 90 years old.''

''I inherited my father's mill and owned a big farm, too.''

One youngster was surprised to find beehives listed in his inventory until he realized that his ''family'' had honey for their porridge and made candles of beeswax, something he will do himself when he visits the gaol.

Each student places his miniature house on a huge topographical map of York. This gives him a real sense of place in relation to their community of the past.

Costumes are important for children about to step back into the 18th century. They clamor off school buses in mob-caps and long skirts or breeches, vests and tricornered hats. ''I feel like I really am back in 1789!''

Even school lunches require authenticity: cornbread and cider carried in a basket, instead of peanut butter and cans of soda.

The museum educator accompanies them from school and hiking down, they have to imagine what it was like walking to school when this busy street was a mere cow path. They are challenged to think how the local landscape has changed. What houses might we have passed back then?

Half the class spends the first day seated on wooden benches in a one-room schoolhouse of 1740. Students study copies of ''The New England Primer,'' write with quill pens in copybooks, practice ''cyphering'' on slates, and compete in a spelling bee.

''Our schoolmaster was very good to us and he never used that whip on anyone!'' Using the ''bubbler'' for a drink means scooping water from a pail with a clay beaker. Lunch is eaten outside, where afterward the children play Colonial games like blindman's buff.

The smell of chimney smoke is inviting as the rest of the class arrives at the gaol. There is no sex differentiation when it comes to chores. The boys enjoy spinning, churning butter, kneading bread, and making trundle beds as much as the girls like tying fish nets. Retired fishermen role-play mariners of 18 th-century York.

''You need lots of patience to make those knots,'' one boy explained. ''And old Captain Donnell gives you lots of fishing lore, too.''

In small groups the children take turns pressing apples into cider, washing reproduction redware in wooden buckets, toting wood for the bake oven where fresh bread, johnnycake and apple slump are pulled out on a long poled iron peel. There are candles to be dipped over the fire outside, which provides the family's winter supply of light. In the weaving room, each student has a turn teasing and carding, then spinning the wool. Then they sit at the loom, throwing the shuttle enough times to weave a square of cloth to take home.

An important aspect of the program is that the children are really needed. If they don't get the fish cut up and those potatos peeled, there won't be any chowder for the noonday meal. Role-playing is constant. Many volunteer housekeepers, spinsters and cooks are mothers of the children, who have gone through a daylong training program. Some are so enthusiastic they return as permanent helpers during subsequent Living History weeks. And there is no age limit. Preschoolers role-play little brothers and sisters to help churn butter or set tables, while Grandma Moody sits by the fire, knitting.

The highlight of the day comes after lunch, when prisoners are prodded up Gaol Hill with Sheriff Moulton's musket. Bedraggled volunteers, impersonating someone described in ''Gaoler's Records,'' are signed in and escorted to cells by the excited youngsters.

''Why, 'tis poor Widow Card, arrested for debt again,'' the gaoler's wife says, sympathetically. ''Take her something to eat, children. She appears so worn and thin.''

Another prisoner was Benjamin Goodwin, caught stealing grain from the gristmill. In his wig and tattered clothing, few youngsters recognized him as their school superintendent. Sometimes a prisoner escapes (with a little help from the children!) and they delight in the chase and recapture.

Using historical buildings as learning labs, these fifth-graders come to terms with the realities of Colonial life. ''I most enjoyed netmaking, spinning, weaving, and cooking,'' one boy wrote in his follow-up classroom essay. ''The opportunity is so wonderful, it's a shame that it is only two days in a lifetime.''

It is a unique way for youngsters to learn local history, which is a microcosm of American history. The setting, artifacts, and costumes are authentic, but it is by becoming a member of an 18th-century family that they really learn to appreciate life as it was lived in this small sea-coast community two centuries ago.

Ongoing interest in history and pride of common heritage have come directly from participation in this program.

''I just wish we could do this wonderful educational program every day of school we have,'' one student wrote.

The Living History Program has been so successful that the Old Gaol Museum is now developing a resource kit for other communities and schools that might wish to set up a similar program based on their own local histories and utilizing their own historical sites.

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