History comes alive at Sutter's Fort
Homeschool groups experience 19th-century life
By: Rose Godfrey
May 2, 2012
A trip to Sutter's Fort is somewhat standard fare for schoolchildren studying fourth-grade history, but 32 homeschool families from CORE at The Camptonville Academy put a spin on that experience last month as participants in the Sutter's Fort Environmental Learning Program.
Lisa and Jonathan Fox, field trip coordinators for the local charter school, spent a lot of time organizing the annual field trip to Sutter's Fort, which takes participants back to 1846.
"It was always our favorite field trip every year," Lisa Fox explained, and when the opportunity came to coordinate the experience this year, the Fox family jumped right in. Lisa and Jonathan had some innovations in store, hoping to make the overnight trip an even better fit with the homeschool philosophy.
Some aspects of the program are specified by the Sutter's Fort ELP. Participants are required to dress in period costumes. Each person attending must have an old-time looking nametag that has a character name on it. A list of actual pioneers is provided, along with a brief biography. Participants can choose a character and then research that pioneer as much or as little as they like.
Beyond those basic requirements, there is flexibility. Because family-centered learning is so inherent in homeschooling, the Foxes wanted to extend that model to the field trip. In years past, all parents participated in running the program, generally staying at one station while their kids rotated through or guiding groups of other people's children through those stations.
This year, the Foxes set up groups consisting of whole family units so that parents and children could experience the fort's learning stations together. Many of the stations were manned by adults with older children or even grandparents who were recruited to help out for the day. Lisa says that preliminary feedback about this aspect has been positive, both from attendees and staff at Sutter's Fort.
Implementing an apprentice program also brought back families that had older students. Dave and Leah Ewen have taken their children to Sutter's Fort several times over their 11 years of homeschooling. "We thought we were done with that trip, but they came up with the apprentice program, and the kids wanted to participate," Leah said. While their kids were off apprenticing, Dave and Leah ran the candle-making station.
Fifteen-year-old Megan Ewen worked at the trade store, selling 1840s-era toys and snacks to children in the program.
For 17-year-old Derek Ewen, the apprentice program was an opportunity to learn about trapping animals and tanning hides so he could pass along that knowledge to others. Derek paired at the station with Don Fox. As each family group passed through the trapper station, Derek demonstrated musket function, showed children how to set beaver traps and explained how to brain tan a hide.
Trapping and tanning wasn't all Derek learned. While at the fort, in character as Joseph Buzzell, he ran into a wife and two children he hadn't realized he had.
One of those children was 5-year-old Emery Huxley, attending from the CORE Placer group. Her character name, Ellen Buzzell, was on her nametag. When she went to the trapper station, she recognized that her last name was the same as the trapper's apprentice, and she was excited to meet her "father."
Emery's mother, Shawna Huxley, was leading a group of families through the fort experience and took a picture of the duo. Homeschooling for two years, this was the Huxleys' first time to participate in the Sutter's Fort ELP experience. Initially, they were a little overwhelmed at the task of getting costumes, nametags and characters together for the big day, but after arriving at the Railroad Museum for the wagon ride to the fort, her anxiety evaporated.
"I don't know if I could pick out just one thing that was our favorite," Shawna said. "We all just loved it."
In addition to candle-making and tanning, family groups learned about blacksmithing, baking, doll-making, rope-making, carpentry, spinning and weaving. The most adventurous participants stayed for a dinner of stew cooked over the fire in cast iron cookware and then spent the night at the fort.
"I will remember it for the rest of my life," Shawna said, "and so will my kids."