American Girl

At a local history camp, Laura Ingalls Wilder is a goddess and the boys are nowhere to be found

At the back of a wood-framed classroom, a tiny girl in braids and a bonnet raises one finger. According to the classroom rules at 19th Century School Days Camp, raising one finger means she has to go to the outhouse. The schoolmarm doesn't notice. The girl in blue-sprigged calico, petticoat, and stiff leather boots wiggles her finger frantically, then her whole hand. Her fingernails are painted neon green. One desk over, a ponytailed schoolgirl in her grandmother's bonnet and apron notices her classmate's distress. Breaking camp-mandated Victorian etiquette, Joleen shouts, "Jade has to pee! Get a grip, girl! You're way old-fashioned."

Hard-core reenactors might flinch at the time-warped spectacle in the schoolroom. But the budding Method historians (grades one through eight) who have paid twenty dollars to enroll in 19th Century School Days Camp find the anachronisms stimulating. For the past five summers, Historic Murphy's Landing (a nonprofit "Living History" museum-cum-theme park) has conducted week- and daylong camp programs designed to acquaint kids with their "pioneer" past. Instructed by the park's trained "interpreters"--a mix of actors and volunteer history buffs in period attire--and observed by clumps of park visitors, campers engage in historical activities that range from whip cracking to candle dipping. Schooldays sessions feature a costumed school superintendent, a gentle-yet-firm schoolmarm, slates, McGuffey readers, spell-downs, and switches (which are never actually used).

Who wants to go to the blackboard and spell anachronism?: Costumed girls at 19th Century School Days Camp
Craig Lassig
Who wants to go to the blackboard and spell anachronism?: Costumed girls at 19th Century School Days Camp

If this summer's programs are any sign, the past belongs to girls. According to the park's education intern and camp counselor Meredith Hill, out of some 140 time-traveling campers this season, only a handful have been boys. Over a midday repast of Lunchables (b.y.o.) and lemonade in a 19th-century farmhouse, I ask this week's campers why.

"Boys are scared," 11-year-old Joleen suggests, although she doesn't say of what.

"Send 'em to the blacksmith!" shouts her 12-year-old classmate Jessica. "Lock 'em in the church and see what they do. Maybe they'll pray!"

"I can split my legs all the way and touch my nose to the ground," contributes eight-year-old Jade, the youngest and most costumed camper.

Nicole Murray, the park's education and research manager, has a slightly more considered theory on where the boys are. "Society markets the past to girls more," she says, citing Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series, Titanic's teenage fans, and the proliferation of American Girl and Dear America doll products. Even journalist Tony Horwitz discovered as many female as male Confederates in the Attic in his Southern tour of the Civil War heritage industry that has that title. As for our local youth-history scene, Brownies and Girl Scouts can earn folk arts and history badges through "Passport to the Past" programs at the village, while area Boy Scouts offer no such projects (although a lone Eagle Scout did fashion a split-rail fence to earn a service badge). "You [also] have neighborhood moms who'll bring whole subdivisions of girls out here, all outfitted in period costumes," Murray adds. It's suburban mothers, then, as much as toy marketers, who fashion the past for their girls--and chauffeur them to camp.

This week, in between spelling, penning, and recitation lessons, the campers offer impromptu theories about the perks of living in the past.

"No grades, and your parents won't yell at you," Jessica, a school-weary seventh grader, concludes.

"Not true! You get notes sent home and get a whuppin'," counters Joleen, who, after graduating from last week's session is an experienced time traveler.

Hannah, who wants to be a singer (though she did politely decline to participate in this morning's national anthem), figures "the clothes were the best part."

Again, Joleen strongly disagrees, shaking her bonneted head with vigor. "When it's 98 degrees, petticoats and bonnets just add heat and layers, and that sucks."

Later in the day, a dusty afternoon trek to the Town Hall precipitates a discussion about ladylike decorum, followed by an unplanned play-swooning session. "Women had to be proper," Joleen admonishes us. "No burping or running in public." She waits a beat. "I'm not very ladylike."

Indeed, these girls are less interested in reenacting the romantic past than retooling it to their present-day specifications. No wonder Laura Ingalls (in her pre-Wilder days) appeals to them, with all her feisty defiance of society's strictures--personified by prissy antiheroine Nellie Oleson. Laura is the perfect populist counterexample to all of history's gender rules.

"Wasn't it rude for girls to run?" asks Jessica at recess during a game of tag.

"Laura played baseball," Joleen states definitively.

"Did girls drive carriages?" somebody asks later as we lean against the fence feeding Buddy, a 20-year-old steed.

"Laura did," Joleen reminds us.

"Did ladies ever go hunting?" somebody wants to know as we pass an 1840s fur-trading post.

"Laura did," Joleen advises, relying on Melissa Gilbert here as her authority. But devout fan that she is, she departs in this respect from Laura's example: "I would never wear my animals!"

The best part of history camp, apparently, is being able to step in and out of historic character, assembling girlhood to one's liking. As for the highlights of 20th-century living, all the girls are in agreement: pools, cars, and air-conditioning, followed by bell-bottoms.

 

Murphy's Landing will be running 19th Century School Days Camp on select Saturdays in September and October. Boys are warmly welcomed. Call (612) 445-6901.

 
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