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Pioneer birthday parties

S.L.'s This Is the Place Heritage Park celebrates children’s birthdays the old-fashioned way

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If Jacob Smith had been born 150 years ago, a celebration of his birthday might have included things like a wagon ride or playing games: Thread the Needle, Corners, Blindman's Bluff. And, maybe, a cake decorated with homemade candles.

Jacob might have put on his best shirt and his favorite straw hat. He might have walked past log cabins and down a dusty road to meet his friends at the schoolyard.

On the other hand, he might have been working in the fields — too busy to have any kind of birthday celebration.

Pioneering, after all, involved hard work for people of all ages.

Luckily for Jacob, who turned 8 this summer, he could have his pioneer cake — and eat it, too — at This Is the Place Heritage Park.

The park provides pioneer-style birthday parties at Old Deseret Village that include the atmosphere and activities of those long-ago days.

"The pioneers did not put a big emphasis on birthdays or even most holidays, although there's some evidence that Brigham Young's family did try to make birthdays special," says Andrew Lambert, director of marketing at This Is the Place. So you can't really say this is the kind of birthday a pioneer child would have had. "But we provide activities they would have done in those years," he says.

The park gives the kids a unique venue for having fun, a chance to do things they could not do other places, he says. "And we hope it gives them a sense of history, of their heritage, a feeling for their place. We hope they get a sense of perspective, of the contrast to modern life. We hope they get an appreciation of the things they have and the sacrifices made by those who went before."

A lot of today's children can't imagine surviving without a VCR or video games, he says. "This gives them a chance to see that kids had fun without Disney movies and Nintendo, that they could make their own fun. That's a good lesson for kids."

The parties are tailored a bit to age and gender but generally include dressing in pioneer costumes — shirts and hats for the boys, bonnets and aprons for the girls — and activities such as dipping candles, making candy and playing pioneer games or dancing pioneer dances. There's a beehive-shaped birthday cake, served with ice cream. And lemonade to drink.

The parties are held in an upper room at the Huntsman Hotel. "One of my favorite things," says Miss Anna (Anne Squire), who helps with the parties, "is when we bring the kids up and let them peek through the old-fashioned keyhole. The room is all set up. And there's such a feeling of anticipation and surprise."

"I love to watch their faces while we play the games," adds Miss Mary (Marie Squire), another of the helpers. "These are authentic pioneer games, and they have to learn how to play them. But they have lots of fun."

It's a great way to celebrate his birthday, says Jacob. "Seeing how they made the candles and the mints was interesting. And the games were fun." All things considered, though, he's kind of glad he wasn't a pioneer.

"We thought it would be a fun way to make his eighth birthday more special," says his mother, Amy Smith.

"It's fun for them to do things they are not used to doing," adds Jeff Smith, his father. "And, it's easy for us — that's the nice thing!"

Birthday parties at the park cost $15 per person, with a minimum of eight children and a maximum of 12 allowed. That includes two adults at no charge. Recommended ages are 6 to 12. A special gift (usually a doll or pioneer game) is provided for the birthday child, and each youngster gets to take home a little bag of treats.

Parties are held year-round. But during the summer season, the price also includes admission to the park; after the party, the kids can wander around and participate in any other activities going on.

Proceeds from the parties, as well as from other activities, such as facility rentals, help subsidize the living history park, which is operated by a private, nonprofit foundation.

"It was changed from a state park to a private operation in 1998," explains Lambert. "And that opened a lot of doors for us as far as securing donations. All the buildings that are now being built are being paid for by private donations rather than state funds." The new Heber C. Kimball home, for example, is being paid for by descendants of the Kimball family.

Old Deseret Village has grown tremendously in the past five or six years. There are now approximately 40 buildings; some originals moved from other locations, some faithful reproductions. And another 15 to 20 structures are in various stages of planning and/or construction.

"The buildings are wonderful, and we are glad to have them," he says. "They add a lot to the scope of the park. But the real magic comes from our people; the ones who provide interpretation, who are out there telling stories, who are keeping pioneer history alive. The buildings are the body, but the people are the soul. They bring this place to life."

The park has between 30-40 paid employees; the rest — between 350 and 400 — are volunteers. "One of our biggest challenges is keeping them all in costume!" he adds.

The focus of the park, he says, is "edu-tainment. We hope to teach people, especially children, while they are not even aware they are learning. At the end, they will have had a good time, but they will also know more about the 19th century."

Regardless of individual beliefs, he says, "that is a heritage that affects all of us. We really have something special here that we want to showcase."

For information about birthday parties, facility rentals or other activities at This Is the Place Heritage Park, call 582-1847. Old Deseret Village is open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Special fall and winter activities are also scheduled. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for children and seniors and $20 for a family pass. The park is open daily from dawn to dusk.

E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com