Editor’s note: Michael Schuman is a freelance travel writer whose articles have been published by multiple publications across the United States. Portions of this article are also featured at pilotonline.com.
STAUNTON, Va. — Alex Tillen had just finished crafting beer in the cozy farmhouse with the clay tile roof. The structure was built in England in the 17th century. So what is it doing in Staunton, Virginia?
First of all, it is part of the Frontier Culture Museum, and if this is a mere museum, then Chicago is a hamlet. Museum is a misnomer. This is a living history village of a different kind. It tells the story of immigration to colonial America, in this case Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and begins with the Old World, showing how life was lived on farms in west Africa, Ireland, England and Germany. Your tour through the world of colonial immigrants ends with looks at the lives of these immigrants after several years in the United States.
One approaches these time tunnel relics by an easy walking path, about 1.7 miles long. (Shuttles are available.) The first one they encounter is the 18th century farm of the Igbo people of west Africa, a reminder that not all immigrants came here by choice. Under an ominous gray sky, interpreter Jean Claude Hatungimana was busily attending garden yams before the clouds opened up. Yams were the cash crop in west Africa; some weighed as much as 10 pounds.
Inside and protected from the elements by a thatched roof, Hatungimana explained the purpose for the three farm buildings here. One was lived in by the father; the other two were homes for each of his wives, and the number of wives a man had depended on his wealth and status. With its multiple buildings, the west African farm is the roomiest of the Old World farms.
The English farm home was built in England’s West Midlands in the early 17th century. When we visited it was being refurbished and the exterior was a checkerboard of solid pink and white; it will be whitewashed using red brick dust for color when completed. Interpreter Alex Tillen had been brewing beer in a copper kettle much of the afternoon when we visited. Tillen advised that home brewing is hardly new. Beer was often served at family dinners instead of water; the safety of water was highly unreliable.
The Irish farm and the neighboring Irish forge were both constructed in Ulster in present day Northern Ireland in the early 18th century. The two-room home, made of native Irish sandstone and covered in whitewash, would have been cramped for a full family, but on our visit the only two occupants were farmer Gerry Kester working on a loom and resident cat Fiona curled up against fluffy pillows on a sturdy bed. Kester explained it was a woman’s job to spin flax into thread, but a man’s job to weave it into linen.
To some visitors’ surprise, a substantial number of German immigrants began moving into the Shendanoah Valley in the late 1720s. The multiple pairs of wooden shoes resting on a bench in the wattle and daub home offer evidence that farming was messy. They were more practical than leather shoes for laboring in dirt and mud and yes, they were worn outside of Holland.
It is a short walk from the Old World to early America, with its 1840s schoolhouse; three farmhouses depicting life here in the 1740s, 1820s and 1850s, respectively; and a Native American village called a ganatastwi. In the ganatastwi, each family lived in its own wigwam and residents traded with both settlers and other Indians in an open-air trading post, protected only by a roof of rough branches lashed together.
The three farmhouses illustrate not only life in these parts during different eras but the gradual Americanization of English, Scotch-Irish and German settlers. The 1740s farmhouse is a lonely log cabin, and its residents would have identified themselves as English, Irish or German —definitely not American. Irish and German settlers came here first, mostly on foot with pack mules from Pennsylvania. Many English arrived afterwards, coming on wagons, often with African slaves.
Life was simple and tough. The fireplace is small, a gourd carved into a ladle hangs from a wall, pewter tankards and plates sit on shelves and the bed is a crude creation crafted out of wooden planks and posts.
In the 1820s farmhouse, the fireplace is gaping, the tester bed is considerably more comfortable than the ramshackle bed in the 1740s farmhouse and a wanted poster offering $40 for runaway slaves Nelson and Betsey is displayed. Slave labor was by now commonplace, despite the fact that just a small portion of white residents in the valley’s nine counties were slave owners. However, slave rental between farmers was a regular practice.
European identities were starting to blur by this time, thanks to intermarriage and a growing market economy. For example, fewer ethnic Germans were sticking to their language and Old World customs. By the 1850s, the children and grandchildren of the first settlers considered themselves Americans. Hardly any books or newspapers were still being published in German.
The 1850s farmhouse is palatial by earlier standards. Interpreter Gigi Kelly, tending the fire in the two-story, multi-room house, explained that some families were now both cooking and heating their homes with cast iron stoves. A shelf is lined with familiar blue Spode china. Some residents were furnishing their homes with mass-produced clocks imported from New England and fancy furniture. However, many farmers still lived frugally, preferring to shun such frills and invest their money on improving their barns and other outbuildings and purchasing livestock.
The genesis of this living history village dates to 1975, when bicentennial fervor gripped the country like a vice. A committee was formed to look into the possibility of creating a museum to commemorate the people who settled the backcountry and the contributions they made to the nation’s heritage. The state encouraged the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, which operates two similar complexes in eastern Virginia, to do preliminary planning. Over a decade and millions of dollars later, the museum opened in September 1988 near the junction of interstates 81 and 64. In attendance for the opening were the British and German ambassadors to the United States, the undersecretary of state for Northern Ireland and the governor of Virginia.
If you go ...
Frontier Culture Museum, 1290 Richmond Road, Staunton, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., March 13-Nov. 30; and 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Dec. 1-March 11, 2018, $12 for adults, $11.50 for seniors, $11 for students ages 13 through college, $7 for children ages 6-12, free for children ages 5 and younger (540 332-7850 or frontiermuseum.org)