Colonial Winter Life:
Fairfield Museum program offers hands-on activities
(Posted to Fairfield.Patch.com 2/25)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – Muskets. Linen clothing. Chestnuts. Cinnamon cakes. All the ingredients of a fun-filled and educational program hosted by Fairfield Museum and History Center.
A half-day session held Friday morning as part of February Vacation programming, “Colonial Winter Times” offered children grades 3 to 6 with the opportunity to see how boys and girls spent the dark days of winter during the 1700s. Seventeen participating students tried on reproduction clothing, learned about military weaponry and gear, planted chestnut seeds and helped prepare edible treats.
A highlight of the class was the guest appearance of Agricultural Scientist Sandy Anagnostakis from the New Haven-based Agricultural Experiment Station. In the Center’s Educational Classroom, where the program was conducted, she spoke about her work trying to repopulate New England with American Chestnut trees, relied upon in Colonial times as a critical resource with many uses. The trees, which were the most dominant tree in Connecticut, were almost completely wiped out by a blight that appeared in 1904.
“At one time, a squirrel could go over 1,000 miles from chestnut tree to chestnut tree, Maine to Georgia, without touching ground,” said Anagnostakis. “They were very important as our country was being colonized. The trees produced tasty nuts but also wood that was very strong and used for floors, furniture and buildings. The additional advantage is that chestnut wood doesn’t rot and lasts very long.”
Walter Matis, a museum volunteer leading the session, added, “Chestnut trees were also a source of tanic acid in Colonial times, which was used in the process of turning animal skins into leather.”
Anagnostakis explained that the chestnuts we see today are European that have been cross-bred with Japanese chestnuts. While the latter were resistant to the blight, they are not good timber substitutes as the trees don’t grow as big as the American Chestnut tree.
In an effort to spur the return of the American Chestnut, program participants were given chestnut seeds, moistened soil and pots and guided on planting them. “You’ll take these home and, hopefully, over time, we’ll see them come back,” said Matis.
On a side note, in spring 2013, as a gift to Fairfield, the Fairfield Garden Club will be planting 100 chestnut seedlings across 10 sites to further drive the revival of chestnuts.
Brushing dirt from their hands, session participants switched gears to help prepare Dutch Cinnamon Squares. “These would be a winter treat in Colonial times as they contain sugar, which was hard to come by then,” said Matis as the children passed around a mixing bowl and took turns stirring ingredients.
“I’ve had these cinnamon squares at another museum program,” said Francis Ohe, 10. “They’re really good, like little muffins.”
As the treats, which were later enjoyed with hot chocolate, baked, Matis broke out period clothing, which all the children had a chance to try on. Items included daily wear like tri-corn hats, casual and dressy frocks, and chemises.
“People then always dressed in layers,” said Matis. “Boys and girls both wore gowns or chemises that would be worn both to bed and as underclothing. Most individuals in a family had between only one and three suits of clothing, with a best set worn only on Sundays.”
Matis added, “There were two primary materials used – wool and linen. Only the wealthiest families, like the Burrs in Fairfield, could afford silk. There was also cotton, but it was also expensive.”
In addition to everyday wear, Matis shared military garments and equipment including uniforms, muskets, swords, bayonets, canteens and shoulder pouches for ammunition. He gave background about each piece and even demonstrated how muskets were loaded and fired.
“Imagine a thousand men coming across a field with muskets and bayonets,” said Matis. “What would you do?”
“Scream and run away!” said one student.
Asked about all the clothing he had tried on, 11-year-old Matthew Pryor said, “I wouldn’t like to wear this clothing if I lived in Colonial times. It’s not very comfortable and is very loose. It doesn’t have pockets or enough buttons either.”
Clearly, the group, while fascinated with Colonial life, appreciated the comforts of modern life.