‘One Room Schoolhouse’ exhibit takes visitors back in time

ORWELL — Another Vermont History Expo is behind us. The Orwell Historical Society Museum’s One Room Schoolhouse exhibit (a smaller version of a permanent display) may have only taken a few weeks to prepare for, and a solid week to design and build, but if the comments in our guest book are any indication the time and effort paid off in dividends.
Although attendance was noticeably lower in number than in past years’ events, the response to our efforts was no less appreciative. Of course, the inevitable question came up: “So, what do you have planned for your NEXT display?”
As the modular construction of the booth shell was designed to have multiple facelifts and was built for easy transport and setup, and it will surely reappear in the familiar 8-by-8-foot footprint, but in its next presentation as a turn-of-the-last-century country kitchen — complete with an 1880’s Glenwood Royal coal/wood cook stove and appropriate kitchen fixtures and stocked pantry — all true to the period depicted.
I know, it sounds like a task, but the hard part has already been done: collecting the items. And the layout is easy, since we’ve already built such an exhibit in the museum. I just have the next two years to work out any bugs.
As with current visitors to our museum, observers of this exhibit will feel as if they have stepped into the past and are actually in a country kitchen, pantry and laundry. Attention to period detail has been our hallmark and is what the Orwell Museum is known for, and we’ll yet again borrow from our existing Kitchen, Pantry and Laundry exhibit’s artifacts and fixtures to “dress the set.”
The real highlight to this year’s Expo experience for us was a toss-up. When an elderly visitor would be slowly making their way by and stop, the look on their face was nothing short of magical, as long forgotten memories would begin to reassemble and take form and they were once again back in the one room schoolhouse of their youth.
We’d invite them to step into the exhibit, and they’d comment — as if from the identical script repeated by previous visitors — that they too had sat in the same old school desks and used a dip well pen (two told of using graphite pencils on slate tablets similar to those we had on display). A sheepish grin took form across their faces of a few older gentlemen as they’d gloatingly admitted to dipping the pig tails of unsuspecting young ladies who were sitting in front of them into the inkwells built into their desks. At least one recounted the whooping they got from not only their respective parents, but the teacher as well. (Surely a fate not feared for generations.)
A number of visitors would look at the Palmer Method cursive alphabet that hung along the picture rail, and would comment on how they learned to write that way; some admitting that it had been quite a while since they wrote so neatly, much less in carefully executed cursive script.
Since I’m a big fan of interactive, tactile displays that draw an audience in and invite visitors to touch and participate, I knew I needed something really engaging, yet simple. A few years back, I bought 5,000 sheets (a lifetime’s supply, for sure) of antique lined scholastic writing paper with the sole intention of using it in just this kind of an exhibit. I designed the One Room Schoolhouse presentation to be engaging, both visually, as well as to invite folks into the booth and to try their hands, once more, at writing in a more civilized form.
Slowly, the older visitors would work their way into the desks, and look around and smile and begin to practice their penmanship, drawing from muscle memory as they dragged thick lead pencils across the widely spaced blue ruled writing paper from long ago. Regardless of their chronological age, once their efforts were to their satisfaction, they’d hold it up for all to see, as if they were back in school. Oh, the stories they’d share, comparing notes, so to speak… and for many of the “older generation,” our One Room Schoolhouse exhibit became the portal in which they were transported back, if only momentarily, to their long lost youth.
A sad “sign of the times” also kept our booth busy, as a few years ago, elementary schools here in Vermont stopped teaching children how to write in cursive. I won’t go into my own personal opinions on such matters, but one of the permanent exhibits in the Orwell Historical Society Museum is our one room schoolhouse display. There, we teach kids how to write their names in cursive, rather than in print, and the exhibit at the Vermont History Expo in Tunbridge was no exception.
On Sunday alone, I must have given a good two dozen “classes” to well over twice that amount of kids under 13. Boys had to be coaxed; yet, in direct contrast, girls took to it like flies to honey and needed no offer or invitation. An interesting observation for sure.
Two young men I will never forget. When I asked one 10-year-old boy if he knew how to write in script, he scrunched his nose and shook his head. “OK,” I replied. “So how would you like to learn a “secret code” that you and your friends could read and write but others (like his younger siblings) would NEVER be able to figure out?” He wasted no time finding a seat.
At that point, he was eager to learn how to do it, as were the nearly two dozen other kids I invited into the booth to learn script writing throughout the day. Like many of the children, he’d never written his name before in cursive form since he was only taught to do so in print. Like all the others, young and old, once his name was complete, the pride glowed from his face. After all, it wasn’t just something he copied, but mastered — and what’s more, it was his mark, his name on that paper, and he knew it.
On his own, without prompting, he took over an hour and wrote and rewrote each letter of the alphabet — both caps and lowercase — over and over again, and asked if he could have more paper so he could take it home and practice.
Another young man, Garrett, 12 years old, came in with his younger sister and mother. He stood back and let his sister have her turn, and after a while their mother prodded them along to see the rest of the exhibits in the Pavilion Hall. A few minutes later, Garrett returned and asked me if I could teach him how to write his name, saying he never learned how. He, too, spent a long time at the desk practicing his name and the alphabet over and over again.
The compliments for our display’s efforts are greatly appreciated, but the reaction from these two boys was payment enough for me and made it all worthwhile, as they left having learned a lesson in our little one room schoolhouse. And, in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?
In closing, despite our great collection of period late 19th- and early 20th-century scholastic antiquity, it is important to note that this exhibit wouldn’t have been possible  had it not been for the gracious donations of paint, building supplies and lumber from Jeff Lawson of Gilmore Home Center in Castleton and Jed LaPrise of Highland Ridge Traditions in Orwell.
The Orwell Museum’s One Room Schoolhouse display — and the rest of our exhibits — are open year round on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and by appointment. To arrange a visit off-hours, call 802-382-0433 or email [email protected].
Editor’s note: This story was supplied by Sandy Korda, curator of the Orwell Historical Society Museum.

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