By Janet Lyons, Maine Humanities Council’s Consulting Project Coordinator for Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War
Visitors to the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center may have felt like time travelers when they stepped out of their cars on the beautiful spring evening of Monday, May 18.
Young men attired in 1860s garb directed community members to the Farmer’s Cottage where young women in long dresses welcomed them at the door and passed out programs for the evenings’ entertainment.
The occasion was the culminating event of the year-long Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War project in Jay/Livermore. From September – May, 10 students from Spruce Mountain High School “lived” with the celebrated 19th century Washburn family and pursued an in-depth study of the Civil War, both nationally and on the homefront.
To paraphrase team leader and teacher Susan St. Pierre, sometimes it takes 21st century technology to discover the 19th century. Seated at laptops, students led visitors through sites related to their project, including a video about the how history can come alive through technology created by tech teacher Kymberli Bryant, and the Maine Memory Network exhibit the students created, “The Washburns of Livermore: A Maine Connection to the Civil War.”
While guiding guests through the exhibit, student Emily Hartford discussed the challenges involved in transcribing letters and the fun surprises in the correspondence between family members. For example, while Samuel Washburn’s letters to his brothers end with a distinctly 19th century closing–“Truly Yours S B Washburn”–they open with a salutation a 21st century teenager can appreciate–“Dear Bro.”
As student Sarah Collins narrated the story, classmates Peter Theriault (Israel Washburn Jr.), Alex Greenleaf (Sam Washburn) and Emilly LaFleur (Caroline Washburn Holmes) took turns reading letters written during the Civil War. The letters covered many topics–daily life, politics, battles, and family; a recurring theme was the frustration of writing to loved ones, but not receiving replies.
Perched at a high desk with quill pen in hand, Peter epitomized a politician–and for good reason, since Israel Washburn was Governor of Maine from 1861-63. He read selected letters to Washburn brother Elihu, a political ally of President Lincoln. Meanwhile, Alex as Sam resembled a daguerreotype of a 19th century naval officer come to life.
Rounding out the family was Emilly as Caroline, who was married to Dr. Freeland Holmes, a Civil War surgeon. She read letters from Freeland, while her young children–silent parts played with aplomb by the adorable Rylee and Rivers Purrington, the children of teacher Nate Purrington–sat playing with 19th century toys at her feet.
At the close of the program the teachers had a fun surprise for all the students and others who helped make the project a success–including Norlands director Sheri Leahan, school librarian Suzanne Cole, and several other RSU 73 staff in attendance, including superintendent Kenneth Healy.
Kym Bryant passed out commemorative tee-shirts printed with a quote from a Freeland Holmes letter–“How do your hens and chickens prosper?”–which had been a popular catchphrase with the students throughout the year.
Just as the shirts serve as a lasting reminder of a memorable experience, so too does the “Our Hands on History” course–and its enthusiastic students and teachers–serve as a model of authentic, hands-on history learning.