Fourth-grade students at St. Mary School in Canandaigua recently got a taste — literally — of what life was like for children growing up in the 1860s.
On April 7 they dressed in period clothing and prepared a lunch of ground venison sausage, churned butter, pancakes and applesauce for the rest of the school. After lunch, the fourth-graders dipped candles, stuffed and sewed pillows, played a colonial game, and made homemade lemonade and punched-tin decorations.
Fourth-grade teacher Suzanne Giovenco planned Colonial Day so her students would gain a better understanding of what life was like for colonial children. In early March her students started reading Farmer Boy, a book written in 1933 by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Farmer Boy is about the childhood of Almanzo Wilder, who eventually grew up to become the author’s husband. Almanzo grew up on a homestead near Malone, in northern New York. The book contains detailed descriptions of the boy’s experiences, which include training a team of young oxen, shearing his family’s sheep, harvesting crops, threshing wheat and hauling wood.
Giovenco said her students benefit from reading the book, which is based on the true story of Wilder’s life.
“I just wanted them to compare what it was like growing up in the late 1800s as opposed to now,” she explained.
As the students read the book, they often compared Wilder’s chores to the tasks they’re responsible for in their own families, she said. Giovenco’s students were a little envious of the fact that Wilder occasionally skipped school to help his family harvest crops, even though they realized harvesting was hard work. They were less envious of other aspects of the boy’s life, however.
“There was one time when he went to the county fair and Almanzo wanted a nickel to buy lemonade,” Giovenco said. The boy’s parents were reluctant to give it to him. “To them it was a waste of money. They compared a nickel to a day’s work,” she said.
Fourth-grader Andria Denome said she enjoyed reading the book, which is part of the Little House on the Prairie series.
“Farmer Boy was a good book because I learned a lot about how people lived back then,” she said.
After reading it, Andria decided she would not have wanted to live in the 1800s because there was no electricity and children seem to have had more chores. Wilder’s lifestyle was very different from the one she’s accustomed to, she said.
“He didn’t have a car or a lot of things that use electricity,” she noted.
Classmate Sydney Reber had a different opinion about the era. She said the 1860s seemed like a nice time to live, even though things have changed a lot in 150 years.
“Almanzo’s life is different from mine because he walked to school. He had a one-room schoolhouse,” she said.
Fellow fourth-grader Miranda Yates also thought she would have liked to have lived in the 1860s, but only if she didn’t have to wear colonial clothing. She dressed up for Colonial Day in a long, dark blue skirt with peach flowers, a peach blouse with flower trim and a bonnet. Although she said the clothes were “neat,” they weren’t necessarily built for comfort.
“My colonial shirt was soft and comfortable, but my bonnet and skirt were a pain,” Miranda said.
Andria, who wore a blue bonnet, a yellow button-down shirt, a long skirt and narrow-toed brown shoes, agreed. “The shoes, skirt and bonnet were uncomfortable but the shirt was fine,” she said.
“The bonnets were itchy, and you got hot in the skirts,” chimed in Elley Smith.
Kendall Cyr, on the other hand, found the colonial clothing comfortable and enjoyed wearing it to First Friday Mass before the Colonial Day festivities began.
Elley said she’s glad she doesn’t have to wear bonnets on a regular basis, but she otherwise would have liked growing up in the 1860s. “You wouldn’t always have to go to school and you get a lot of food,” she noted.
Giovenco and her students chose several of the foods mentioned in Farmer Boy to prepare and serve. They spent the afternoon before Colonial Day grinding up venison, which they made into sausage and served for lunch the next day. Grinding the deer meet was hard, Andria said. Working on the sausage together with her classmates made the task easier, Elley noted.
The next day, the students peeled and sliced apples for applesauce, prepared pancakes with maple syrup and “churned” butter by shaking it in peanut-butter jars.
Once lunch was over, the fourth-graders took turns visiting five stations at which they played games, and made crafts and lemonade.
“I think my favorite part of Colonial Day was the lemonade making, because it was fun to make and it tasted delicious,” Miranda said.