Friday, August 9, 2013

The Ingredients To Make An American

Last October I had the privilege of visiting a very special outdoor museum.  Many outdoor museums attempt to capture a single snapshot in time and place.  Williamsburg is the most famous example.  The collection of 80 buildings there (most of them original) take you back to Tidewater Virginia on the eve of the American Revolution.

 The Frontier Culture Museum, near Staunton Virginia, makes a bold leap in how it tells it's story.  The theme is actually a Shenandoah Valley Farm c.1850 and how it was influenced by immigrants from various cultures who settled in the valley.  That could be done by pointing out various aspects of the home and outbuildings at the 1850s farm as to how each was influenced by the descendants of the English, Irish, German and African peoples who made up the population then.  But the folks at the Frontier Culture Museum when a step further.  They bought farms from each of those distant places, from the time of the immigrations, to Virginia.  The visitor can discover firsthand how each of those cultures blended to create the peoples of the American frontier.  

The museum is staffed with very knowledgeable and engaging interpreters.  One can tell they take pride in what they are doing and will spend as much time talking and answering questions as you you will let them!  We were there on a weekday there were no crowds.  We were able to take our time, see everything and talk to all of the historical interpreters.  Most are also involved with the day to day activities associated with their time and place.  Many of farms also have heritage breed livestock that add to the realistic setting.   

From the Frontier Culture Museum website:

"The Frontier Culture Museum tells the story of the thousands of people who migrated to colonial America, and of the life they created here for themselves and their descendants. These first pioneers came to America during the 1600s and 1700s from communities in the hinterlands of England, Germany, Ireland, and West Africa. Many were farmers and rural craftsmen set in motion by changing conditions in their homelands, and drawn to the American colonies by opportunities for a better life. Others came as unwilling captives to work on farms and plantations. Regardless of how they arrived, all became Americans, and all contributed to the success of the colonies, and of the United States.

To tell the story of these early immigrants and their American descendants, the Museum has moved or reproduced examples of traditional rural buildings from England, Germany, Ireland, West Africa, and America. The Museum engages the public at these exhibits with a combination of interpretive signage and living history demonstrations. The outdoor exhibits are located in two separate areas: the Old World and America. The Old World exhibits show rural life and culture in four homelands of early migrants to the American colonies. The American exhibits show the life these colonists and their descendants created in the colonial back-country, how this life changed over more than a century, and how life in the United States today is shaped by its frontier past."


Should you be traveling up I-81 into northern Virginia, please consider a stop at Staunton at this museum.  You will not regret it and will come away with a much better appreciation of what it took to create our American culture.
The English House was built in 1692 in Worchestershire, in west-central England.
It was saved from destruction and moved in pieces to the FCM where it was lovingly restored. 
All photos by the Mark Hubbs.

Working kitchen gardens behind the English House.

Costumed historical interpreter give cooking demonstrations in the English kitchen.



The English House and gardens from across the mill pond.

A young volunteer interpreter uses the sunlight to better see her task of
grating sugar from a sugar loaf.
This smithy's forge was brought from Ulster, Northern Ireland.  It dates to the 1740s.

The blacksmith keeps the forge going and produces iron products while he visits with guests.

 The Scotch-Irish is a term we use now to describe Protestant people from Ulster in Northern Ireland.  They were descended from people from Scotland who were settled in Northern Ireland by the English Crown.  Hundreds of thousands of Scotch-Irish immigrated to America in the 17th and 18th Centuries.  This farm dates from at least the early 18th Century and was brought over from Ulster.

Chicken coop and pig sty from the Ulster Farm.

Many Ulster farmers supplemented their income by growing, processing and weaving linen cloth. 
Here an interpreter works a linen loom. 
In the late 17th and through the 18th Century approximately `120,000 German speaking immigrants came to America from the Palatinate, Baden, and Württemberg regions on the middle and upper Rhine. 
The farm dates to the late 17th Century and came from the Palatinate region. 

One of the barns at the German Farm.
 Hans is a real German Speaking immigrant.  He came to the United States from Austria.  He was one of the most engaging and knowledgeable interpreter we met during our visit.  We sat in his parlor and talked with him for a long time.

Not all immigrants came willingly.  This is a recreation of a West African Village.  Although this architecture was not adopted into American dwellings other aspects of African culture integrated gradually into American frontier culture.  Agriculture techniques, food stuffs, plants and music all found their way into the lives of all Americans.


The entire African village is enclosed by an adobe style wall.  The intricately carved wooden gate was reproduced in Africa.

The next series of exhibit show how all of these cultures blended to make the American homes of the valley.  The first settlers arrived in the 1740s and carved out small farms in a howling wilderness.  They, no matter where they came from started in simple log cabins built from the wood that was cleared to farm. 

It was cold that day.  Notice the breath of this young lady in the 1740s Farm. 
She took a break from cutting fire wood to talk .

The Frontier Culture Museum has an impressive youth volunteer interpreter program.  They must put in a minimum number of training hours to be certified to work with the public.  These two young ladies were doing 1820s household chores when we visited.  They knew their stuff and were not afraid to engage visitor in conversation.  Neither was old enough to drive, but could stand toe-to-toe with any costumed interpreter I've ever encountered!
Fast forward four generations to the 1820s Farm.  The cabin has given way to a multi-room house.  It is still log, but the timbers are hewn square.  This house started as a "Double-Pen" log home.  The pen was later enclosed to make one large dwelling.  Elements of the German, English and Irish homes can be seen in the construction and how it is furnished

Another view of the 1820s Farm.

 The exhibits culminate with the 1850s Farm.  On the eve of the Civil War the homes were quite cozy.  Both log and frame construction can be seen.  This house has an iron cookstove, a very modern convenience for its time!

This is George.  He does an excellent interpretation of an 1850s tom cat.  He is oblivious to the visitors.
 You can learn more about the Frontier Culture Museum at their website:
The museum also maintains an excellent Facebook Page where they post upcoming events and videos of the their interpreters involved in various skills and tasks:


  1. Hi Mark. I love this post as I love historical houses. We lived in a 17th century thatched cottage in England a place called Leintwardine in Worcestershire so this was a delight for me to read. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Rita. I'd love to hire a cottage like that next time I go to the UK. It would be fun stay in one, if just for a few days. I've only passed through Worcestershire. I need to visit there next time over.

  2. oh i've been wanting to visit this place, i enjoyed the post!

  3. Hi Mark. forgive me if I overlooked your comment but just to say that there are lots of interesting places to visit in Worcestershire also Shropshire if you find time to visit both when in England.
    Tell me, did you try my Medieval sauce recipe. Its difficult to get the correct consistency but you do have to mince the fruits as fine as possible.