Bernhard Museum Living History Program gets kids learning – and churning

Kids learn about the good old days
By: Laura O'Brien, Journal Correspondent
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Every spring, the Bernhard Museum’s popular Living History Program draws third-grade students from across Placer County.  Started in 1996, the program now serves about 3,000 students from more than 40 schools each year.

For one morning, students enmesh themselves in life as it was on a farm in Auburn in 1889. They complete typical children’s chores of the time period, like washing clothes by hand, and make keepsakes such as a fruit crate and rag doll.

“Here they are, doing all this physical labor all day long, and they come home happy as clams,” said Colette Veldstra, a third-grade teacher at Dry Creek Elementary School in Roseville.  

On a windy but sunshine-filled March day, Veldstra’s students churned butter and ground wheat outdoors near the Bernhard home’s “summer” kitchen.  Then they made biscuits and baked them to a crisp in the wood stove.  

“Most of them grow up not realizing that food doesn’t come out of a box,” Veldstra said.  “There’s just no other biscuit in life that tastes better to them.”

Katie Burwell, mother of one of the students, was in charge of an ironing station where students pressed small linen scraps using cornstarch and period irons that had been warmed in the stove.

“There would be one mom doing laundry with the rest of her kids,” Burwell said.  “Husbands would be doing other things.  So yeah, it took a long time.”

Burwell and the many other parent volunteers dressed in period clothing for the field trip, as did the students.  Parent volunteers attended a mandatory half-hour training session at the museum prior to the visit.

Benjamin Bernhard immigrated to America from Germany and traveled to California to find gold. Unlucky, he turned to work as a teamster, supplying the mining camps around Auburn.  He eventually settled as a farmer after buying the Traveler’s Rest Hotel, which was built in 1851, in 1868.  Bernhard grew fruit and made wine on the original property’s 30 acres.  

“It really reflects the changing economy of our county, how people started up with gold and ended up in other professions,” said Karen Mattson, curator of education for Placer County museums.  “A big portion of our economy was based on agriculture.”

Mattson said each teacher prepares students a little differently for the experience of the Living History Program, which meets third-grade curriculum standards.

Prior to the field trip, Veldstra provides an overview of the Gold Rush economy, including the types of jobs that were available, the area’s exports and imports and other economic factors like the building of the transcontinental railroad.

Veldstra’s students also participate in a series of role-playing exercises that are set in a one-room schoolhouse. Students must brainstorm how to solve a problem using resources that would have been available in the period.

Mattson said the Living History Program gets tweaked every year.  This year, docents lead more tours through the residence, taking a smaller number of students with them at a time.  The change better accommodates the museum’s larger groups of visitors, which may include up to 60 children, she said. 

“The students will really be able to get every question answered and have a more intimate experience with the house,” she added.  “When there’s only 10 of you in the house, you really feel like it’s your tour.”

The program also boasts a refreshed leather station this year, thanks to donations of harnesses from Flying Mule Farm of Auburn.  In the station, participants learn how to care for antique saddles and harnesses and may view the museum’s collection of buggies and wagons.  

Students also make leather satchels, for marbles.

“They love learning the marble game,” Veldstra said.  “We draw circles on the carpet in chalk and we just play that game because it’s a lost pastime.”