Four buses brimming with excited eighth-graders from Rutland Middle School got to touch a piece of history last week during a field trip to The Popular Pioneer antiques shop in Rutland.
The day was inspired by the class’s colonial artifacts project. Each student is tasked with recreating a piece of technology — be it a scythe, a butter churn or a staff used to wrangle chickens — in the school’s maker’s space as part of a two-week exploratory lesson, said field trip organizer and social studies teacher Rob Labate, who also owns the property where the store operates.
“A lot of kids struggle with textbooks, worksheets — they need to be able to handle history and touch it, feel it,” Labate said. “... The kids didn’t know where to start, and here they can see these simply made pieces where they can start to get ideas.”
Students filed in among shelves and stands supporting everything from rusted tins that once held Tiger Chewing Tobacco and tables set with various mismatched, decades-old china.
“I’m going to relate things that we have right now, to what we have today, why they’re called what they are and what they’re used for,” shop owner Michael Bishop said to his third shift of students, who arrived at noon.
Bishop set an antique waffle iron with an extra-long handle, a hand-whittled wooden crutch, a hand-carved wooden candle box and a peel for scooping hot loaves of bread from the oven out on the glass counter. He explained the origins of the antiquated technology to the students.
“Back in the days of the whaling industry, they made candles from fat,” Bishop said, swiveling open the candle box. “It was some of the cleanest oil, and it was very expensive. And mice liked to eat it. This box kept your candles safe.”
Bishop also displayed a hand-sewn framed floral embroidery, the craftsmanship of which determined whether a woman was fit to marry, he said.
Students took photos of artifacts with their phones — whether it was a faded portrait of the Duchess of Hamilton looming on the wall, ancient glass medical syringes or English horse spurs dangling from the ceiling.
“This gives us more of an idea of what we’re looking for,” said student Amelia Sabataso. “Instead of just looking up pictures online where you don’t get to touch it, so you can’t see how things are connected. This helps us.”
The students rifled through small boxes of worn photographs of the last century’s greatest film stars. Others marveled at old farm scythes and 100-year-old maple syrup taps fashioned into key chains, with each style technologically dating back to a different period and region of Vermont.
“You learn more when you get your hands on it,” said technology education teacher Jack Adam. “They’re not reading about how you build things, and I really like to emphasize how did they build the things that they’re using.”
“I’m thinking of building an easel,” said Keanina Chadburn, who added that she was drawn to creations inspired by children, as she is the eldest of six siblings.
“I was thinking maybe a chess board,” said Stephanie Li, who mentioned she was most inspired by natural phenomena such as sunsets and snowfall. “Or maybe a coffee grinder.”
Stefano Falco said he planned to build a transport sled that could be hooked to a horse and used to pull weight.
Labate said his classes needed to be able to physically connect with historical artifacts to understand the evolution of engineering and importance of re-purposing and scavenged materials, and pieces of wood for students to use for the project.
“A lot of these guys, without wood shop, they don’t even know there’s grains to wood,” Labate said. “They don’t know how to saw. All those simple things that colonial settlers needed to survive, we’re going to try to teach them that.”