I was taking a dozen girls and their counselors on a reconnaissance mission through the woods around the Twin Hills Girl Scout Day Camp in Richmond. We were exploring some of the remnants of the 150-year-old dairy farm that had been bought out in the 1950s to make the camp for the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains. We had bushwhacked to the edge of the camp to look at the old stone walls, followed their length, learning about how they were made and the role they had played in the farm landscape.
Eventually we worked our way through the brambles to the partial remains of the farmhouse cellar hole. There we simulated the missing two sides of the cellar with a human chain made of scouts. I told them about the Bates family that had lived here in 1880, and that all their children had been girls. I challenged them to imagine that they had lived in the farmhouse at that time, and asked them to what they might have seen out the farmhouse windows if they had lived here, and the girls shared their speculations. The reconnaissance ended with a visit to a group of gnarly, old apple trees just beyond the old barnyard. The apple trees were now surrounded by woods, but once they had stood out in the open.
We went next to the camp pavilion building and sat down around a large table to do an activity to help them connect to the Bates’ farm life in 1880. I passed five large cloth bags around the table and invited the girls to put their hand in each one a try to guess what was in it. Each bag had one of the crops that we knew the Bates had grown from data on their farm in the 1880 US Agricultural Census. Some of the bags’ contents were pretty easy for the girls to guess – apples, potatoes, and dried ears of corn. But the other two were more difficult. Some guessed grass, and they were in the right plant family – they were oats and hay. As I pulled out each bag’s contents, we talked about how much had been grown there – how big the fields were that had been here, or how many bushels the farm had produced. And I asked them to imagine again what the land would have looked like from the farmhouse windows with what more they now knew. Their speculations were much more specific and realistic this time around.
Next we thought about what the farm family did with the five crops they grew. We talked about how the apples and potatoes were grown mostly for people to eat, but the oats were for the horses that helped with the farm labor, and the corn and hay were mostly for the dairy cows the farm family had had. I shared with the girls that we knew that the farm had had 17 dairy cows, and (after milking them by hand every day) they produced more than a 1000 pounds of butter and 3000 pounds of cheese in 1880, all made on the farm.
I next asked them to try to imagine what farm chores they would have helped with if they had been one of the girls in the Bates family. Many guessed that they would have helped with making the butter and cheese.
To help them understand that experience in a more concrete way, I got out the cream I had purchased at the local store and got ready to make butter.
We didn’t have an 1880 butter churn, but we improvised by shaking glass jars with tight-fitting lids. I half-filled four or five jars and handed them out around the table. Each girl took a turn sharply shaking the jar, and when they got tired, they passed it on to the next girl at the table. I cut up some apples slices and passed them around the table, too, for the girls to recharge a bit on some local fruit the Bates’ would have had. The jars of cream rotated around the table for about 15 minutes until the butter fat started to coagulate and separate from the whey.
When the butter became more solid, we were able to pour off the whey. Then, we put all the butter solids into a bowl and mixed in some salt, and it was ready to eat.
I broke out some rolls and crackers, and some of the scouts helped cut up the rolls to make little bread slices and put everything on serving plates. Then, the girls lined up and took turns spreading the butter on the bread or cracker of their choice, and got down to eating. I heard lots of satisfied hmmm sounds as the freshest butter most of them had ever had was consumed. There was enough for seconds, and even thirds before everyone had had their fill.
We still had some butter left, and some of the scouts asked if they could take it to the other groups in camp to share it. Everyone agreed that that was a great idea, and the remaining butter made the rounds of camp. In the end, the jar came back empty, but many stomachs had been filled. Meanwhile, the scouts who were left in the pavilion all pitched in to wash jars and clean the table and floor area without even being asked.
This was the last day of their week’s worth of activities on understanding the evolution of the scout camp landscape over time. The girls had explored the geology and ecology of the site with the camp naturalist, and our day exploring the farming history was the closing chapter of the story. In the end, I hope they had gotten a sense of how the landscape had changed through time, in many different dimensions. And I hope that the next time they eat butter, they may think of the Bates girls that were making butter in 1880 on the farm that occupied the same spot their camp is now.