Prairie Days celebrate 18th-century living

By Terri Gordon

Photo: Shooters fire off a black powder musket volley during the opening ceremony for Prairie Days

As people whiz into the 21st century, harried by the demands of modern life, with smartphones, smart homes, and instant-everything, it is tempting to pine for simpler times. Times of fishin’ in the creek and lazin’ in the grass. Times of homemade bread and apple pie, evenings spent telling stories and singing songs in front of the open hearth, drifting off to sleep full and happy and warm inside cozy cabins—the glorious days of yore.

Prairie Days, at the Shawnee Prairie Preserve, gives people that very option, a chance to escape the rat-race and go back in time, to experience the way life was roughly 200 years ago. It has taken place the last weekend in September since 2000, making this its 16th annual celebration. According to Darke County Parks District Director of Parks Roger Van Frank, it is a free fun-filled, action-packed event.

“There really is a lot for folks to do,” Van Frank says. “We’re making apple butter, showing how brooms would be made from broom corn. There’s rope-making. Kids are able to make a jump rope, and show how [pioneers] would have hand-wound the rope. We’ll be pressing sorghum and boiling sorghum down into sorghum molasses. We have candle dipping.”

There are knife and tomahawk throwing contests. A “school marm” helps conduct games and crafts with the children. The Nature Center is open. There will be art, and music, and a production in the amphitheater put on by the Darke County Civic Theater. Nonprofit food vendors will be on hand, and Downing’s Fruit Farm will offer fresh produce for sale.

The prairie itself, and the adjacent wetlands and savannahs, are important to America’s development and history.  Long before European immigrants hunted hare and turkey on these wide-open spaces, Native Americans utilized the tall grass prairies for hunting game and gathering edible and medicinal plants, essential for survival. As open spaces, they facilitated travel and allowed for the migration of families across the nation.

As pioneers settled, they used the forests for wood to build homes and furniture. They cultivated gardens, and forged communities. Lives were DIY. Prairie Days attendees can visit the preserve’s log cabin and blacksmith shop for a taste of just what it took to produce life’s necessities—tools, clothing, food, and more. An historical encampment group will demonstrate period clothing, furnishings, and activities. Participating as a member of the encampment is Ginnie Schoening. Prairie Days is only one of several encampment events the group attends—and they are quite careful in their authenticity. It seems that life on the prairie was neither as simple nor as idyllic as our modern minds might think.

“Speaking from a woman’s perspective, it was hard work,” Schoening says, “A woman never stopped. She was tending the fire and cooking constantly. There was water to carry in. You didn’t just turn on the faucet; you had to go to the stream and fill your bucket. There were children to mind. You had to keep the fire going, and there was always something on the fire. You might be making soap.”

The chores were done in full dress, too. Layers and layers of full dress.

“It wasn’t appropriate for women to ‘strip down,’ so to speak,” Shoening says. “They kept covered. They were very modest—stockings and shoes in the summer, underclothes and petticoats and aprons.”

Men didn’t have it any easier. Shoening recounts a contest to be the first man to start a fire and boil water—the first step was gathering and cutting the wood. Then, there’s the flint-and-steel starting of the fire, and the hauling of the water. Our two-minutes-in-the-microwave brains just don’t go there.

And so, as we harken back in our daydreams to times we deem ideal, Prairie Days can help us realize it was much more difficult than we can imagine, and the line between life and death much thinner. Understanding this reality might make us appreciate our own time that much more.

“Our mission is to preserve and conserve not just the natural features of this area, but also the historical features,” says Van Frank. “We are attempting to preserve what our country was made of 250 years ago—the history and the hardships our forefathers and foremothers have gone through. When you realize how hard it was for them, when you begin to show folks what it took from sun up to sundown, it’s quite amazing. You understand why they didn’t live past their mid-50s.”

Prairie Days takes place Saturday, Sept. 24, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 25, from noon until 5 p.m., at Shawnee Prairie Preserve, 4267 State Route 502,  in Greenville. Parking is offsite (except for handicap parking, which is on site). A free tram  transports people back and forth. Admission and parking are free. For more information, please visit DarkeCountyParks.org/Prairie-Days.

Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She holds a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her blog, WordWorks (http://tsgordon.blogspot.com) is a “bulletin board” of some of her favorite things.

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Terri Gordon
Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She holds a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her blog, WordWorks (http://tsgordon.blogspot.com) is a "bulletin board" of some of her favorite things.

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