Wilton students travel back 300 years

WILTON — Warp and weft, shillings and pence, the origins of “Rock-A-Bye-Baby” — all likely topics around dinner tables last week as Wilton fifth graders made their annual visit to the Wilton Historical Society.

Each year, all fifth-grade students from Cider Mill, Our Lady of Fatima, and home schools get a hands-on taste — in one case literally — of what life would have been like for their 18th-century counterparts.

Many found it very interesting.

Upstairs in the Betts House, Ellen Goldman showed off the historical society’s looms: a large “barn loom,” so called because it is made like a barn with mortise and tenon joints, and two smaller looms the students got to give a try.

She explained the difference between the “warp,” the long strings that run vertically on the loom, and the “weft,” which are the short strings that are woven between the long ones.

She also asked the students to raise their hands if they had four or five pairs of jeans and all the hands went up. It was the same for those who had half a dozen T-shirts.

“Colonial children only had two sets of clothes,” she said. “One for everyday and one for Sunday best.”

She also went through the natural sources of dye for the wool and linen colonists would have used including onion skins, carrot tops, elderberry, black walnuts, and cochineal insects that provided the red dye for the English Army’s Redcoats.

Then it was on to the looms for boys and girls to try their hand at a task colonists focused on in winter. After a few simple passes of the shuttle Goldman asked the kids if they wanted to “get fancy” and received a resounding “yes!”

Tommy Nanos of Cider Mill said he thought it all was “pretty fun,” a sentiment echoed by his classmate Sabrina Sharfuddin, who said “weaving is fun because you get to learn how to make the pattern. It must have taken a long time.”

She thought having just two sets of clothes would have been hard because “you probably couldn’t get dirty and you couldn’t rip them.”

Leo Kulon said “weaving is so cool.”

One of the favorite events of the day was the Native American presentation by Darlene Kascak a member of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation in Kent, Conn.

In addition to explaining how 18th-century American Indians lived, Kascak explained the plight of 21st-century Native Americans who must prove who they are to the federal government by tracing “all our ancestors back to the first recorded chief in the 1700s when the first treaty was signed” including all birth, death and marriage records.

As to their day-to-day living in the Colonial era, Kascak showed off a leather poncho, explaining that today leather is made from animal hides softened with oils, but back then “they used the brain. The brain has lots of fats and oil. If you separate it and put it on the rawhide it softens up so you can use it.”

The fringe on the poncho had a number of purposes ranging from “looking good when you dance” as one boy illustrated to chasing away flies and mosquitoes, much as a horse’s tail would.

Similarly, the fringe on the outsides edges of a pair of moccasins from the Kiowa-Commanche tribe served to sweep away their footprints.

“Everything has a purpose,” she said.

Deer bones could be fashioned into a hoe, a rake, a scraper and a comb.

Kascak showed off a cradleboard where women kept their infants. They were often hung on a tree branch, away from predators and where mothers could keep an eye on them, and if the worst should happen — a cradleboard fell from a tree — there was a guard around it to break its fall and protect the baby from hitting the ground directly.

Colonists would have seen these “trees with babies and that’s where the nursery rhyme comes from,” she said.

Kascak offered many other insights into Native American life including wearing a skunk pelt when out foraging to ward off bears and other predators, and wearing a raccoon or fox pelt to get close when hunting a deer. Even the shell of a snapping or box turtle was useful in that they have 13 plates to correspond to the 13 full moons in a year. There are also 24 plates on the perimeter of the shell and when added to the four legs that represents 28 days in a month.

Kascak’s presentation was Leo Kulon’s favorite. “The way they did so many different things … they used everything,” he said.

Also popular were the baking sessions, where students made Portugal cakes, so called because of the black currants used that came from Portugal.

“This is different from home,” Greta Lewandowski said. “Here we don’t measure. At home we measure all the time.”

Sabrina Sharfuddin also enjoyed the baking but she liked the “trading post” as well where students learned about pounds, shillings and pence and how colonists traded for goods and services.

Once students got into the trading groove, historical society co-director Kim Mellin compared the scene to “the stock exchange trading floor.”

Students also visited the blacksmith shop and the textile barn where they learned how to turn wool and flax from raw products into yarns that can be woven.

Information: wiltonhistorical.org.