Tumwater Middle School (TMS) Homesteaders at

                       25 Years:  A Look Back

by Anne Kelleher

The year was 1988.  The Washington State Centennial was approaching.  My TMS  colleague, Brian Buntain, and I were looking for a meaningful project that would celebrate Washington’s history and would interest our students in their community’s past and also involve them in its present.  We had both seen and been enthralled by various living history sites on the east coast and in the Midwest.  Could we possibly create such a program, on a smaller scale, that would bring the story of early New Market to life for the students of present-day Tumwater, a program designed to make the everyday life of our frontier residents seem real and vital and interesting? We thought we could make it happen—or at least we thought we would like to try.

With the help of a grant from the Centennial Committee and a great deal of volunteer assistance from community mentors, we selected a group of thirty eighth grade students who agreed to give over their out-of-class time and we trained them in the rudiments of butter churning, cider pressing, soap making, candle making, quilting, blacksmithing and various other early pioneer skills.  We called ourselves “The ‘89ers.”   Throughout that year, we spent after- school hours and some weekends on these activities.  We did not have any equipment or experience of our own; we relied on the Dairy Princess of Grays Harbor County for butter churning instruction, the blacksmithing instructor at SPSCC for forge instruction, the Lewis County Historical Society for the cider pressing demonstration, a generous parent for soap making, and so on.  All of this built towards our final celebratory event of the year which was a small hands-on pioneer fair, right on our own school grounds, attended over three days by our district fourth graders and our other eighth graders.  On the last day of the fair, our administrators glowingly praised our efforts and said, “Could you do this again next year?”  We lapped up the praise, but were incredulous that they actually thought we could repeat the performance another year.  “Are they kidding???” we said.

But, the idea of an on-going program intrigued us.  COULD we do it again?  Well, long story short—we did it again the following year, and again the year after that and even the year after that.  In fact, this coming school year will be the 25th time we will have done it again.

In this 25-year period, the program has grown from 30 students each year to 60 students each year, from an extra-curricular program to a real class which earns the participants their Washington State History credit.  In this 25-year span, there have been over 1400 Homesteader students who have studied the history of early Tumwater and shared their knowledge in a hands-on way with over 11,000 4th graders and countless eager attendees at our community events through the years.  That’s a lot of cider pressed, candles dipped, rope twisted, quilts quilted, and butter churned! As the Centennial year passed away, we changed our name to “Homesteaders”.

The instructors soon learned to teach all of the skills themselves and, with grants, a small budget, and donations, we gradually acquired our very own pioneer “stuff”—our own spinning wheel, cider press, forge, laundry tubs, butter churns—all the makings of our own little pioneer farm. Over these 25 years we have met and worked with many wonderful and supportive parents and community groups.  We have formed a close bond with Tumwater Historical Association which, from the start, has been one of our biggest cheer leaders.   We are  now seeing the beginnings of the next generation as former Homesteaders bring their families to our events and tell us that in only two years or one year or three years their son or daughter will be old enough to be a Homesteader.

As we look back through our scrapbooks at the hundreds of photos taken over the years we see young girls in calico and bonnets sitting at the spinning wheel, smiling over their patchwork, bending to help a little one use the washboard.  Young men in muslin shirts and vests patiently explain safety precautions at the forge, demonstrate the shavehorse, give the cider press one last crank.  We see girls huddled together under hand-knit blankets, sharing warmth and friendship.  We see boys at old-fashioned play with hoops and tug of war.  We see exuberance of youth in the twists and turns of the Virginia Reel.  Twenty-five years of good learning and good times.

Our founding teachers have retired—I in 1998, Brian in 2005—but the program goes on in the capable hands of Bob Cooksey, Tyler Haywood and Eva Stauffer.  What the future holds for the program we cannot say, but as we look back through our scrapbooks at young people caught up in the flavor, the wonder, the excitement, the fun, the pleasure of reenacting the history of their forefathers, we can only hope that Homesteaders will find a way to keep going for another twenty-five years.  It could happen. 

The Tumwater Historical Association was a proud sponsor of the TMS Homesteader program.  We offer our congratulations on celebrating 25 years of one of the most important "hands-on" living history experiences offered students, today. This program was truly "education at its finest!"

EDITORS NOTE:  The Tumwater School District no longer offers this program as originally designed.  Please contact the district for information about their current program.

Photos and videos of past Pioneer Fairs can be viewed in our Media Gallery.