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Middletown Life

History comes alive with the Historic Odessa Foundation's education programs

Jan 09, 2015 04:37PM ● By Kerigan Butt

Courtesy photo As a part of “School Days,” students experience an 18th century schoolroom by participating in lessons using quill pens, slates, and chalk.

By Steven Hoffman

Staff Writer

An enclave of historic buildings in Odessa remain relatively untouched by the development that has occurred all around them in the state of Delaware. These buildings, which have come under the stewardship of the Historic Odessa Foundation, serve as an enduring image of what rural life was like in the 18th and 19th century. A series of educational programs have been developed that allow visitors—mostly school children—to learn about how people cooked, shopped, and lived during colonial times. The historic buildings are now part museum and part classroom.

According to Education Curator Johnnye Baker, giving school-age children and their families the chance to step back in time and experience life in colonial Delaware from different perspectives has always been at the forefront of Historic Odessa Foundation's mission.

“Education will always be paramount to us,” Baker said. “We want this site to be an education center. We want this to be a resource for the community.”

Baker, a retired teacher who had more than 30 years of experience as an educator, accepted the responsibility of developing workshops that utilize the unique buildings that comprise the Historic Houses of Odessa. It was a challenge that she accepted happily.

“I missed teaching and I love history,” Baker explained. “I find all of American history interesting. I think the reason it resonates with me is this setting. It is an authentic setting so it brings that time period to life for me.”

Bringing history to life is the goal of each of the programs that Baker planned. She initially developed four workshops. Once they had proven to be popular, she added four more. Each of the workshops not only focuses on a different aspect of the local history, but also takes a different approach to that history. Each one offers a unique experience for students or visitors.

“We did not want a one-size-fits-all tour,” Baker explained. “In all these workshops, there are things that the students can touch. We want to show students that a museum can be a fun experience.”

Baker explained that she wanted to develop a program that would be entertaining and educational for students so that other teachers wouldn't find themselves in the position of having to monitor two dozen or more students who were bored with what they were seeing or listening to during a field trip.

“I needed something that was extremely interactive,” Baker explained. “I also knew that teachers wouldn't come unless what we were doing is an extension of what they are doing in the classroom. I think I've been able to do that. I think this program is unique because it is based on the perspective of a teacher. I didn't want a program where students stood behind ropes and weren't engaged. The teachers, when they come here, really respond to that.”

The workshops include the following:

“School Days”: Students experience an 18th century schoolroom by participating in lessons using quill pens, slates, and chalk.

“18th Century Hearth Cooking”: Visitors can cook in an 18th century kitchen using tools, foods, and recipes that were popular at the time.

“The Corbits: A Genteel Quaker family”: What was life like for the 18th century gentry living in a grand Georgian mansion with a view of the creek? This program looks at what life was like for one of Delaware's most prominent families.

“Children, chores, and leisure”: Life was very busy for children who lived in Odessa in the 18th century. This workshop explores the chores that filled their days, and also looks at how children of that time managed to turn their work into games to make the time pass more quickly.

“Artisan Apprentice”: How did young adults learn a trade, such as carpentry, pottery, or tanning? This workshop looks at the life of an artisan apprentice tanner.

“Indenture Servants”: Visit the Corbit-Sharp house and get a tour of the servant spaces. See how they lived and worked in a large house.

“Kitchen Garden”: Visit the Collins-Sharp kitchen garden and see how they used local plants and crops in their diet.

“Wilson Store”: Step back in time to Wilson's Odessa store to see what goods and services were available to residents.

“Freedom Seekers: The Odessa Story”: Follow in the footsteps of fugitive slaves secretly working their way north to freedom. Explore the hiding places and routes used by local abolitionists who helped the runaways along the way.

Schools from all across Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey have taken part in the workshops, and Baker is proud of the reaction that they have received.

“We have so many teachers coming back year after year,” she said. “It’s like welcoming back an old friend. We do anything we can to accommodate the schools. When a teacher contacts me about a tour, I say ‘when do you want to arrive?’ and ‘when do you want to leave?’ A teacher can pick the number of workshops that the students see.”

Baker expanded on what participating in one of the workshops might entail.

When visitors stop by Wilson’s General Store, a recreation of a colonial-era general store, a lesson about economics is in the offing.

Baker explained that when students visit the general store they are divided into families and they are given a wallet with money and a shopping list. The general store has everything from hats to food to Betty lamps.

“The students get a wallet with the family’s information in it. Each wallet has a different amount of money, depending on how wealthy the family is,” Baker explained. “They buy all their items and then pay for it. After they shop, they display what they bought so that everyone can see.”

A rich family might buy an imported Betty lamp, a more costly item. A middle class family would buy a candle as a light source. The poor family might have to purchase bee’s wax and make a candle to get light.

“The students learn that there are resources beyond money,” Baker said.

When Baker was developing this workshop she went through the actual ledgers kept when the general store was open to know what items she should have in the store.

“Authenticity is extremely important to me,” she said. “If you need to know what happened in the past, you need good resources.”

At the Collins-Sharp House, a hearth cooking class takes place.

“The kids actually go in there and cook,” Baker said. “They will make a seasonally appropriate meal from start to finish.”

She credited the costumed guides, most of them retired teachers, with helping to make the programs interesting for youngsters.

“At the conclusion of every tour, the teachers and chaperones are given an evaluation sheet. We take those very seriously. Our program does change,” Baker said.

Of course, none of the programs would be possible if the Historic Odessa Foundation didn't have seven historic properties on 27 acres in the heart of Odessa.

“All the buildings are authentic and not rebuilt, which is amazing,” Baker said.

Step inside the historic Corbit-Sharp house and you’re immediately transported to another time. The home, a national historic landmark and a site on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, is the centerpiece of the Historic Houses of Odessa and for the Living History Education Program. William Corbit was a prominent local tanner in Odessa. He completed the Georgian-style house in 1774 and it remained in his family until 1938. It was purchased by Rodney Sharp, who restored not only this house but several other historically significant buildings in the town.

As a connection to Corbit, part of one workshop includes an explanation of what a tanner does. The students get to see and touch bear skins, rabbit skins, and deer skins. They talk about what kinds of things are made with leather today. The students then get to tool some leather and leave with a leather book bag tag.

“We make sure that there is a take-home activity with every workshop,” Baker said.

Teachers like various aspects of the workshops, but they frequently mention how engaging a visit to the Historic Homes of Odessa is.

“Our field trips to the Historic Homes of Odessa are absolutely worthwhile experiences for students,” said Denise VanSant, a fourth grade teacher at Cedar Lane Elementary School in Middletown. “The trips help classroom teachers create connections between classroom learning as they experience living history. Students are able to visualize and deepen their understanding of history content standards.”

VanSant added that the docents leading the tour engage the students' imaginations from the moment the students step off the bus.

“Our students, staff, and parents truly enjoy the journey through historic Odessa,” said Angela Robbins, a fourth-grade teacher at the North Georgetown Elementary School in Georgetown. “It allows each of us the opportunity to experience 18th century life in a real-world setting. The guides have a wealth of knowledge and the provide students with activities that are age-appropriate and engaging. It is by far one of our favorite trips of the year.”

Christy Myhren, who teaches various grades at Delaware School for the Deaf, shared a similar opinion of the program. “The workshops at Historic Odessa are very hards-on and active. That's something that my students thrive on and need. The guides allow students to step back in time to experience life in the past through role-playing, lessons, and activities.”

Myhren explained how a visit unfolds.

“The moment we arrived, we were given old-fashioned hats to wear to help us imagine we were back in time. Students experience what a general store used to be like and paid with money from the past. There were no credit cards.

“The students loved working with leather as some apprentices did and found it challenging to identify places on an old U.S. map and write with a quill pen.”

Myhren added that, “Playing colonial games was their favorite activity—rolling a hoop and making hoops fly while playing 'graces.' Of course, chores were a big part of the children's lives, and play time only came after hauling buckets of water across the yard. The students and staff all learned a lot at Historic Odessa and had a lot of fun. I can't wait to bring my next class.”

VanSant summarized why the program is popular with teachers and students alike.

“In short, students are allowed to touch, discuss, and experience history through comparing and contrasting the past to the present day. This active engagement makes it a favorite and memorable trip.”

Baker said that while the programs are gaining popularity with schools in the area, they are also reaching out to church groups, scouting organizations, and 4-H clubs. Word about the program tends to spread when teachers or youth organization leaders tell others about how much children enjoy the program.

Baker also works directly with teachers, offering quarterly in-service workshops here through the Delaware Teachers Center.

She is looking forward to developing other workshops in the future. She has written a secondary school program that includes four three-hour workshops for high schoolers.

“Now, it’s just a question of shopping around for grants,” Baker said. “I have tons of ideas in my head. Some to the point where they are ready to go if we can get the funding.”

Reservations for any of the workshops can be made by calling the Historic Odessa Foundation at 302-378-4119 or by visiting

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email [email protected]

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