Students get first-hand experience of the past at History Center


Spending a recent day at the Jackson County History Center, Brownstown Elementary School fourth-graders made rounds through the John Ketcham Pioneer Village buildings, old town cemetery and museums.

The pioneer village includes a meetinghouse, a pioneer cabin, a trading post, a bridge and a string fort.

For the past several years, fourth-graders from around the county have been visiting the center in Brownstown in the spring, said volunteer Margo Brewer.

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“The students come out and spend the day with us and learn about pioneer life. This is the sixth or seventh year, so we’ve been doing it for quite a while,” she said. “Every adult you see here is a volunteer.”

Bill Day, president of the history center’s board of directors, said there are 10 sessions that last 20 minutes apiece, and an adult volunteer mans each area.

The Brownstown students were dressed in old-style, pioneer clothing. They are the only fourth-graders in the county who dress up for the occasion.

Amy Hartley, a fourth-grade teacher at Brownstown Elementary, said it’s something her students look forward to all year.

“If we’re teaching Indiana history and are talking about a schoolhouse, we can tell the kids they’ll be seeing one on Pioneer Day,” she said. “It makes connections to what they’re learning about. They can see it firsthand, like when we talk about a one-room house and how the shutters were used for protection.”

Stopping by the circus wagon at the history center, fourth-grader Aden McCrary was able to step in, out and through hoops with a little guidance from Myrna Ratcliff.

Ratcliff grew up in the circus, and the wagon belonged to her family in Jackson County. The circus wagon is from the 1970s when the Fisher and Timberlake/Silverlake families traveled to perform.

“I did a little bit of everything in the circus,” Ratcliff said. “I was on the trapeze. I juggled and worked with the performing dogs.”

Dr. Rosemary Weir was on hand in the Frederick Keach Heller Memorial Museum to answer questions about an examining table and equipment in the medical room, much of which was donated by Weir.

Sounds of lively square dance music drifted from the Ball Museum, where a volunteer played “Boil that Cabbage Down” on her dulcimer.

Volunteers Susie Meier and Debbie Holle met with students in the old cemetery across Water Street.

“We give the kids a short history of the cemetery and show them emblems on the tombstones and ask what they think they mean,” Holle said. “We also show them how to divine for unmarked graves.”

Metal clothes hangers can be reshaped and used as a divining rod. If it crosses, it’s a male, and if it goes apart, it’s a female, Meier said.

The students also visited the Robertson Livery Barn.

It was built in the 1870s and used for when people would come to the nearby courthouse. It later had to be rebuilt after being destroyed by fire in 1899.

“If you left your horse on the square overnight, he was going to be gone because somebody would just walk off with it,” said history center volunteer Randy Burge.

Back in the 1800s, there were only three ways to get to the livery barn — walk, travel by horseback or take a horse and buggy, Burge said.

Fourth-graders Jake Bohn and Brynn Burton said they learned some interesting things during their tour of the history center.

Jake said he was most impressed with the string fort.

“It’s a large cabin meant for protection,” he said.

“They would put several together, and they would be about six times that size.”

Brynn said she liked seeing the early version of a washing machine. There was a box that was used for pouring in water and lye soap, along with some clothes.

It must have made it easier for them, she said.

“There would be a kid at either end pushing it back and forth like a saw,” she said.

“Also, the girls’ pioneer clothes can get kind of hot to wear.”

It takes about 30 volunteers to help with the history center tours, and many of them are retired schoolteachers and principals.

All of the volunteers are served a meal while they are there, too.

“Any business that would like to contribute as a corporate sponsor, please contact us,” Brewer said. “We are always in need of funds.”

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The Jackson County History Center is at the corner of Walnut and Sugar streets in Brownstown.

It is operated by volunteers and supported by donations and fundraising projects.

The office and genealogical library are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Friday and from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday.

The museums and John Ketcham Pioneer Village are open from 9 to 11 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday.

Tours can be arranged at other hours by appointment by calling 812-358-2118.

Information also may be found by searching Jackson County History Center of Indiana on Facebook.