Just like America, the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton is big, complicated and beautiful.
It’s one of my favorite places to take my two girls—a museum where almost anything can be touched and very little is written down. Creative writing professors often exhort students to “show, don’t tell,” and this museum nails that concept, presenting history as a living, 3-D phenomenon.
If you’ve never been, here’s a summary: The FCM illustrates the lifeways of the many cultures, including European, African and Native American groups, that collectively formed the melting pot of the Shenandoah Valley, plus early American life as it evolved over time. It does all this through recreated farms and villages—dwellings, livestock, gardens, costumed interpreters—many of which were actually moved from their original locations.
It’s really a staggering concept, when you stop to consider it. Of course, kids may not be quite ready to wrap their minds around all the complexities of the last four centuries, but this is a place that they can certainly enjoy—and learn from. I’ve found myself referring back to the FCM in conversation with my daughters, just as we often do with another touchstone, the Little House books.
To my way of thinking, there is too much here to see in one day. Spread over the museum grounds are English, Irish and German farms, a West African farm, a Native American village and three separate American farms of different eras, plus a church and a schoolhouse. Each deserves much more than a glance, so I’ve taken my kids multiple times and tried to concentrate on different sections each time.
One favorite is the 1700s West African farm. This is a new addition since I first came to the FCM in the early 2000s, and it does a lot to deepen the story the museum tells. I always have to pause to appreciate a pair of beautifully carved wooden doors at the compound entrance; they remind me of how much I don’t know about life and culture in historical Africa.
Meanwhile, my kids run ahead to duck inside one of the dwellings, built of earthen walls and thatched roofs. One of the things that becomes a commonality across many parts of the museum is that people have built their houses out of whatever their environment provided—bark, mud, tree limbs or stone.
We all love being able to pick up and touch things: brooms, pots and skins that serve as “mattresses” for sleeping. And I’m glad when my kids get an inkling of how few possessions most people through history have owned, a stark contrast to our own stuff-laden culture.
Since animals have been a crucial part of the human story too, it’s more than fitting that the FCM keeps many kinds of livestock to round out the picture of each farm it recreates. And, of course, animal encounters are just plain fun. My daughters were delighted once to be approached by two small, very polite goats on the path from West Africa to England. I assume they were actually supposed to be behind a fence somewhere, but their escape was a happy accident for us.
At the three European farms, the level of detail is rich (partly owing to the fact that the buildings really are old, not just built to look that way). The excellent interpreters have much to share about the work they are doing. We’ve chatted with them about spinning and dyeing yarn, working a forge, cooking on an open hearth and much more. Two interpreters at the Native American village—another newish addition to the museum—once mesmerized me and my kids as they painstakingly scraped a deer hide with stones.
When you arrive, by foot or by golf cart, at the American section of the museum, you’re struck by the evolution of American life over time. The cabin that would have been typical in the 1700s, when the valley was just being settled by Europeans, is unbelievably crude compared with the smart, prosperous farm of the 1850s.
I loved learning that, on the frontier, husband-and-wife teams often used crosscut saws to clear the forest where they intended to live and grow crops. And I loved even more seeing my girls try out that very saw.
Yet, of course, the skills they’ll need in their own era are very different. Just beyond the trees, I-81 thunders past (one interpreter jokingly called it “the great trade route”). It’s a reminder of where all this history has led, and the fact that my daughters will be helping to write a new chapter we can’t yet imagine.
If you go
The Frontier Culture Museum is located in Staunton, just off I-81. Hours through this fall are 9am-5pm daily, and ticket prices are $12 adults, $11 students and $7 kids ages 6-12. (Younger children get in free.) Walking paths connect all exhibits, and golf carts circulate to offer rides to the weary. See frontiermuseum.org.