Kate Frost was busy frying dough in oil, trying to make a tasty treat inside the old log cabin, while just down the hill, Shanna Casinger in the 1860s home was dipping a quill pen in ink as she wrote a letter, with an apple crisp cooling nearby.
A short walk down a trail and under a covered bridge found Gene Strohecker turning a piece of wood into a spoon while Stephanie Vavra stood behind the teachers’ desk in a little schoolhouse.
They all are members of the Early American Crafters, a group that four times a year bring Fulton’s Heritage Canyon to life.
Saturday and Sunday as part of the town’s annual Fall Festival, the group’s women donned long dresses, shawls and hats while the men wore old-fashioned clothing as they demonstrated what life would have been like in the 1800s.
Visitors could follow a brick trail to take them throughout the canyon and the village created there by its founder, Harold Wierenga. The city of Fulton now runs the canyon, but the Early American Crafters still show their crafting skills during Dutch Days in May and the Fall Festival. The Crafters also will play a significant role in the upcoming Beggar’s Walk, which is akin to trick-or-treating on Halloween, and the Christmas Walk, in which visitors tour the canyon while looking inside the cabins as they are outfitted for the holiday.
On Sunday, visitors could see Frost as she cooked near the chimney fire. On Saturday she made apple fritters and on Sunday was making a new dish that tasted like fried doughnuts.
She gets many of her old-time recipes through research and adapting her grandmother’s long-ago recipes; they go back to the staples of the time period, with flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and yeast.
The cabin she works in would be considered small for a family, but as she points out, families would use the space they had to the maximum. A loft above is where the children would sleep; behind them would be where the family would store items such as steamer trunks.
The floor level contains the main living quarters, with a bed, table and cooking equipment near the chimney. The woman of the house would care for the children, cook and preserve the harvest. Meat would be butchered and then preserved in lard. Root vegetables were hung from the rafters.
Casinger, formerly of Clinton and now of Byron, Ill., was in the 1860s house, which had been constructed on the Henry Bruebaker farm in Garden Plain and later donated to Wierenga to be set up in the canyon. Casinger was writing letters, demonstrating the use of a quill pen, having earlier made her dessert.
Vavra is the schoolhouse teacher, and makes sure to talk to the children as they try out the little desks. Her chalkboard is full of instruction in neatly printed handwriting. Primers are nearby and she shows how children would have been taught the alphabet and sound out words.
She said one-room schools could have included children from age 7 through high school. Younger children would not have been enrolled in school since their little feet could not carry them over the long walks to school; often, children stopped going to school once they graduated from eighth grade.
Student attendance also was affected by farmwork for the older boys and childcare and cooking duties for the girls as they grew older.
The Crafters showcase their skills on the 12 acres of land that from the mid-1800s to 1954 housed a limestone quarry where rock was crushed for field fertilizer, road beds, wing dams and levees. Trucks, trains and river barges hauled it away. The quarry was abandoned in 1954 because dynamiting was damaging both sides of the river. The area became an eyesore to the community with its junk and dilapidated shacks, according to the city’s website. In 1967, Harold and Thelma Wierenga bought the quarry. They converted the machine shop into a usable workshop and then built their home on the site of the old rock crusher. They changed the quarry to preserve Midwestern history, emphasizing detail and authenticity; and disturb nature as little as possible as each building is added. Harold Wierenga died in January 1999, his daughter and son-in-law maintained the canyon for several years. However, the volunteer task of maintaining the canyon was simply too much for the couple. In October 2005 the city of Fulton was given ownership of Heritage Canyon. The Early American Crafters’ mission is to transport visitors back to the 1800s by setting up in the buildings that dot the landscape of the area.
On Sunday, woodworkers could be found just down the trail from the school.
Gene Strohecker of Elroy, Ill., demonstrated how to turn pieces of wood into usable items. On a blanket on the ground nearby, visitors could look at a collection of items he had made, some decorative, others useful for everyday living. Others are made to make visitors laugh, such as the piece of a tree that he smoothed out and has placed on the corner of the blanket. When people ask him what it is, he tells them it is a skeleton of a foot. He also made a detailed miniature of a shaving horse, saying he is looking for someone small enough use it.
“You’ve got to have fun with your craft,” he said.
Bob Olesen of Sterling, Ill., was making a bowl in a nearby building, the first time he had made that piece.
A large group of tools were assembled nearby, with Olesen detailing the importance of each to the creation of the bowl.
Larry Jepsen and his cousin, Daniel, drew quite the crowd as they made brooms at the canyon’s entrance.
While not members of the Early American Crafters, they are invited to the canyon a couple times of year to demonstrate broommaking, in which they use cornbroom plants that they trim, layer around a wooden handle, and wire in place before drying and stitching into a variety of brooms.