Where: Staunton, Virginia, Southeast USA
When: 18th century
History: Explore life for America’s early European settlers with a recreation of historic farms and crafts including quilting and barn dancing
Remember to bring: A pair of clogs for the hoe-down
America’s Early Settlers
For us, space was the final frontier. In Southeast America in the 1700s, the final frontier was overcoming the mountains. By the 1730s the Valley of Virginia was home to many settlers from England, Ireland, and Germany who had left their known countries in search of land and opportunity and who were offered free land by the colony of Virginia at the Frontier – the natural barricade created by the Blue Ridge Mountains – to act as a buffer against the French from Canada and the Native Americans from the west.
The Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton recreates life as it was for Shenandoah Valley’s early settlers from the Old World of Western Europe and tells the story of how they came together to form a new American culture. The museum is a living history site and features four historic, reconstructions of farms from Germany, Ireland, England, a typical American homestead, and a blacksmith forge.
The Farms of Frontier Culture Museum
Based on a mid-seventeenth century farmhouse from Hartlebury, Worcestershire, whose owner sent his children to Virginia to begin new lives in the colonies. The English were in the Valley of Virginia from the 1730s and their values and customs highly influenced the new American Republic.
A timber-framed farmhouse modelled on an original situated in the Hord, Rhineland-Palatinate from the late seventeenth to the late twentieth century. The Germans first trickled then flowed into the Shenandoah Valley from the 1730s and today the vast majority of residents are of German descent.
From Ulster in what is now Northern Ireland, the forge dates back to the late eighteenth century. The blacksmith would have fitted shoes for and trimmed the hooves of horses and performed services like repairing tools and wagons.
Based on a farm from Botetourt County, Virginia, the American farm shows how the European cultures fused into a recognizable, homogenised American culture by the start of the twentieth century.
Experience Frontier Settler Life
Early frontier settlers might have got their land handed to them for free by the colony of Virginia but that’s where the help ended. They had to clear their land, fell trees, build their houses and everything was done by hand. At the Museum you can get a hands-on experience of settler life with cutting corn in the fields by hand using a sickle, preserving fruit and vegetables, or making tools with a blacksmith.
Traditional Appalachian cultures to explore here:
The Appalachian region is known for its highly evolved arts and crafts – particularly wood working, basketry, and quilting. According to Appalachian folklore, if a girl sleeps under new quilt she’ll dream of the man she’s going to marry. Patterns are passed down the family line from mother to daughter like Double Wedding Ring, Monkey Wrench, Drunkards Path, and Jacobs Ladder.
Quilting is steeped in tradition, often the grandmother makes a quilt for their grandchild, often embroidered with family names, which would continue to pass down the generations long after her death. The Friendship Quilt is a tradition where one woman would piece together a section and pass it onto another woman until a full quilt was formed – each woman stitching their name into the quilt.
The Appalachian Hills are alive with the sound of music – and flat-footing feet! With many of the new settlers unable to read, write, or speak each other’s languages, music became a currency of free trade and a way for them to record their history and communicate with one another. They worked hard and then played hard to and dancing was a common bond.
Appalachian barn-dancing is a blend of dances drawn by the early settlers – the Irish and Scottish brought their jigs, the English came with their clogs, the black slaves contributed the high kick, and the stomp is said to have come from the Native American Indians. It’s danced to the accompaniment of traditional mountain instruments – dulcimer and banjo – but you won’t find a drum; Appalachian dance steps are used as the sole rhythm because “ungodly” instruments were banned. There are hundreds of moves to learn like the flat-foot, clog, and hoe-down with dances called Wringing The Chickens Neck, Stepping on a Snake, and Briar Patch. Distinct steps vary from hillside to hillside, like a dance called “Mr Hilt Goes To The Mailbox” based on a local man’s unusual walk.
Frontier Culture Museum
Located near I-64 and I-81 in Staunton, Virginia. I-81, Exit 222, Route 250 West, the museum is 1/2 mile on the left. Ample free parking is available.
Entry costs: $10 US adults, $6 children. Open hours: 9am to 5pm. Phone: 001 540-332-7850
By Susi O’Neill