Covering the Land of Lincoln

Welcome to the Prairie – thePROSPECTUS

In an age of constant technological innovation, it seems impossible to imagine a world where tasks, which are simple to today’s standards, require so much manual labor.

This year, for the first time ever, an event called “Welcome to the Prairie” was involved in The University of Illinois’s Welcome Week activities. At the Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve in Mahomet, community members had the opportunity to glance into what life was like in the past. I got an opportunity to speak with the Champaign County Park District’s Public Programs Manager, Pat Cain, who was the man in charge of planning Welcome to the Prairie. Pat told me that the goal of the event was to inform and to encourage folks to connect with the past. “I’ve noticed that visitors get a really deep connection when they’re able to get their hands on something… Churning butter helps gain perspective on how much easier it is today to just go to the store and get a pack of butter. We’ve been churning for four hours now and just finally got some butter made.” This year was Pat’s sixth time planning this event, and it was clear by the number of demonstrations and hands-on activities that it had been well thought out.

A Blacksmith at work.
Photo by Olaf Schwink

On arrival, attendees were immediately transported into the nineteenth century by the sound of metal clanging on metal right in front of the Museum of the Grand Prairie. Two blacksmithing booths, side-by-side, were giving demonstrations of how settlers crafted simple forms and tools like carpentry nails, small knives, horseshoes, hammer heads, spatulas, tongs, dinner bells, Dutch oven hooks, and many more objects ranging in complexity.

Walking up to the steps to the museum, it was impossible to miss the beautiful hand-woven baskets placed on a table next to the door. Intricate cross-woven patterns embellished the numerous baskets. The woman sitting behind the table demonstrated how settlers would wet long reeds to make them soft and malleable for weaving into interesting forms. When they dried, they held their shape exceptionally, and made some very sturdy and unique looking baskets.

Potter sculpting a vessel
Photo by Olaf Schwink

Through a door on the other side of the museum, I was immediately greeted by a potter who was creating ceramic vessels on an old style of pottery wheel. The potter kicked a large round stone which was connected to the wheel by an axle. The faster he kicked, the faster the wheel would turn. While he was talking, the potter threw a hunk of clay on his wheel and began his multistep process to turn the ball into a functional pitcher, making conversation all the while at the children who were watching. His skills were intriguing, and even while talking, he successfully created an elegant vessel.

Further down the path, there were two volunteers churning butter using two different methods. The older methods involved using a long stick to push into a wooden basin. Cream filled the basin, and after a very long session of churning, the cream started to thicken into butter. The second method was more efficient. Using a hand crank with gears, a beating attachment churned the cream into butter. The flavor of the hand-churned butter was lighter than store-bought and the texture was softer.

English country dance
Photo by Olaf Schwink

My highlight of the day was a demonstration of English Country dance, which I was invited to perform in. I was quickly led through some steps, and after a short while, a band of five community members played traditional music as I, my dance partner , and four other dancers swung through the steps.

Welcome to the Prairie blew me away with all it had to offer. There were more events than I could possibly fit in this article, including making candles, and learning how settlers cleaned their laundry with a washboard.

Any who are in search of education and a change in outlook are urged to join in on the fun for next years event! You can learn more about Welcome to the Prairie and other Museum of the Grand Prairie events online or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or their YouTube channel.

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