By Pat Murphy…Vista has one of the best Museums on the West Coast. Visitors and volunteers come from all over the United States to see the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum. The museum covers some 55 acres and is located just behind and off the curve of North Santa Fe where the Guajome Park Academy sits. The address is 2040 N. Santa Fe.
What has the museum to do with Ms Whimplewart and what is The School of Times Past? Well, Ms. Whimplewart (Connie Morton) is the old fashioned schoolmarm that conducts educational classes at the Museum’s circa 1800’s school house. My wife and I dropped by there last week and observed over 30 second grade youngsters from the Saint Joseph’s Academy in San Marcos. They were accompanied by teachers and parents who were also getting to step back in time for a living history lesson. Broken up into smaller groups they were all attending Ms. Whimplewart’s special class and getting a tour of some of the museum’s unique offerings.
We caught up with one group and their teacher, Miss Ebiner-Gavit, as they were touring the old farm house with its antique furnishings. Ms. Whimplewart was in her period attire of a flower print blue dress under an orange apron and her hair was covered by a large bandana. She was holding up a very large white footed ceramic cauldron and asking her audience if anyone could tell her what it was used for. When no one could give the correct answer she told them how it was used as a toilet during the night and emptied in the morning.
Holding the Chamber pot she approached several students and told everyone that it was the children’s responsibility to empty the contents in the mornings. She quickly extended her arms, directed the pot towards one young man instructing him to “take it outside and clean it!”, and smiled as he and his fellow classmates backed away as if she were holding a poisonous snake. She knew that they all understood what it was like to have a chamber pot back in the turn of the century.
Ms. Whimplewart also demonstrated the Gramophone sitting in the corner of the living room that housed plush old furniture. As she did so, I saw kids looking at each other and snickering. I’m sure this is because today they all use digital phones and I-pads that play music. But the funny thing was that even though they found this amusing, they were hanging on the teacher’s every word and they were learning things about history that are difficult to experience from reading text books.
Ms. Whimplewart moved across the aisle to the kitchen display and showed her attentive students how water was pumped in the sink or bowl in the “ole days”. As she demonstrated old appliances and techniques she would tell parables related to them. She mentioned that when parents were displeased with you back in her day, they would use all three of your names. What came next was a fun activity that was both hands on and educational. Mason jars that were half filled with room temperature, heavy whipping cream were passed out to the youngsters. They were instructed to vigorously shake the jars until the cream turns into whey and a lump of butter. Then they drained the by product, buttermilk, from the jar. The buttermilk could be drank, discarded or used for baking. Mashing the lump of butter helped eliminate any excess whey and then what was left, was butter. Everyone got to taste the butter with a fresh piece of bread. It was delicious and it didn’t have that salty taste we are all familiar with. Yes, everyone including myself, got to taste the homemade butter.
It was now time to cross the street into the school house. At the short stairwell entrance, Ms Whimplewart paused, reached inside the door and produced a large wooden paddle. I remembered immediately what it was and how it could feel when used properly. MsWhimplewart had to explain the paddle to these 21st century children as she cautioned them to come into her classroom quietly and leave bad behavior outside.
This comes from her 56 years of experience as a teacher and one whose roots go back to Nebraska.
The classroom is a small museum unto itself. Desks with inkwells were lined up along one side. Instead of ink the glass jars were filled with chalk. An American flag was hanging on one wall. Old photographs and a doll sat on a table and a piano was over in one corner. A framed photo of Ms Whimplewart and a certificate from the University of Nebraska at Omaha proclaimed that she “Demonstrated distinguished performance as a Professional Educator”.
The students sat on benches that filled the center of the room facing the teacher. Instead of slate boards, the students were directed to find small chalk boards under the benches. Chalk was passed out and the lesson started. It was a combination spelling, word making, and singing lesson. The kids eagerly participated and Ms. Whimplewart never even looked toward that wooden paddle. “I have a dog and his name is Rags… he eats so much his tummy sags” rang out in the old classroom. “Flip-Flop, Wig-Wag, Zig Zag!”
The St. Joseph’s Academy second graders also learned to make kites and weave yarn. They all received small hand held Japanese influenced weaving looms that “followed the belly button” and all the materials necessary for making a kite. A string and a button was all they needed according to Ms. Whimplewart to make a toy that could entertain for hours. The kids were also instructed on “patch quilt” art and given material that they could work on back in their modern classroom. It wasn’t just these young boys and girls that were enjoying the lessons. As I looked at the faces of the adults standing behind them I could tell that they too wanted to try some of these crafty projects. I know I felt like making a kite and flying it. In fact, now that I think about it I believe several people over the years have suggested that I do just that.
Soon class was dismissed and we headed down the road to the Blacksmith building. Inside the dimly lit building we found a man wearing a heavy looking apron and standing next to a forge with a glowing pile of coal. Jim Parker, one of the local Blacksmiths, warmly (not a pun) greeted our group and started demonstrating how glowing pieces of metal were malleable. He also explained something to his young audience that I was not aware of. He wasn’t wearing any gloves and he was grabbing the ends of metal rods that were sticking out of the bed of hot coals. Jim explained that if the metal on the cooler end became too hot to hold, he could quickly stick in in a bucket of water he kept nearby. If he was wearing gloves when this occurred, the gloves would become wet and the next time he picked something hot up, the wet gloves and the hot metal would produce scalding steam. Jim showed us the way to “crank up the fire” or “stoke the furnace”. He did this by turning the crank on a blower attached to a tube that ran in and up under the hot coals. Flames shot up over a foot high when he did this and tiny breaths could be heard oohing as eyes widened. Smoke from the hotbed was pulled upward towards a vent in the wooden ceiling as Jim talked about the difference between coal and wood fuels. Coal burns clean he told us.
Hammering away on a glowing piece of metal held across an anvil, Jim showed us how the now soft metal was formed into flat pieces or curved pieces. He told us that tools for working on the tractors or even replacement parts for worn tractor p parts could be made by a clever blacksmith. All the kids were able to hold a cold piece of coal and get their hands blackened by the coal dust allowing them to understand where the name Blacksmith originated.
After wiping their small hands with a shop towel the students were off to see the working train at Guajome Junction and then on to see the “N” size miniature rail display and the Edible garden. They also got to ride in a large green stake bed trailer as it was pulled by a tractor.
Teachers or parents wanting their children to experience this living history should contact Mary Cortmyer, the Instructional Coordinator. She can be reached at email@example.com or by calling (760) 941-1791. Adults too can contact Mary for a host of adult classes that are offered at the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum. Some of the classes offered from time to time are; Blacksmithing, Soap making, Upholstery, Wire wrap Jewelry, Weaving, Needle Felting, Steam Engines, Hit and Miss Engines and Rug making.
The Museum Weavers located in the Weaving Barn are dedicated individuals who help one another learn the weaving craft. Classes are available for master weavers and beginners just learning the craft. “We’re a working museum!” they proclaim.
Other events are found at this amazing museum throughout the year. The Fiber Arts festival was held earlier this month. The Fall Truck and Tractor show continues on the 25th and 26th of this month and on Sunday, Nov. 9th a giant Estate and Consignment auction will feature Farmhouse and Barn yard Collectables. Bidders will be able to come away with wagons and wagon wheels, farm toys, historical memorabilia and rustic farm implements to name a few.
In March the Civil War re-enactment will return, in April the annual Gem and Mineral show will take place and in June there are two weekends of the Antique Engine and Tractor show. For more details on these events, the School of Times Past (K-8 Field Trip Program), the numerous classes and other activities, contact the Museum director, Rod Groenewold or Mary Cortmyer at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or (760) 941-1791. The Blacksmithing Registration Coordinator is Megan Tessicini and her Email is email@example.com and her Phone Numbers are (760) 941-1791 or (760) 689-2695.
This rare and unique museum, this gem in Vista, is always in need of volunteer help and is always appreciative of any donations received. So, I would like to end this article by asking all of our VistaPress.com readers to support and patronize the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum. Tell all your friends about it too!
Photos by Mary Murphy