Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fort St. Joseph Museum

This last week we visited the Fort St. Joseph Museum based on a recommendation from a local educator. I wasn't sure what to expect. I had six kids with me, from almost 2 up to age 11. The cost is free, so we only had to pay for gas to get there. Of course, donations are accepted. There is a historic mansion next door, both comprise the Niles History Center. The Chapin Mansion is $5/person if 10 or over, but they have been doing some renovations recently so call to check on tours. If I were more into architecture, I would be really excited to know this is one of the finest Aesthetic Period examples in the United States. It looks like it would be great to visit in the future! It is quite ornate.




I was pleasantly surprised by the museum! With kids, it was very different than most museums I take them to as almost everything is behind glass. This is a historical museum and items are being preserved and represent different aspects of local history. I wondered how the kids would do as they are used to interactive, play-based museums overall. We were greeted by a very friendly attendant and activity booklets for readers and non-readers. The Activity Booklets made all the difference in our experience! It changed what I thought would be a visit of looking at things behind glass to a themed investigation and scavenger hunt!

There were several themes and areas of activities. Upstairs, we found what life might have been like in a log cabin, with food stored in a loft area, a butter churner, how bread is made, etc. I thought it was interesting how the woman's daily chores were represented, with a different day for each task, like baking, laundry, etc. There is also a large scale loom, with the history of carding, shearing the sheep, etc. 



We read about the history of Niles and looked at old sewing machines.


It sounds like the two headed lamb (below left) is one of the popular pieces. This little section of "oddities" was indeed odd! My kids agreed the two headed lamb was one of their favorite pieces along with many other visitors. 


This section on outdoor recreation and sports reminded me of getting outside. We looked up close at ice skates and a sled and could compare them with what we use today. The boys just finished a season of baseball so it's neat to see the history of baseball in Niles.


My 5-year-old son is just starting to read. He had a different packet with pictures for him. It was still challenging, as he really needed to investigate the exhibits thoroughly to find the items. Thankfully, he had a little help from his cousins and brothers! While challenging, it really encouraged him to explore the items in the museum. He needed to use his observation and investigative skills to interact with the items. 


There are exhibits on early schools, children's games, needlepoint, and other past-times. This interesting jacket with bugs and dinosaurs on it is made by a local author and artist. 


There are bits of nature and natural history throughout the museum. There is a display on waterways used in the area, which includes moccasins, replicas of canoes, and information about native people from the area. The Mastodon tooth to the lower right is indicative of animals of the area's past. There is a large collection of Lakota items. The Lakota did not live in the area; however, various paintings and other items were donated to the museum by a family who owned these. Some of the pictographs were actually done by Sitting Bull himself! What a piece of history! I didn't take pictures of that section of the museum, as I respected the request not to. There was also a large canoe above our heads, a couple of actual scalps (wow!), artifacts, and the like. 


Another section focused on the underground railroad. I LOVED this carved mural. I also loved that the museum was interpreted with information on display throughout so we could learn more about the items. Nearby, each of the elements is described for us to understand better. There is a rich history of the underground railroad in Niles and the surrounding areas. We've been to the Vandalia Underground Railroad Day in the past and appreciated learning more of this history. It looks like we just missed it for 2014 as it is July 12 and 13th in 2014! Here is more of the underground railroad in Indiana as well. 


One section had elements of transportation in Niles, with a good emphasis on the rail depot. The boys' uncle in an engineer on a train, so they can see how much of this same technology is still being used today. There is also a printing press and related items. 


There are special displays about the Dodge Brothers. Dodge trucks? These guys started in Niles! The founder of Montgomery Ward spent time in Niles as well. The History Center's newest newsletter has more details on both!


Being so close to Independence Day, it was neat to see the bald eagle above us as we entered. 


The kids had fun with the activity booklets, encouraging them to spend time investigating the museum. The Fort St. Joseph Museum is a good local history gem, sharing the history of Niles and surrounding areas. While the theme is history, interaction with local nature is explored in various aspects, such as with Native Americans, mastodon teeth, local gardens, natural resources, outdoor education, and more! There is even a beaver felt hat! I had never seen one of these in person before. Great find! 

We followed up our visit with a trip to Lavender Hill Farm since it is cutting season, though Fernwood Botanical Garden would be another good option.  


EDUCATORS: Field trips are FREE! For groups of 12 or more school aged children, you can arrange a special trip. Topics include an introduction to the museum, our community, fort/fur trade, Native Americans, Michigan history, Underground Railroad, and more! They are administered by a professional educator. The education brochure can be downloaded here

There is also an archeology dig there many summers. I've heard this is great, too! They did not have the program this summer, but have popular open houses and summer camps for educators and others in the community, including older students.

Please note: No pictures are allowed in the museum. Special permission was given to share this great place with all of you! :-) 

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