The video about Anne Frank was over— part of a special exhibit at Bosque Redondo Memorial in Fort Sumner, New Mexico—when my son told me, “Those Nazis were really mean.”
“Are they going to come to New Mexico?”
“No,” I told him. “But the next time you talk to Grandpa, you thank him because he joined the Navy when he was young to help stop those Nazis.”
Jack, then five, promptly asked, “Then why wasn’t Grandpa in that movie, Daddy?”
Jack is often my traveling companion to historic sites. We learned about John Muir together (Jack loved hearing about the accident that almost blinded Muir), plus the Anasazi, Charlie Russell, Smokey Bear…. It’s history time. Better yet, it’s quality time.
“At that age I don’t think they’re quite as into it as you would like,” says filmmaker David Zucker of Airplane! fame, “but I think some of it rubs off.”
Zucker knows. For years, he and historian Paul Hutton have traveled together with their young sons on a quest to involve their kids with history.
“The trick,” says screenwriter and producer Tony Ritter, “is to make the West interesting, but don’t shove it down the kids’ throats…. Tell them it’s a big secret and you shouldn’t talk about it. It gets them every time, like a curious monkey.”
It doesn’t all sink in. Charles Zucker, 9, was mesmerized more by a side trip to the UFO Festival in Roswell than Billy the Kid. Hutton can relate. Ask him about his trip to Wyoming, when he stopped with his family at Pahaska Tepee, Buffalo Bill Cody’s lodge east of Yellowstone National Park. The man who ran the horseback riding concession was a fan of Hutton, resulting in a memorable back-country ride.
“The children, who studiously refuse to watch any of my television programs,” Hutton recalls, “now were suddenly deeply impressed with the old man’s achievements.”
When that history sinks in, it’s certainly sweet.
Eighteen months after our Muir road trip, I was working on the house when a screwdriver rolled off a ladder and barely missed my eye.
Jack told me: “You were almost just like John Muir.”
Travel, of course, is not the only way to hook kids on history. True West turned to moms, dads, grandparents and kids-at-heart to come up with 10 ways to help your children appreciate history.
1. APPLY ART
Crow Indian artist Kevin Red Star loves children to visit his studio in Roberts, Montana. “They’re unlimited with their expressions,” he says, “and I like that.”
Art, Red Star says, is a great tool to introduce history and heritage. Many art museums know this.
Russell’s West Discovery Gallery at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, includes an art activity area for kids. Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, offers summer art camps for kids and plenty of kid-friendly features throughout the year.
Great Views: Buffalo Bill Historical Center (Cody, WY); Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art (Indianapolis, IN); Heard Museum (Phoenix, AZ).
2. BOOK IT
Not everyone can afford a Western road trip, so what’s the next-best thing?
“The nearest public library,” best-selling novelist John Jakes says. “Yes, you can learn a lot on the Internet, but somehow it isn’t the same as developing a lifelong habit of literary detective work ‘in the stacks.’”
More important, read to your children, and get your kids to read. Easier said than done. “I’m still following my 13 year old around with a copy of Old Yeller and trying to make him read it,” novelist Elizabeth Crook laments.
But it’s a fight we must win.
Must Reads: Little House On the Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder); Mr. Tucket (Gary Paulsen); Sagebrush and Paintbrush: The Story of Charlie Russell, The Cowboy Artist (Nancy Plain).
3. CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN
Most kids love to climb, so visiting any historic bunch of rocks—like Arizona’s Cochise Stronghold or California’s Yosemite and Texas’s Big Bend National Parks—is an excellent bet.
Charlotte Hinger recommends Monument Rocks near Scott City, Kansas. “They are best explored,” she says, “in the presence of a truly clueless grandmother who forgets to say ‘be careful’ until it’s too late and the horse is out of the barn.”
Rocking Sites: Independence Rock State Historic Site (WY); Monument Valley (UT & AZ); Scotts Bluff National Monument (NE).
4. DO THE LOCOMOTION
Maybe we should tip our hats to Thomas the Tank Engine, the children’s book series and its spinoffs, for reviving the rails.
In the American West, there’s no end to railroad adventures, from narrow gauge excursions (Colorado’s Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad) to museums (California State Railroad Museum). The joining of the Transcontinental Railroad is re-created seasonally at Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory, Utah, but don’t forget Amtrak, which partners with the National Park Service for a “Trails and Rails” lecture program on many routes.
Rails to Ride: 1880 Train (Hill City, SD); Grand Canyon Railway (Williams, AZ); Nevada Northern Railway (Ely, NV); Cumbres & Toltec Railroad (Antonito, CO, & Chama, NM).
5. GET DUDED UP
Colorado historian Joyce B. Lohse’s then-six-year-old son—decked out in cowboy boots and hat—entered a store after returning home from a dude ranch adventure at Montana’s 63 Ranch. “The gentleman behind the counter patted him on the head and said, ‘Maybe some day you will ride the range,’” Lohse says. “Charlie … looked him square in the eye and proudly said, ‘I already did.’”
Most ranches still focus on families, and some ride close to history.
Big Brands: Flying E (Wickenburg, AZ); Sylvan Dale (Loveland, CO); TA (Buffalo, WY). To find ranches in your area, visit DudeRanch.org or call 866-399-2339 to contact the Dude Ranchers’ Association.
6. GHOSTLY MATTERS
As a child, Tony Ritter traveled with his parents to see as many ghost towns in Montana as possible. “They had only three cassette tapes and one of them was the Oak Ridge Boys. After 1,500 miles of ‘OOM Boppa Mow Mow,’ I wanted to hang myself,” Ritter jokes. Those trips must have worked. One of Ritter’s current projects is a Western, Get Out of Dodge.
GHOST town. The name alone appeals to kids.
Haunt These: Bannack, MT; Jerome, AZ; Silver City, ID.
7. GO NATIONAL
“Reading about history is informative and illuminating,” says Nathan King, a park ranger charged with interpretation and education for North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, “but nothing compares with actually being in the place where a historically significant event occurred.”
Parks offer Junior Ranger programs, plus seasonal guided tours, talks and evening programs. Theodore Roosevelt’s South Unit is loaning out “Family Fun Packs,” which are “backpacks filled with field guides, activity ideas and gadgets,” King says, “to allow families and children expanded opportunities to explore the park.”
Places to Park: Mesa Verde (CO); Mount Rushmore (SD); Yellowstone (WY).
8. LIVE IT
Museums have a tendency to be hands-off and keep-quiet—tough concepts for a seven year old—and all about dead people. Living history museums, on the other hand, are great ways to make history come to life. So are mountain man rendezvous re-enactments.
“One of the recurring experiences teachers have is children who, for the first time, confront their own past on a personal level and wonder ‘Did one of my family walk the trail, live in a sod house or hunt for their food?’” says Ann Atkins, director of education at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island, Nebraska. “As a first grader stands and stares at a live buffalo on our grounds and hears stories about how buffalos were hunted, a respect for history grows in that child’s heart. We hope to have them leave with more questions than what were answered because we’ve raised their curiosity on a personal level.”
Gage Skinner, meanwhile, is a mountain man buff in Southern California who stays heavily involved in teaching history, and he is a big proponent of the rendezvous. “It’s the closest thing they’re going to find to mountain man history, and to history in general,” he says. “It’s living history.”
Live & Kickin’: Old Cowtown Museum (Wichita, KS); Fort Bridger Rendezvous (Fort Bridger, WY); El Rancho de Las Golondrinas (Santa Fe, NM).
9. MAKE MUSIC
Riders in the Sky’s Ranger Doug (a.k.a. Douglas B. Green) can’t stop singing the praises of music as a device to hook kids on history.
“I’ll never forget hearing ‘Cool Water,’ sitting in front of the radio,” he says. “I could just see that shimmering mirage and the old prospector! If you can catch kids young enough, I think interest can be sparked; I love to see young parents—many of whom, these days, came to our shows when they were kids—bringing their kids to hear live music.”
Hear, Hear: Johnny Horton Makes History by Johnny Horton; The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again) by Herb Jeffries; Silver Jubilee by Riders in the Sky.
10. MAD ABOUT MOVIES
Wofford College’s Ted Monroe and Jeremy Jones used film and fiction in an interim course in January to teach the American West to college kids in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
“I try to show them that the literature and films of the West speak to the heart of the society we live in, and that they offer us an understanding of the past, a roadmap to the future,” Jones says, “and most of all an understanding of ourselves right now.”
Even Hopalong Cassidy has his admirers. Eight-year-old Jesse Cain of Fayetteville, North Carolina, has been hooked on Hoppy since he was four.
“I had such a good childhood, and I wanted [my children] to know a little bit about how I grew up,” says Jesse’s mother Christi, a preschool teacher. “We just teach him the old ways. You can’t tell Jesse that Hopalong’s not real, like Doc Holliday and that crowd. He understands all that, knows he was an actor, but he believes in his mind that Hoppy was real.”
Why not Gene Autry or Roy Rogers? “I asked him,” Christi says, “and he said, ‘Mama, I like them all right. But, Mama, it just don’t seem like they’re getting anything done with all that singing they do.”
Movies have often turned youngsters on to history. It’s as easy as 2+2=4, Monroe says (he is, after all, a math professor).
Screen Gems: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991); Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956); True Grit (1969).
TEN EVENTS FOR YOUR COWPOKES
1. CHUCK WAGON GATHERING AND CHILDREN’S COWBOY FESTIVAL (Oklahoma City, OK): Plenty of hands-on opportunities at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. May TBA
2. DEFEAT OF JESSE JAMES DAYS (Northfield,MN): Today’s lesson—Don’t rob banks. Sept. 9-13
3. GATHERING OF NATIONS (Albuquerque, NM): North America’s biggest Indian Powwow. April 22-24, 2010
4. GOLIAD MASSACRE LIVING HISTORY PROGRAM (Goliad, TX): A sobering two-day re-enactment at Presidio La Bahia, but kids love it. March TBA
5. HAUNTED TOURS (Yuma, AZ): Yuma Territorial Prison State Park teaches kids that crime doesn’t pay. October
6. HELLS CANYON MULE DAYS (Enterprise, OR): Bullwhackin’ Kass (alias Sheryl Curtis) sends children back in time. Sept. 11-13
7. HOLIDAY PAST TIMES (Ruidoso Downs, NM): A Victorian Santa at the Hubbard Museum of the American West. Holiday Season
8. LIVING HISTORY DAYS (Sacramento, CA): Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park turns the clock back to 1846. Throughout the Year
9. PAWNEE BILL’S WILD WEST SHOW (Fort Worth, TX): Ropin’, ridin’ and singin’ re-created from a famous show. Through Aug. 16
10. TECUMSEH! (Chillicothe, OH): Complete with horses and cannon (too intense for kids six or under). Through Aug. 29
FIFTY MORE KID-FRIENDLY ATTRACTIONS
1838 Rendezvous (Riverton, WY): Bring your future fur trappers to this July re-enactment of the mountain man rendezvous.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum (Springfield, IL): Kids learn how Old Abe charted the course of settlement in the West.
Bent’s Old Fort (La Junta, CO): The August 9 “Kid’s Quarters” program teaches seven- to 11-year-old children frontier skills.
Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (Austin, TX): The sights and sounds of Texas history is a time trip through re-created environments.
Bodie State Historic Park (Bodie, CA): Pick up the state’s Junior Ranger booklet and visit the best-preserved ghost town in California.
Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum (Jackson, TN): Kids won’t mind sipping on Coke Floats while learning about the railroad engineer.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park (Nageezi, NM): Exploring the Puebloan ruins teaches kids why preserving our heritage is so important.
Cherokee Heritage Center (Tahlequah, OK): Brings Cherokee culture alive with stickball games and demos of flintknapping and basketmaking.
Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada (Carson City, NV): Kids have free rein here! And yes, that includes your tweens and teens!
Chiricahua National Monument (Willcox, AZ): What kid wouldn’t want to wander around an ancient volcano that has created a sea of hoodoos?
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center (Duncan, OK): Plenty of buttons to push as your kids learn about the cattle drive era.
Colorado History Museum (Denver, CO): Children churn butter or learn home remedies at themed “Let’s Make History” programs on Saturdays.
Colorado Railroad Museum (Golden, CO): Celebrating 50 years of entertaining kids with themed trains like a “Day Out With Thomas.”
Conner Prairie Interactive History Park (Fishers, IN): The “Prairie Tykes” program held Fridays allows elders to connect with preschoolers.
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (Chama, NM): Cinder Bear greets your kiddies on a kid-themed rail ride every Thursday through July 30.
Davis Mountains State Park (Fort Davis, TX): A local family deeded the original portion of this park so that your family could enjoy it.
Desert Caballeros Western Museum (Wickenburg, AZ): Youth 16 and under get to experience Western art and dude ranch history for free.
Donner Party Memorial State Park (Truckee, CA): Get ready for those questions on cannibalism!
Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park (Mandan, ND): At Custer Christmas, show the kids the Custer House and take them on a sleigh ride.
Fort Davis National Historic Site (Fort Davis, TX): Kids follow a map and gather clues on a “Mystery of the Talking Walls” tour.
Fort Hall Replica (Pocatello, ID): Retells the accounts of Oregon Trail pioneers and mountain men.
Fort Laramie National Historic Site (Fort Laramie, WY): Kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge hunting clues around the fort.
Boot Hill Museum & Front Street (Dodge City, KS): Brings 1876 Dodge City to life and offers games and stories for kids in the 1915 schoolhouse.
Georgetown Loop Railroad (Georgetown, CO): Kids will cheer aboard this train traveling 640 feet above mountainous terrain.
Great Platte River Road Archway Monument (Kearney, NE): July offers trail re-enactments at this multimedia museum (also True West’s #1 Museum of the Year).
Klondike Gold Rush National Park (Skagway, AK): Kids learn Gold Rush history as they answer clues to be a Junior Ranger.
Historic Washington State Park (Washington, AR): Immerses campers in 1800s life at “History Alive” day camps in the summer.
Hueco Tanks State Park (El Paso, TX): Dr. Dirt, the Armadillo Archaeologist, introduces kids to rock art and area history.
Living History Farms (Urbandale, IA): Offers summer history day camps for grades one through nine.
National Bison Range (Moiese, MT): A wildlife viewing adventure where kids will see elk, bighorn sheep and buffalo.
National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame (Fort Worth, TX): The simulated bronc ride is a big hit with the kids.
National Hall of Fame for Famous American Indians (Anadarko, OK): Kids can rub the bronze busts of famous Indians.
National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, DC): Children get a kick out of seeing ancient native toys and games like a Lakota game wheel and stick, and a Winnebago male doll.
Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum (Hannibal, MO): For those aspiring writers of yours, with their dog-eared copies of Huckleberry Finn.
Mission San Juan Capistrano (San Juan Capistrano, CA): Starting this September, fun-filled audio tours share mission history geared at kids.
Museum of the Fur Trade (Chadron, NE): Introduce your children to a time when skins were money.
Museum of the Mountain Man (Pinedale, WY): The July 9-12 Green River Rendezvous is a kid’s paradise.
New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum (Las Cruces, NM): Living history every day and family fun days on special Sundays.
Nevada State Railroad Museum (Carson City, NV): Ride the steam locomotive pulling historic Virginia & Truckee rail cars.
Old Tucson Studios (Tucson, AZ): Kids love to play-act gunfights at this historic frontier town movie set, and they can pan for gold here too!
Palo Duro Canyon State Park (Canyon, TX): Outdoor classroom programs that will get your kids digging in the dirt … for good reason!
Pony Express National Museum (St. Joseph, MO): Kids always get a kick out of hearing that boys as young as 11 delivered pony mail.
Sam Houston Memorial Museum (Huntsville, TX): Children get a chance to “work and play on the farm” in the fall and winter, with tours throughout the year.
Sharlot Hall Museum (Prescott, AZ): Brings Arizona’s territorial history to life by offering history adventures throughout the year.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History (Washington, DC): The free Spark!lab offers games and experiments to inspire young scientists.
South Pass City State Historic Site (South Pass City, WY): Candle pin bowling and gold panning at Gold Rush Days, the last weekend of July.
Steamboat Arabia Museum (Kansas City, MO): “They dug that up out of a cornfield? WOW!” Looks of awe guaranteed.
Texas State Railroad (Rusk, TX): The Lone Ranger will save the day from bandits on special rides during the month of August.
Whitman Mission National Historical Site (Walla Walla, WA): How to make Indian moccasins, adobe bricks and a model wagon are just a few activities that make Oregon Trail history fun for kids.
Wyoming Territorial Prison (Laramie, WY): Embark on a family scavenger hunt at the jail where Butch Cassidy served his time.