I have a dream.
At the beginning of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s a group of residents in the rural community of Parke County, Indiana, home to the famous Covered Bridge Festival, decided to come up with a way to capitalize on the small community’s tourism. Blessed with picturesque countryside, beautiful lakes, and a bevy of state parks the county successfully brought in dollars with the many campgrounds and recreational activities available. However, this small group of people noticed how day-to-day rural America itself seemed a novelty to most visitors and thought they could do even more. They developed a living history museum encompassing a turn-of-the-century village and farmstead called Billie Creek Village. While touring the historic buildings, visitors could not only observe but participate in the day-to-day activities. The vision was for the visitor to feel as if they had stepped back in time; school was in session inside the schoolhouse, the blacksmith was busy making horseshoes, and depending on the time of year a person could participate in anything from maple sugaring to rail splitting.
As with so many things in society today, that wonderful vision became distorted, watered-down along the way. The Village has changed hands many times over the years and eventually started being used more as a public park hosting car shows and Halloween parties than teaching people about the way things used to be. It slowly became a victim of the changing economy; most families are now busy working two jobs so the pool of volunteers has been significantly reduced. This is where the vicious cycle began: if there is no revenue to pay employees to do the jobs, then there is nothing for the visitor to see. If there is nothing for the visitor to see, they won’t come back. If they don’t come back, there is no revenue. The facility has fallen into disrepair and the current owners have decided not to reopen this season.
I had the pleasure of volunteering at Billie Creek Village for the past two years, first in the farmhouse as the quilting farm wife and secondly in the log cabin as the rug weaver. The joy of watching children learn to weave and seeing the seed of interest being planted made the long hours worthwhile. What struck me most though, was that despite the conditions of the facility and the current economy, people are still just as interested in rural American life now as they were back in the 1970s, only they are so far removed from that lifestyle they don’t even know where to begin to learn. I was disturbed by the number of children coming through the farmhouse who thought it was the rooster that was laying the eggs. This would have been common knowledge when I was a kid, if only because we heard our grandparents speak of it. Now though, it wasn’t only the children - some of their parents didn’t know either.
The one thing that I was asked most often was, “How do I learn how to do this?” It was asked in reference to everything from cast iron cooking, to shearing sheep, to spinning and weaving. People want more than a five minute demonstration, they want a class. They want someone to show them how to build a chicken coop for their backyard, they want someone to show them how to make their own soap, they want to learn how to spin yarn, and here is the kicker--they’re willing to pay for it! This is where we who live “out here” often miss the boat. We look at those visitors and shake our heads, wondering how a person could survive for 40 years without knowing where their food comes from. Then we walk away completely missing the opportunity to teach them. The opportunities for them to learn simply no longer exist.
“So what’s all this about a dream,” you ask? My dream is to teach them. To preserve the Billie Creek Village vision by converting the museum from a passive demonstration watching activity to a full-blown hands-on learning experience; a folk school akin to the John C. Campbell school of sorts, with weekend long immersion classes in everything from the lost crafts to sustainable farming practices. I think it is a brilliant idea. The only issue is that it would take a village to save the village and I’m just one person. It is a delightful, vivid dream but unless I hit the lottery soon I fear it, like so many other wonderful things about our past, will simply fade away. And as they do, a little part of us will fade with it.