Past joins present: Frontier Days at Natural Resource Day

Melody Montgomery |
Thursday, September 6, 2018

The “Mountain Man,” dressed for the part, provides kids with information about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, trapping and loading a musket.
          Photo by Melody Montgomery

Libby Olson teaches students about beading and allows kids to try out using the loom with her help. Photo by Melody Montgomery

Students work together to start a fire using grass as a fuel source and flint to ignite it.

Photo by Melody Montgomery

What was life like in Montana two hundred years ago? That is what 104 students in grades 4th through 6th learned on Natural Resource Day last Thursday. The Judith Basin Conservation District (JBCD) sponsored the August 30th event at the county fairgrounds. This location helped determine the theme – Frontier Days.

“We began thinking back to the past and how things were done then,” said JBCD Administrator Teresa Wilhelms.

Students from Denton, Moore, Hobson, Geyser, Surprise Creek and Stanford were divided into groups and rotated among learning stations. Topics included starting a fire, culling wool/spinning yarn, making butter, beading, trapping and basic foods.

“We begin planning for our educational events in January. It is very much a collaborative effort. We have been so blessed have NRCS [the Natural Resource Conservation Service] be a part of the event and for their technical support,” said Wilhelms. “I am thankful for all my instructors and to have such good rapport with all the agencies involved. I couldn’t do it without them.”

Other past Natural Resource Days have involved outings to Ackley Lake to learn about water quality and soil health. Further, Zoo Montana is involved every couple years and brings critters. Fish, Wildlife and Parks is another partner who helps put on the event.

“We try to keep the stations geared toward learning about our natural resources, including soils, forestry, wildlife, aquatics and air. We also try to apply Native American history, such as the beading this year. Native history is a big part of Montana’s history, evidenced by the teepee rings and pictographs in this area. The bead-working activities this year also give them an idea of working with their hands. A lot of the time, kids get so caught up in technology today, they forget what their hands can do,” said Wilhelms.

Trapping and hatting, told by a mountain man

A mountain man was played by Kurt Cunningham, educational specialist for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who fully dressed the part. He provided students with information about the Lewis and Clark Expedition – a result of the Louisiana Purchase – and discussed what life was like for the explorers. He explained that President Thomas Jefferson needed to find out about the land before committing to its purchase from France, so he sent out Lewis and Clark.

“Thomas Jefferson had rules for them to find things of economic value and keep a journal…. Jefferson was a naturalist, which today would be called a scientist,” said the Mountain Man.

There were areas already ‘discovered’ by trappers in the region, and of course Native Americans, but this was not common knowledge.

“If you have a great fishing spot you don’t tell anyone,” said the Mountain Man.

One animal of particular economic value at the time was the beaver, he said. It wasn’t until the North Dakota/Montana line that Lewis and Clark began to see signs of beaver. Up until this point on their journey, the animal had been “trapped out.”

“Beaver were worth more than gold for their waterproof hats,” said the Mountain Man.

The Mountain Man walked the groups through setting and baiting traps, showing them the four principle parts – the spring, pan, jaw, and dog. A substance called castor was used as bait.

“Castor are beaver glands near the rear end used for communication,” said the Mountain Man, who explained that this type of bait is specific to attracting beavers; if a person were to use raw meat, it might attract unwanted animals.

The underlying beaver fur was so valuable because of its barbs, which made it easy to felt for hats. The Mad Hatter refers the old process of making beaver hats, explained the Mountain Man. A hatter, someone who makes hats, was at the time regularly exposed to elemental Mercury, which was placed on fur before steaming. The Mercury caused negative neurological effects and hence hatter could become a bit “mad.”

“Science has come a long way and helped people quite a bit,” said the Mountain Man.

With a blanket laid out to display historical items, Mountain Man explained basic necessities for those trapping at exploring at the time of Lewis and Clark – flint, steel, blanket jackets, buffalo hide, and blankets from Europe for trading with the Native Americans. Blue beads were the most useful in trading.

“Lewis thought the whole mission might be a failure because he didn’t bring enough blue beads,” said the Mountain Man.

Mountain Man also explained how to load a musket. A person travelling in these parts at those times would carry a shooting pouch, a powder horn for gunpowder (made from a cow or buffalo horn) and a musket. The shooting pouch would hold bullets (called galena), gunpowder (called dupont) and a powder measurer. A ramrod was also needed to load the barrel.

Ending on a conservation note, Mountain Man explained the importance of entities that preserve and conserve animals.

“They would’ve killed every last beaver if people hadn’t started wanting silk hats,” said Mountain Man.

Beading on a loom

Libby Olson, an intern at NRCS, taught about beading and allowed students to demo her beading loom. Ashley Gould, with the Fergus Conservation District, assisted.

Olson explained that beads were used in trading. Types of beads include rocks, wood, shells, bone, and even teeth and claws.

“They showed bravery and were used for sacred purposes,” said Olson.

Loom beading originated in Europe and was used for larger pieces, like sleeves. It is still used today, as she demonstrated with her own hand-beaded belt. Small glass beads are made only in Czechoslovakia today.

The students then tried their hand at beading, picking the small beads with a needle and thread and carrying them trough the loom.

Early foods like pemmican and jerky

Denise Seilstad, with the Fergus MSU Extension Office, taught students about meals and cooking techniques used by early settlers. The principal food discussed was hard tack, made of just flour and water, which could keep for months, “like a cracker,” she said. It was used to “slop up juices and gravy.”

Seilstad also showed students a Dutch oven. Some of the group members were familiar with it from camping. She then went onto discuss canning and pickling.

“We still use a lot of these practices today,” Seilstad explained, noting that early settlers “had to be really creative.”

Another creative method was food storage, Seilstad explained, like root cellars for storing root vegetables including carrots, potatoes, radishes, beets, onions, turnips and rutabaga.

Students then tried pemmican, which was made of jerky, nuts and craisins. Some asked for a second helping, but there were over a 100 kids at the event, so one serving per person it was.

The story of milk

MSU Extension Agent Katie Hatlelid explained where milk comes from today and the steps involved in getting it to our tables, telling students the story of milk.

“It shows you the work involved getting milk into your cereal,” said Hatlelid.

She also had students make butter by simply shaking back and forth containers of heavy milking cream for a few minutes, and voila – butter. While students shook their containers, Hatlelid provided facts on milk.

“It takes 30 cups of milk to make one pound of butter,” she said. “It takes three gallons of milk to make one gallon of ice cream.”

California is the largest milk supplier in the United States, Hatlelid noted. She explained that milking parlors operate 24 hours a day, with 22 hours of milking and 2 hours of cleaning. Cows are typically milked two times per day. It takes 350 squirts to make one gallon of milk. Cows produce around 6.5 gallons per day on average; that is 2,275 squirts. Daily, the United Sates produces 21 billion gallons of milk. That involves a lot of squirts, 7,350 billion squirts to be exact.

Carding wool and spinning yarn

Norma Zimmer and Candace Kochivar taught students how to make yarn, from carding the wool to spinning it on a wheel. Students were given the opportunity to spin wool themselves as time allowed.

Kochivar explained the ways to prepare wool for spinning, including combs used to straighten out the fiber and using cards, which look a little like metal cat brushes rubbed together.

Zimmer explained the swift, a tool to wrap the yarn “rather than hold out your hands” like she used to do for her grandmother.

Zimmer herself began the craft of spinning after she signed up for what she thought was a weaving class in Great Falls. It turned out to be a spinning class instead. Since she had already paid, she proceeded to take the class and found a niche.

When asked who would like to spin, almost every hand quickly flew into the air.

Building and lighting a fire

Josh Schrecengost, area biologist with NRCS, and Bailey Rapp, Great Falls District Conservationist at-large, taught students about fire, which included a trip to the neighboring field to collect grass, light it with a flint and place it in a burn barrel.

Schrecengost discussed the three corners of the fire triangle – oxygen, a spark, and materials/fuels, like wood, grass, branches, leaves, straw, and liquid fuel.

Schrecengost also explained the ways Native Americans used fire, with domestic uses in cooking and heating like today, but other uses too. Fire was also used to scare away and attract wild animals. For example, burning off a field resulted in fresh new grass the following spring that would attract more animals. But fire was also used in warfare, to scare away other humans. For example if neighboring tribes were competing for food and resources, one might burn the other’s camp or fields.

“Is fire good or bad?” asked Schrecengost.

Students replied that it can kill people and destroy crops and animals, but it also spreads seeds from trees.

Schrecengost then explained his trick question. Fire is neither good nor bad. It is both.

The students then went off to scout for grass. In their groups, they used flint to start a fire. The students worked together to build bird nests from the grass, start it on fire with chert/ flint and carry the glowing ember to the burn barrel. Examples of the flint included Montana chert, Knife River chert and Brandon Black.

Until next year… t

The students concluded the event with a game that involved working together and received some life advice.

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” said Wilhems.