ANDOVER — How many children would choose to step into a lifelike diorama of the 1800s?
During the February school break, boys and girls ages 5 to 11 experienced the 19th century with “Little House on the Prairie,” Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved childhood book series, as their backdrop.
Except they were in downtown Andover — not the stark fields of the Midwest plains — at the Amos Blanchard House & Barn Museum to learn hands-on how kids like them lived 150 years ago: hammering their own “tin” lanterns, doing chores, making butter, and playing the games of the times.
Their parents may have signed them up for it, but a funny thing happened: They liked it. They really liked it.
Noah Stewart, 8, dressed in a black cowboy hat and boots, and his sister, Grace, 6, wore a red print 19th-century-style dress covered with a simple brown apron with a matching bonnet on her head. Grace looked like a young Laura Ingalls herself.
“I made that,” said their mother, Michelle, who also brought her niece Madison, 9, on the 1½ hour trip from Bennington, N.H., for the two-hour session.
“My husband’s aunt, Deborah Adams, is the genealogist in the family and lives in the area,” Stewart said. Exhaustive ancestral digging led Adams to discover that Noah and Grace are distantly related to Laura Ingalls: seventh cousins, three times removed.
‘Laura moved five times before she turned 7. How many times have you moved? And why did you move?’
“When she [Adams] heard about this program,” Michelle said, “she called my husband and said, ‘You’ve got to bring the kids!’ ”
Two more brother-sister pairs rounded out the adventurous group at the Andover Historical Society event: the Walshes from Reading, Michelle, 7, and Jason, 5; and the Rainvilles from Andover, Sophie, 9, and Charlie, 7.
“We’ve come here many times,” said Linda Walsh. Her children’s interest in history deepened with Michelle’s reading of the “American Girl” book series and watching the first two seasons of the “Little House” TV series, inherited from a friend who had outgrown them.
“It’s great, because that’s what I grew up with,” Linda said.
Debbie DeSmet, the museum’s educator, mesmerized these modern-day kids with a screen-free past of long ago, shifting constantly through a series of hands-on learning activities involving all the senses. Maura Cunningham and Mora Hunt, both juniors at Andover High School, were there to help out.
The children jumped into the past by packing a trunk as if they were traveling West, after DeSmet gave a brief talk about Andover’s history and Laura Ingalls’s family ancestry.
“Laura moved five times before she turned 7. How many times have you moved?” DeSmet asked. “And why did you move?”
The children learned Laura moved because with no states formed yet, the government was giving away land for those who could settle it.
There was no electricity, so pioneers depended upon candles and lanterns for light. To make their own “tin” lanterns, ones like Laura might have used, the group headed back to the attached barn.
Back in the kitchen, DeSmet held up an ink drawing depicting each season, and a discussion about chores boys and girls would be expected to do.
“Have you ever felt wool before?” she asked.
Passing around tufts of sheared wool, rough and unclean, twigs and dirt still intact, for everyone to touch, DeSmet demonstrated how pioneers cleaned wool with two paddles that looked like hairbrushes, wired with short, steel bristles.
Placing a handful of wool on one paddle’s brush, she clapped the two paddles together and pulled in opposite directions. Everyone got a chance to try, though in Laura’s day, DeSmet said, there was a division of labor.
Sheep shearing was a man’s job, DeSmet said, while women spun the yarn and made clothes. Even animals had specific functions: cows provided milk, pigs provided meat, and horses were laborers.
The minimalist kitchen in the historic house provided comparisons to their own kitchens.
“What’s missing in this kitchen?” DeSmet asked.
“A fridge! An oven! A microwave!” children called out.
“Kitchens didn’t have ovens back then, though this one does,” DeSmet said, pointing out a brick oven in the wall, alongside the kitchen’s fireplace.
“In the 1800s, an oven was a new invention,” DeSmet said.
Next, DeSmet held up an indistinguishable brownish, leather-looking piece.
“This is salted codfish and several years old,” she said, “but we could boil it in water and eat it. Anybody interested?”
Distinguishing rotten eggs from good ones was the next lesson. Taking turns to drop eggs one by one into a bowl of water, DeSmet explained, “This is one way the pioneers tested their food. A floating egg means it’s bad.”
Then it was time to make butter.
Handing each child a small container of heavy cream, DeSmet said: “Start shaking it. People made up songs to sing while churning butter because it could take hours churning the milk to heavy cream to butter.
“It’ll sound differently when it gets thicker. This is going to take a long time,” she said. “Do you know any jokes or songs?”
After some jokes were told, songs made up, and more time passed, DeSmet said, “Now listen to it. Does it sound like water?” Excited heads nodded yes.
“That means the buttermilk is separating. It’s almost there. For Laura, a treat would be to drink the buttermilk.”
Arms exhausted, it was time for a well-deserved break, before finishing the session with games and dancing.
DeSmet read “Winter Night,” a chapter in “Farmer Boy,” the third book in the nine-part Little House series, based on the childhood of Laura’s husband, Almanzo Wilder, in upstate New York. The children ate their freshly made butter on saltine crackers and drank cider.
Hearing the endless chores required to run the Wilder family farm — rising at 5 a.m. to milk cows, feed stock, help plant and tend crops, haul logs, fill the ice house, and go to school, but only when his father could spare Almanzo — life today suddenly sounded good.
“Whenever my kids are complaining,” Linda Walsh said, “I tell them, ‘You could be Laura Ingalls.’ ”Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at email@example.com.