Pioneer Past Still Present in Winnetka Schools

Gazette Article by: Bean Carroll
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring/Summer 2000

Located on the lower level of Crow Island School is a room that is held fast in the memories of many Winnetka residents, young and old. If asked to recall their most memorable experience from their days in the Winnetka Public Schools, almost everyone will answer that it was the time he or she spent in the Pioneer Room during third grade.

The Pioneer Room is a highlight of the educational experience for a child in Winnetka. It is almost a rite of passage, where the secrets of the room are held near and dear to those who have already participated.

Alumni tell an occasional story about their special pioneer day but on the whole, leave the next year’s class to experience it on their own with little input from those who preceded them.

The Pioneer Room has been the focal point of third grade study in Winnetka for nearly 60 years. Representing a part of the total learning experience, the room was included in the original plans for the school. It resulted from the joint efforts of faculty, parents and school board and was brought to fruition by the late Miss Frances Pressler, Director of Creative Activities. Crow Island School was completed in 1940.

Winnetka third grade students study pioneers as a core part of their social studies curriculum. Throughout the year, they experience various aspects of a pioneer’s life. The hard work required of the pioneer family is demonstrated in its many scheduled activities. Students work on food preparation, make hornbooks to use as primers, and weave placemats. They travel to several sites in the Chicago area that teach them about the life of the pioneer. Creative drama and folk music are used to simulate the pioneers’ lives.

But the culminating experience is the long-awaited day in the Pioneer Room. Taking on the role of Ma, Pa or one of the children, each child is assigned into a family group. The “family” will re-enact a day in the life pf a pioneer centered in the cabin, an exact replica of the interior of an 1840s Illinois home.

Children who attend Hubbard Woods or Greeley Schools must travel via “Conestoga wagon.” Their auto/wagons mysteriously break “a wheel,” and the young men have to get out and try to fix it or push “the wagon” a short distance until they can make repairs. The women sit in the wagon doing needlework.

Once they have safely arrived at their cabin, their daily life begins. Both girls and boys participate in preparing meals and hunting game. They build the fire, saw wood, and prepare a stew on the open hearth. When possible, butter is churned and bread baked in the Dutch oven. Everybody takes a turn wearing the neck yoke as he or she has to carry water for use in the cabin. After their midday meal, children take turns resting on the feather beds.

This day remains in the hearts and minds of all those who have the chance to experience it. The magic of the day is not just dressing up and playing the part, it is the secrets that the Pioneer Room holds only for those lucky enough to travel there.

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