Big Island Rendezvous educates grade-schoolers

Published 3:12 pm Saturday, October 4, 2008

Teamwork was the key as sixth-grade students from Owatonna learned the techniques of assembling an 18th century cabin using dovetail construction techniques. Erick Shelley of Rochester guided four-student teams through the process Friday at the Big Island Rendezvous in Albert Lea’s Bancroft Bay Park.

Shelley counseled the grade-schoolers to look with their eyes and not with their hands as he walked them through the colonial-era building process.

“With living history we teach these kids how to do it themselves,” Shelley said.

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Sue Connaker teaches Minnesota History at Willow Creek elementary school. She observed her 28 students watch and learn early American building techniques.

“It is a great opportunity for our students to experience working skills in the fur-trade era,” Connaker said. “The knowledge and skill of the demonstrators is just amazing. It seems that each one is better than the one before.”

Connaker has been bringing her sixth-graders to the annual event for 18 years.

There are 76 stations offering hands-on experience in traditional trades and crafts, said Rendezvous founder and coordinator Perry Vining.

“We try to reenact the heritage of both Native Americans and Europeans from first contact through the homestead era,” Vining said. “Every half hour the students change stations.”

Trying to cure a nature deficit disorder is how Dana Franzen describes his role as a reenactor and instructor.

“We are planting acorns of knowledge,” Franzen said. “We hope they grow into oak trees.” Franzen was driving iron stakes into the ground as he assembled a grilling spit.

Sixth-graders from Albert Lea, Owatonna and Fairmont were at the Rendezvous Friday. Teachers Sherrie Gayken and Stacy Waltman watched 24 students from Albert Lea’s Halvorson Elementary School learn the craft of wool spinning.

“We are very fortunate to have this opportunity for our kids to learn,” said Gayken. “They prepare for the Rendezvous in class, but nothing beats hands on learning.”

Waltman was impressed by how well prepared and knowledgable her students were.

“We see how much they pick up in class by the questions they ask the presenters,” Waltman said. “The kids are very excited to come here.”

Mike Gordon of Albert Lea portrayed Noschique, a Delaware Indian name meaning “to go or walk on ice.” Gordon is a hockey coach who hopes the students take something with them when they leave the Rendezvous.

“These kids really pay attention and are very inquisitive,” Gordon said.

Gordon worked as a guide to groups of students at the Rendezvous and loves to hang around the campfires with other reenactors late in the evening.

“The camaraderie is wonderful,” Gordon said. “They are so knowledgeable, and they are always trying to learn more, so they can improve their persona.”

Don Newsom of Marcel is teaching aspects of the fur trade to area students. Newsom is a cooper — a maker of barrels, buckets and kegs.

“I try to weave stories about the fur trade into an educational aspect that is fun for kids to learn,” Newsom said. “I have a list of videos and books about the fur trade that is available to any teacher who asks.”

Newsom said he is focused on the social behavior of Native Americans and Europeans from 1730 to 1800. He spends his free time researching the fur trade.

“I pick stories that emphasize both the savagery and the kindness of the people in the fur trade,” Newsom said. “I especially like the writing of the early missionaries, because they are more impartial. The accounts of the fur traders are biased toward the fur companies they worked for.”

Dave Rambo of Alden has been attending the Rendezvous since it’s inception in 1987. Rambo was an instructor and demonstrator for 20 years at the event, but says this year he is just there to have fun.

“I can now enjoy demonstrators that I never had time to see before,” Rambo said. “I’m still picking up on new stuff.”

Rambo is a retired teacher in the Albert Lea schools who got many of his students involved in the Rendezvous.