The Summer I Went Back in Time

I worked at a living history farm as a camp counselor for Farm Camp.

Parks and Recreation

The summer after my freshman year of college, I lived back at home, which for me was at the Jersey shore. Most of my friends took advantage of our proximity to the beach and the tourist money that came along with it by waiting tables, lifeguarding, or working at a boardwalk retail shop. I spent that summer at a living history farm as a camp counselor for Farm Camp.

My job was to make history come alive for a bunch of ten-year-olds who were born after the year 2000. The museum interpreted the site as it would have looked in the 1890s: when cars were in their infancy (and no one living at our rural New Jersey farm would have had one), people were just beginning to install electricity in their homes, and women could not vote. One cool thing about our history, though, was that during our time period an unmarried woman owned the farm.

Farm Camp was a day camp that lasted one week, so there were several sessions throughout the summer. Many of the campers came back year after year. While the kids who came to camp didn’t do anything particularly grueling and they didn’t have to dress in period clothing, they had the chance to sample some of the chores a typical child their age might have performed on their family farms. I worked with the youngest kids who could sign up, the first-through-fourth graders.

The kids were adorable and eager to be there. At first, I wondered why so many kids wanted to spend their days at an old-fashioned, dusty farm when they could be inside playing video games. But when I met my campers, I realized that they were curious, interesting kids. They were the kind of kids who sat at school all year and flipped ahead in their history textbooks because they were genuinely interested in learning about the world. I had been just like them and I loved them.

On the first day of camp, we gave them each a bandanna and a straw cowboy hat (not time period authentic at all, but it kept the sun out of their faces and they enjoyed having their own hats) and a camp T-shirt that featured a drawing of a rooster. We always gave them a tour on the first day, which was one of my favorite parts of the week. I loved showing them around the whole place all at once, taking my time to explain which crops were growing in which fields and telling them the names of all our animals. We toured the farmhouse where the family lived, which was full of antiques that the kids had never seen before, like spinning wheels and hair wreaths. The house had an indoor kitchen that we only allowed people to look at, and an outdoor kitchen that we used for demonstrations. The property also contained barns, workshops, and structures that housed our animals.

During the week, we exposed the kids to a variety of experiences. We spent a few hours working in the tiny, sweltering blacksmith shop, where our blacksmith demonstrated different techniques and let the kids practice hammering. We worked on a craft project during the week where we painted small wooden boats and later in the week we raced them in a feeding trough filled with water. We played games that would have been around in the 1890s, like hoop-and-stick, ring toss, and sack races. We went on a wagon ride around the park (we never called it a “hay ride,” because hay is animal feed and straw is animal bedding, so if anything, it should be called a “straw ride”). We let the campers help milk the cows and feed the sheep and chickens.

In the outside kitchen, we taught the kids a few recipes, and likely instilled in them a new gratitude for the grocery store. We made butter with a crank churn and ate it spread over saltine crackers. We baked pretzels, which were delicious but difficult to make. After we made the dough and rolled it out, we baked them in a wood-fired stove. Not only did we have to get a good fire going using only wood and matches, but we also had no way of accurately knowing the temperature or exactly how long to let the pretzels bake.

The last day of camp was the one campers looked forward to all week because it was the day we made ice cream. Making ice cream with a churn meant to look and function like those available in the 1890s was, as you might suspect, a big pain. In the morning, I would gather all of the ingredients and equipment (ice, salt, the various parts of the churn) and lug it all up from the basement of the farmhouse. Making the ice cream consisted of having the kids take turns cranking the churn while one kid sat on top of it to keep the lid from coming off. Wrangling hyper kids while trying to keep the crank going was a challenge. Sometimes, after nearly half an hour of this, it would become clear the ice cream wasn’t going to set properly (the air temperatures and other factors made this process unpredictable), so I would have to go into the basement freezers and pull out ice cream from a previous day. The kids never minded where the ice cream came from, they were just happy to eat it. We always made vanilla, and we had sprinkles and chocolate syrup, which were apparently available in the 1890s. We ate the ice cream out of paper cones that leaked all over. After a few weeks of camp, I lost the desire to eat the ice cream.

Even though the farm is located in a suburban area, five minutes from the Garden State Parkway and twenty minutes from two shopping malls, the campers sometimes had trouble grasping the fact that the farm staff didn’t live there. I understand why it could be confusing — we dressed in period attire and never let anyone see us on a cell phone. I was often asked if I lived on the farm or if I always dressed like that. My campers were especially confused when I would, on lunch breaks, glance at my phone to check the time or ask them what they liked to watch on TV. “You have a TV?” they’d ask, and I would explain that, yes, at the end of the day I got in my car and drove to my house, which had air conditioning and a computer and I would put on jean shorts and watch Lost.

I think Farm Camp was kind of a magical, transformative experience for most of the kids who signed up. As their leader, I did my best to teach them to think about where their food comes from and where we, as a society, came from. I wanted them to leave the week with a deeper respect for animals, history, and nature.

The job paid well. I made over $10 an hour, which was far enough above the $7 minimum wage that it felt like a fortune to me. The living history farm was located less than 30 minutes from my house. I was lucky enough to be allowed to live at home without paying rent and my mom let me use her car. My only “real” expenses were gas, textbooks, and supplies for my fall semester courses. As a result, I managed to save most of what I earned that summer. I remember putting a few hundred dollars into a Roth IRA. I also remember indulging my every whim — new dresses, movies, and weekly trips to a coffee house with friends to have dinner and watch an improv show. I booked a direct flight to Austin that August to visit a college friend who lived there. I took along (and spent) $200 in cash on food and souvenirs.

The farm provided me with my required uniform of period-appropriate clothing. I had a blue and white floral print dress, a brown skirt, an apron, and two shirts. The pink, ruffled blouse that buttoned down the back was only for wearing on days when I was working in the farmhouse, visitor center, or if we were having a special event. I had a brown floral print shirt that was faded and less fancy, so I alternated that with the dress for camp. The apron was usually filthy at the end of every day and I had to wash it daily. By the end of the summer, it was tattered and riddled with small holes. I didn’t have to wear a corset because women who worked on farms wouldn’t have worn them, but I did wear a tank top and petticoat underneath my uniform.

Most of my coworkers wore straw hats to keep the sun out of their faces, so I followed their lead and bought myself a $30 sunhat from Urban Outfitters. It wasn’t technically period accurate, but it was deemed acceptable and I liked that it was floppy and pretty enough that it could serve double duty and be worn to the beach after work. I wore a pair of plain brown boots and brown knee-highs that were, again, not period accurate, but they were comfortable and sturdy. (Because of my long skirts, no one could really see my feet anyway.) I always wore my hair in a ponytail, bun, or some kind of twist. I don’t really wear makeup, so not being allowed to wear any wasn’t a problem for me, but I do like nail polish, so I usually kept my nails painted a sheer, unnoticeable pink. I bought myself a wicker basket with a handle that I used as a purse. Inside, I wrapped up my phone, keys, water bottle, and whatever else I needed to carry with a piece of reproduction fabric.

I usually got dressed at home and drove to work, which made it interesting to stop for gas or pull up at a light next to a bus. Once I forgot socks and stopped at a Rite Aid to buy a pair, to the confusion and delight of everyone working there. No one asked me what my deal was, they just stared at me as I pulled a wallet from my basket and handed over cash.

When parents came to pick up their kids at the end of the day, they usually looked at me with sympathetic eyes and said things like, “Oh you poor thing, aren’t you hot in that?” I always laughed off these comments and explained that actually the long skirts and sleeves weren’t such a bad deal — my unexposed skin meant I didn’t get sunburns and bugs had nowhere to bite me.

The farm was a relaxing place to work, even though it was often fast-paced and sometimes grueling. At the end of each day, I came home depleted and sweaty, sure that I’d put in an honest day’s work. I liked working outside and with my hands. I found it really rewarding to work at a place that strives to educate people about local history. The farm and its story became deeply important to me during my time there, and I enjoyed that my job was to share that with our visitors. As a curious person and lover of all things historical, I immensely enjoyed access to rooms in the house that were off-limits to the public. The attic was full of period clothing (and bees, sometimes). There was a room that had its own staircase (it would have belonged to a maid or a cook) where we kept the camp shirts, prizes, hats, and the contents for their end-of-week gift bags. There was also the basement, which was sort of creepy but still fun to go into when I needed the ice cream and butter-making supplies. We were allowed to take home fresh produce and eggs—another unique job perk—and we were given free tickets to the county fair in July.

It was, overall, a wonderful experience, but a few traumatizing things did happen to me that summer. Once, as I walked a cow into the barn from the pasture, she stepped directly on my foot, putting 200 pounds of weight onto my toes. Somehow, nothing was broken, but I had a bruise for a few weeks (all the more reason to be thankful I couldn’t wear flip flops to work!). Once a middle-aged man asked me, in a gross and suggestive tone, if I had a corset on under my dress. The worst thing that happened that summer was when I took all of the campers to snack time one afternoon and one of them started choking. By the time I called 911, she was able to breathe and talk, but she was crying and shaking and clutching at her throat, where a quarter was lodged. She ultimately had to be taken to two hospitals to have it surgically removed and she missed the last day of camp. (I wish I could explain to you why a third grader put a quarter in her mouth, but I still don’t know.)

Working as a counselor for Farm Camp remains one of my all-time favorite jobs. I spent time out of my head and away from my phone. I felt like I was helping speak for people who were dead and could no longer tell their stories. I got exercise and some sun. Every day, one of the farm cats would come up to me and cry until I let him sit on my lap for a few minutes. I gave a few dozen kids a memorable summer.

I could have come home that summer and checked beach badges or scooped ice cream. Instead, I spent it going back in time, in a way. I learned a lot, made enough money to sustain myself for the summer, and I walked out of it all with bits of historical facts that continue to help me win trivia games.

This article is part of our ‘Summer Series’ collection. Read more stories here.

Kerri Sullivan is a writer and librarian from New Jersey. She writes a TinyLetter about loss and is very good at Instagram.

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