COPPER?HARBOR - Throughout the year, a group of children from around the Upper Peninsula prepare for the future by focusing on the past.
The Future Historian Program is most visible at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park in Copper Harbor, where kids dress in period clothing and take on the roles of individuals from the 1800s.
"Each student is assigned a character based on an actual individual from the 1870 census," said Barry James, who oversees a group of nearly 60 children. "With new members coming in all the time, I try to mix up social status and to make sure it's balanced while they're in costume at the fort."
At left, Shelby Wright of Negaunee coaxes a young visitor into helping wash clothes. Although not demonstrations, everyday activities like laundry provide a means of interacting with fort visitors. At right, Rachel Woolard of Ishpeming teaches fort vistors how to do laundry.
James, a curator of Education with the Michigan Historical Center, said that for weeks beforehand, the children must place themselves in character. They study their individual character and write an autobiography, and also learn specifics about the area and details of everyday life 140 years ago.
In order to participate in the activities at the fort - there are four three-day camps throughout the summer - the kids must attend at least three of the group's seven monthly meetings, which focus on background information about role playing, living history and the Civil War era.
There is no age limit to attend the meetings, but children can only take part in the actual role playing if they are 10 years old or older.
James' group is now at 58 kids. He thinks they must be doing something right, as first-timers almost always return.
When he first started administering the youth day camps in 1996, there were so few kids that each child was able to go to the roleplaying day camps two or three times per summer.
With increased numbers, group members can only do one camp each summer, but James feels the experience is very important.
"I think what they gain is self confidence in public speaking," he said. "They also improve on their research and writing skills. In the end, I think they gain a greater appreciation for the fort and gain a sense of ownership for the historic site."
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, Fort Wilkins was an Army fort that was occupied until 1870, five years after the conclusion of the American Civil War. Throughout the summer months, costumed interpreters work to bring that final summer to life.
"It's built on the ongoing living history program," said James. "So while the full-time interpreters are in costume, the youth often get involved for different periods throughout the day."
During the school year, the youth group's meetings take place once a month on Tuesdays in Negaunee. There is no cost associated with the meetings, but a $15 fee is required to take part in the roleplaying. Those that attend Fort Wilkins are also responsible for travel, food and lodging.
Anyone interested in joining the program can call Barry James 906-475-7857.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is kwhitney@miningjournal. net.