Searching for Gizmo: the cat's out of the bag


AS THE SCHOOL year raced to an early close, there was a mad scramble by classrooms to get out on the long-planned spring field trip. The weather mostly cooperated, never so generously as in mid-May.

And so I joined my first-grader and her classmates last month on a trip to Carroll County's premier attraction, the Farm Museum, south of Westminster.

It may be old hat to local residents, but the living 19th-century farm (formerly the county almshouse) was exciting in the extreme to these 6-year-olds, who favored the splendor in the grass outside to the informative narrated tour of the main farmhouse. The sheds of farm animals were a particular favorite.

They abounded with questions. Can roosters bite you? Are the goat's horns sharp? Why do pigs smell so bad? When are we going to the gift shop? Where's the bathroom?

Most of their questions were easily answered, even by someone who failed ag science years ago.

But they also came up with the unexpected question, the kind of forkball that young kids seem to keep in reserve to befuddle their omniscient parents.

"Is that Gizmo?" My young charges were referring to the cutout of the museum's cat mascot, placed at various attractions on the acre spread. The search for Gizmo is designed to motivate children to move around the farm and to jog their memory of what they saw next to the cartoon cat.

But there were all manner of cat pictures and cat dolls in plain sight. So the kids had already bagged their quota of cats within 10 minutes. Still, the hunt for the real Gizmos pressed on. Not even the tiny cat in a display sign evaded the hawkeyed group. The tour became a race from one exhibit to the next, trying to log another Gizmo, rather than enjoying and learning about the old-time crafts and tools of the farm. The adult chaperones were also drawn into the hunt, more for self-defense than from personal interest.

Back at the picnic tables for lunch, the children's chatter centered on Gizmo. They had seen many farm buildings and displays, but most of that information had paled in the excitement of the big game hunt for Gizmo.

At that point, the Gizmo gimmick seemed to fail the first-graders. But back in their classroom, under the knowing direction of their teacher, these kids recalled lots of things -- both silly and sage -- about the Farm Museum. They wrote down and talked about the ways of the past century. (A major disappointment was learning that the animal skull in the veterinarian's office belonged to a mere horse, and not to a Velociraptor.)

300 visitors a day

In the spring, the farm gets about 300 visitors a day, mostly school classes on field trips but also individuals.

There's much to see. The tour of the farmhouse, crammed with period paraphernalia to represent the many facets of rural life, explains how our ancestors managed quite well without electricity and freezers and Game Boys. Careful hoarding of winter ice and intelligent use of a flowing cold spring provided refrigeration. Hand power, not electric power, wound up the clocks and the gramophone to play scratchy musical records. The clock in the main foyer told the farm family the date as well as the time. Stencil-painted borders on plaster walls served as economical wallpaper. Wall vents subbed for air conditioning.

Bed warmers and bed pans were standard equipment of the 1850s bedroom; the young visitors sometimes confused the two similar sounding artifacts, their pixieish thoughts fixated on the function of the yesteryear potty.

Smithy's magic

The blacksmith on duty was busy forging and tempering a set of iron hooks, a ubiquitous tool for house and barn. The metal rod was heated to orange-hot before the smith could work his malleable magic.

The blacksmith guild is a hallmark of the museum, giving regular lessons in the ancient craft and uniting enthusiasts as museum volunteers. A variety of forged items was crammed into the smithy, a testament to the farm's reliance on his skills for more than shaping horseshoes.

A lot of that was lost on the school kids, who wanted to know how he could tell the ironwork was cool enough to touch.

But that's an important virtue of the Farm Museum: There's something to be learned and enjoyed by visitors of all ages, even those who have grown up on a modern farm. It's not just a cluster of old buildings with dull explanatory signs. It's a home for the live propagation of traditional arts. Classes are offered in such old-time crafts as broom making, spinning, tinsmithing and open-hearth cooking. Those who complete the courses often return as museum volunteers to show off their acquired skills.

Children are as eager as the adults to step back in history. The museum's summer Living History Camp for elementary schoolers is always filled up early.

I asked my daughter if she would like to participate in that interesting program next year. She replied with the disheartening question: "Will Gizmo be there?"

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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