A Plantation In Ridley Creek Park Opens Young Eyes To Colonial Way Of Life

Posted: June 29, 1989

A curious look was on 5-year-old Matthew Leach's face when he stepped out of the sunshine and into the cool, unlighted main room of the Colonial Plantation's farmhouse in Ridley Creek State Park.

Matthew was one of about 75 people who visited the plantation Sunday afternoon as the 18th-century living museum celebrated its 15th anniversary.

Once inside the main room, he listened with obvious interest as Pat Gaines, a volunteer worker at the plantation, explained how the flax that she was spinning would soon be woven into linen clothing for workers on the farm.

But when Gaines began to describe the use of the cat-o'-nine-tails, which her husband, Fred, also a volunteer, had just made in the farm's workshop, Matthew began to fidget.

The sinister-looking device with nine thin leather strips was used by 18th- century farmers to discipline unruly children, she said.

The boy gave a sidelong glance at the door, indicating that he was ready to move on to the next activity.

Teaching children about the day-to-day life of the average 18th-century farmer is what the plantation is all about, said James Nichols, 31, the resident farmer.

"It's kind of appalling to see the number of kids who come out here and have never seen a whole woods . . . or how big a real pig or cow is, or what a pig really looks like," he said.

Nichols said the lack of information that urban children have about nature worries him.

"Once you lose contact with the natural world you really lose the basis to judge the importance of nature," he said. "That's pretty frightening to me."

That concern and the belief that teaching people about history and the environment is important is what brought Nichols, the only employee, to the 120-acre plantation farm five years ago.

As part of his efforts to give the tour groups of 200 to 300 children who see the plantation every weekday an authentic picture of 18th-century life, Nichols wears heavy knee breeches, a linen undershirt and heavy leather belt, boots and vest while he works.

The volunteers must also be appropriately dressed.

He said he attempts to do everything the way it was done during the period the farm focuses on - 1760-1790.

Well, almost everything.

Instead of living in the 18th-century farmhouse with no heat, electricity or plumbing, Nichols lives with his wife, Jean, in a fully modernized cabin behind the farmhouse.

Nichols also said he doesn't have a dozen children and laborers with farm experience to help him with the workload. Much of his time is spent training new volunteers.

To compensate, Nichols cuts corners, such as using a chain saw to cut firewood.

The heavy rains this year have also made it difficult for him to get some crops into the ground, and to harvest others.

"In the 18th century, we would have been hungry. It would have been a hard winter," he said.

In the case of food shortages the plantation will buy food, but only if it is in season.

The plantation is operated by the Bishop Mills Historical Institute and the grounds are largely maintained by hand labor.

Nichols himself was born on a farm in northern Pennsylvania and picks up historical knowledge from the approximately 90 volunteers who do research on their own.

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