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Kids try pioneer life in Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE ' Fourth-graders from Jackson County spent their school day Friday immersed in local history.

They panned for gold, wandered through a century-old graveyard and had a sit-down session with early pioneer Peter Britt, who was anxious to talk of his love for gardening and photography.

What began in 1985 as a two-day educational event for a few bus loads of area students reached its 20th anniversary this year.

The four-week long Children's Heritage Fair, sponsored by the Southern Oregon Historical Society, kicked off Wednesday and runs Wednesdays through Fridays through March 18.

With some 2,000 fourth-graders from Jackson and Josephine counties, the event has become somewhat of a rite of passage and a supplement for required fourth-grade Oregon history curriculum.

— Students are treated to a hands-on look at early pioneer life through special programming at the society's two museums, the Jacksonville Cemetery and the U.S. Hotel.

This year, organizers spiffed up a gold-panning station with the chance to cash in at the Beekman Bank and appointed living history characters to represent Britt and Julia Beekman.

Longtime fourth-grade teacher Mike Ritchie, who has been attending the event each year since it began, said the event was a one-of-a-kind lesson in local history for students.

I think it's great any time you can get kids to where they can use their hands when they're learning, Ritchie said.

The festival really keys in on the hardships of the pioneers and the kids really get a piece of the heritage here. — We live in such a fast-paced society and this kind of brings you back to square one.

Fourth-grader Jacob Wimmer spent his day visiting the final resting place of pioneers long gone, hearing of the Beekman family's struggles on the Oregon Trail and panning for gold nuggets, which he cashed in at the newly opened Beekman Bank branch of the children's museum.

What I really liked was the gold panning, the 9-year-old said.

Of life before Nintendo and cable TV, he figured out that kids today might not have things so rough.

It wasn't really too easy back then because they had to do a lot of work, said the boy. And they had a lot of planning and stuff to do to be able to survive the trip to get to Oregon.

Lauren Allen, a fourth-grader at Little Butte Elementary School, simulates carrying 30 pounds of water as part of learning the hardships of pioneer times without plumbing. Students are taking part in the 20th Children?s Heritage Fair. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell