A New Taste of the Old

by Reema Abi-Akar

Pioneer Days showcases rural life in the 1850s each month through themed activities.

People often travel to faraway places to immerse themselves in different cultures and get a new take on the lifestyles of others. But instead of hopping a plane to another country, central Illinois residents can pile into the car and travel back in time at Sommer Park’s Pioneer Days!

Held on the last Sunday of the month from May to October, Pioneer Days transports guests to 1850s-era Peoria, providing a hands-on historical experience right in their own backyard. Volunteers offer visitors a true sense of living in the past, reenacting customs of the time and guiding them through the park’s old-time schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, woodworking area and interactive stations, where they can make their own candles or corn husk dolls. “It’s a way of life that doesn’t exist [anymore],” explains Tom Miller, manager of Sommer Park. “It’s an opportunity that happens locally to have a living history program that takes people back in time.”

While Pioneer Days has been a community staple for a decade and a half, Sommer Park has served as a historic educational outlet for even longer. “Originally, [the park] used to be… surrounded by a farm… it was pretty isolated,” Miller describes. “Twenty-five years ago or longer, [park personnel] had a concept to build an 1850s farm out here to teach people about living history. And so, through the efforts of the Park District and volunteers, they… built a farm homestead and a barn to recreate life as an 1855 settlement.”

The event relies heavily on volunteers, who don 19th-century garb and cast aside modern technology for one afternoon each month. “Some people just feel connected to being away from the television and media and automobiles,” Miller explains. “When they come here, they step back in a timeframe when hard work paid off, and people lived a healthier lifestyle because they grew their own food and had to chop their wood.

“Life was simple then,” Miller continues. “So a lot of people [in the 1850s would] get their chores done, and then spent the time relaxing.” Pioneers may have spent their downtime outdoors, enjoying the scenic beauty of rural Peoria County, while others might have taken up a craft or instrument. One volunteer unwinds by playing his dulcimer, a three-stringed instrument with a comforting, old-fashioned twang. This month, guests will have the opportunity to learn firsthand how early settlers whiled away their days without contemporary entertainment, as the theme for the July 28th event is “Pioneer ‘Free Time.’”

Year after year, Pioneer Days entertains hundreds of guests from throughout the Midwest—and even around the world—with its themed, historical activities. While the July event will offer digital natives insight into what was considered “fun” before the modern age of electricity, visitors can also look forward to learning about period food preservation in August and 1850s fashion in September, while enjoying an “autumn play party” in October.

Pioneer Days allows guests to experience a historical era filled with deep-rooted customs, old-fashioned practices, and 19th century people. And better yet, visitors can become part of a unique cultural setting without having to leave their own community! a&s

Pioneer Days takes place the last Sunday of each month through October, from 1 to 4pm at Sommer Park, 6329 N Koerner Rd, in Edwards. For more information, call (309) 691-8423 or visit peoriaparks.org/sommer-park.

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