Somerset Place may seem the unlikeliest of places for young people of different racial, ethnic, and economic groups to find common ground. It symbolizes both a lifestyle and mindset they find nearly impossible to understand, and that many adults find difficult to explain to them. As one of the rare remaining examples of a large-scale pre-Civil War South plantation, Somerset Place is a tangible reminder of a time in America when one group used its political and economic power to keep another in bondage, a time when that subjugation defined Southern civilization and shaped attitudes and perceptions that still exist today. This restored antebellum plantation is also a reminder of aspects of how all people lived before there was electricity, mechanized farming, mass production of clothing, machinery, and time and labor saving devices now taken for granted. One goal of the Hands-on Educational Program is to demonstrate to participants how laws, behaviors, societal beliefs and mores, and technology have changed over time and the impact of those changes on the lives of individuals and groups.
Following an interactive orientation exploring the plantation's history, and a guided tour led by costumed interpreters, students participate in activities that help them understand how most families, regardless of race and legal status, carried out domestic chores. Each student makes an item in the same way it was made during the 19th century.
The gourd is one of Africa's earliest cultivated crops. Africans brought their knowledge of the many uses for gourds with them to our shores. The gourd became a symbolic compass for runaway slaves traveling North to freedom using the secretive Underground Railroad. The song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" gave those who were escaping directions north. During the antebellum period, gourds were grown, dried, and turned into dippers, musical instruments, bowls, and storage containers. Their use became a Southern tradition for all cultures during and after the antebellum period.
Early rope was made in a long area of open ground called a ropewalk. Later, ropewalks were conferred or completely indoors. Ropewalks could range from 80 to 224 yards in length and were sometimes referred to as ropeworks. On plantations rope was used in securing animals, making rope beds, tying bales, and sending a bucket to the bottom of a well. Students learn to use a portable ropewalk and make rope.
During the antebellum period, every family prepared meals over the open hearth. Most used the multifunctional fireplaces in their homes or makeshift outside hearths during the summer. Hearth cooking requires a wide range of heavy cast iron utensils and cookware—and hot coals. Students grind corn and prepare cornbread over the open hearth.
Other than sunlight, oil lamps and candles provided the only source of light during antebellum times. The availability of light dictated daily activities and bedtimes. Electricity altered forever humankind's dependence upon natural and poor light. Students make candles.
During the antebellum period, all families—slave and free—made their own brooms to clean their homes and sweep their yards. Gathering broom sedge during the early winter was a task set aside for children. The sedge was stored and available to make brooms all year. Broom sedge brooms only lasted about two months.
Until Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, seeds were removed from raw cotton by hand before it could be made into thread or woven into fabric. Students not only gin by hand but, in the process of making pin cushions, see this natural material in three forms: inside cotton bowls with seeds, woven into fabric, and as thread.
The development of baskets grew out of a need for portable containers to collect, carry, and store items. Useful baskets were lightweight, durable, easy to make, and made of readily available materials. During the antebellum period when natural materials were plentiful all households used baskets for carrying eggs, laundry, fruit, and for storage. On rice plantations, slaves made and used large flat baskets to separate the seed from the chaff of rice and wheat. This process was called fanning.
The hands-on program is offered between March and November 15th of each year. Reservations are required, so please call ahead to schedule your visit. Phone: (252) 797-4560.
Group sizes can range from 20 to 125 students.
Each participant will make a traditional craft item to take home. A fee of $2.15 per participant is requested to defray the cost of materials and supplies.