Destrehan Plantation offers kids unique history lesson

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 21, 1999

CHRISTINE HARVEY / L’Observateur / July 21, 1999

DESTREHAN – If walls could talk, the ones at Destrehan Plantation would have enough stories to last through the next millennium.

They would tell stories of the antebellum south and the soldiers who fought for its glory. Stories of slaves and the wretched lives they endured.Stories of children and how they lived long ago.

Children today are unable to fathom a life that differs greatly from their own. Playstations, videos and handheld computer games are at the top oftheir lists of modern conveniences. Without these luxuries, many childrenfeel they would be left behind somehow.

But children of a plantation life did not have the opportunity to share in such technologically advanced toys. They enjoyed playing with handmadedolls, spinning hoops and musical instruments. And they did not even knowthey were missing out on anything.

To show today’s children the kinds of differences that exist between life then and now, Destrehan Plantation, which is over 200 years old, is offering a special educational program.

The plantation’s Heritage Education Program aims to show today’s children what it was like to live in another time. Seeing a part of historyis the one way kids can take a little bit of a bygone era with them into the future.

“Kids learn by touching, feeling, experiencing. We want them to experiencehistory when they come here,” said Angela Matherne, Heritage Education Program coordinator.

When they visit the plantation on organized school tours, students can see demonstrations of indigo dyeing and candle-making, try on period clothing and even try their hands at an old fashioned game or toy, she said. Off-sitepresentations are also available.

But Matherne said anything school teachers want their students to experience about plantation life is possible with Destrehan’s program. Herstaff will research any subject and come back with the requested presentation.

“The number one thing I’m trying to impress on the teachers is that our program is flexible,” Matherne said.

She spent the good part of Tuesday conducting a seminar for 16 area educators and explaining the program’s objectives to them. The seminar isoffered in the summer once a year to acquaint people who are not familiar with the program with what it has to offer.

The teachers took a tour of the house and learned how they could incorporate living history and historical sites into their curriculums.

Matherne gave them handouts and resource materials they could take back to their schools.

All of the teachers were pleased by Matherne’s presentation and the educational opportunities the plantation’s program has to offer.

“I loved it. I had a great day. I look forward to bringing my kids here on afield trip,” said Marilyn Robins, a teacher from Kehoe-France in Metairie.

Kelly Bates, a teacher at Sacred Heart Elementary School in Norco, said she is glad her fourth-grade students will have the opportunity to experience a different way of life.

“Next year this is where we’ll be coming,” she said.

Prior to the start of the educational program, staff docents simply gave students a regular house tour with few specific references to children, said Nancy Robert, the plantation’s site manager.

But last school year the program, now in its second year, attracted 5,100 students, an increase from the year before it started, she said.

And 1,200 people came to the plantation’s free Heritage Festival in May to see student and professional demonstrations and experience plantation life first-hand, according to Robert.

“We’re very pleased with the response we’ve gotten through the program.

We’re hoping to do more to even expand that this year,” she said.

Destrehan High School student Rachel Walsh spoke to the group of assembled teachers to tell them how students need to experience history at a historical site and not just from a book.

She said a lot of the kids from around the area are of the same descent as the people who lived on plantations.

“It’s good to see what their ancestors did,” Walsh said.

Matherne said she wants Destrehan Plantation to be a resource to students of all ages, and her program can be adjusted to suit children from kindergarten to 12th grade.

“We have so much to give our children here,” she said.

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