'One of my pet peeves right now is the school educational system," says Susan Walter, education chair for the National City Living History Farm Preserve (informally known as the Stein Family Farm). "Kids are taught to be tested; they don't have hands-on experience. They're growing up in apartments and going to schools where their playgrounds are covered in asphalt. When they come to the farm, I want them to dig in dirt -- not sterilized potting soil, but dirt, and if they find a worm, that's cool. We want children to be able to connect and get dirty and have fun." The National City Living History Farm Preserve will join several other historical societies at the 42nd Annual History Conference, held this year at the Girl Scout Headquarters in Balboa Park. The theme is "Can You Come Out to Play? The History of Children's Organizations in San Diego and Imperial Counties." Walter is one of as many as 12 speakers giving a slide-show presentation. Other speakers include Bill Swank, local sports historian; Susan Hasegawa from the Japanese-American Historical Society; and local radio/TV broadcaster "Shotgun" Tom Kelly.
The Stein Family Farm, built by German immigrant Charles Stein in the late 1800s, is the last remaining farmstead in National City. The original house and barn currently sit on a two-acre plot of land on F Avenue. In A Brief History of the Steins and the Stein Farm, Walter writes that the site "...serves for the interpretation of the lifestyle of the Steins, who were important examples of the entrepreneurial efforts of immigrants who raised a family, invested in land, participated in the public arena, and were successful farmers that worked diligently throughout their lives."
Walter plans to bring artifacts she recently discovered on the farm to the conference. "Stein hand-dug the cistern, which I was in a few months ago," she says. "The coolest thing I found was a bunch of marbles, all the same type -- boulder-sized marbles, which are three-quarters to at least an inch in diameter. They were clays, which means they were the least expensive, most common type of marbles." Also found were "lots of clothespins," candle stumps ("they must have been lighting the inside of that cistern for some reason"), a kitchen knife, "two tiny, itsy-bitsy bottles," and a Chinese medicine vial.
All of the farm's crops are planted, maintained, and harvested by volunteers. "They are people who are interested in having a little plot of land and working on it. The idea is of a community garden," says Walter. A large number of volunteers, like Stein, are from Germany. "They came to our May Day Festival, which is celebrated very strongly in Germany. Some live in Del Mar and areas where they don't really have land." In the past the farm has produced (for the personal consumption of the volunteers who manage the land) watermelon, tomatoes, peas, artichokes, cabbages, carrots, and potatoes.
Volunteers still mourn the death of the farm's two Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, Tinkie and Rudy. "The thing about farms is that on a real farm, when you have an animal that gets mature, it's butchered. On our farm, our animals are our pets. We are in the process of looking for small swine again but can't afford to buy them." Walter stresses that the farm is not looking for any other small animals. "We receive chickens, ducks, and bunnies, all sent anonymously as outgrown Easter pets, and we don't have the room for more. Last year, two rabbits were chucked over the fence. There we were, trying to get ready for May Day, and these two rabbits were there, eating our crops." Walter says that of the six rabbits currently living at the farm, most were "abandoned creatures over the fence."
Some regular volunteers bring their young children, and teenagers can be seen helping out to earn community service credits for high school. Though Walter strives to draw all generations out to the farm, she says she "loves it" when seniors visit, "because old folks have often had a very direct former connection with the type of life that we are trying to recreate."
Visitors from Germany, the Philippines, and Mexico "still have very close associations with farm life," says Walter. "They tell me that they still do this, so they understand about washboard laundry and chamber pots and not having electricity and dealing with animals."
Walter points out that 100 years ago, houses did not contain bathrooms. "Everybody used an outhouse or a chamber pot. Scatological stuff always grabs the kids, so I say, 'Has anybody ever told you to go potty?' and I hold up the chamber pot, because that's the 'potty.' [During one tour of the house], an older fellow who listened to my story told me that in his family of a dozen children, the family tradition was that the last person out of bed had to clean all [of the chamber pots in the house]." -- Barbarella
42nd Annual History Conference:"The History of Children's Organizations in San Diego and Imperial Counties"
Friday, March 2, and Saturday, March 3
9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Florence Burnham Hall
Girl Scout Headquarters
1231 Upas Street
Cost: $25; seniors, $20; students, $15
Info: 619-469-7283 or http://congressofhistory.org/events.html