If you live far from the Salt Lake Valley, your first response to this post’s title may have been, “Pioneer what?” While students across the United States study westward expansion in school, only in Utah (as far as I know) do pioneers get their own holiday, July 24. Pioneer Day commemorates the day the Mormon pioneers first entered the valley that was to become their home. I was introduced to Pioneer Day more than 30 years ago, and despite the fact that I live in Michigan, it doesn’t seem right to let July 24 go by without some kind of celebration. It’s a great way to understand more about history—or maybe to create some history (or a holiday) of your own.
1. How did pioneers have fun, with no video games or televisions? Try some pioneer games! Most of the games at this site can be played with out equipment, or take a look at this booklet describing both easy-to-play games and some that will require woodworking skills. But what better way to experiment with wood than to make a toy? For a creative extension, take a look around the house and local environment to identify objects pioneers might have had. Create a new game from them.
2. What did pioneers eat? There are lots of websites to help you find out. Here’s one focused on the Nebraska plains. (You might have to look down the lefthand column and click “What’s for lunch?”) Be sure to go to the bottom to find the recipe link. Or try the Food Timeline Library for links to early American food of all descriptions. There are lots of options to explore. For example, older children might be interested to read A Handbook for Overland Expeditions, first published in 1857. It is a fascinating glimpse into how prospective settlers had to prepare for the journey—and to begin to understand how historians learn about the past. Or find more modernized recipes at this school-friendly site from the Utah State Department of Education. If you come up with questions about early foods, there are lots of early cookbooks online to help you.
3. There are many websites with directions for pioneer crafts. I like this resource guide (printable, if you want) with both crafts and recipes designed for school. But the important thing about pioneer crafts and toys is that they had to work with the materials around them—and nothing could be wasted. How would you do with that challenge? Consider creating a modern pioneer craft by creating something that is useful or fun from things you are likely to recycle or throw away. If pioneers made toys and jewelry out of buttons, what could you do with leftover lids, containers, and scraps?
4. Or what about pioneer music? You can listen to some songs here, or go to the bottom of the page to take a pioneer music quiz. But remember, like everything else, pioneer music had to spring from the pioneers themselves–no Pandora radio or YouTube available. Many of the songs were designed to help soothe the long days, either by creating walking songs to pass the hiking hours or evening songs to encourage tired travelers. Think about challenges your family might face. What kind of songs might you need? Songs to pass the time on a car trip? Songs for hiking? Maybe songs for peeling potatoes or mopping floors? Create a song for times your spirits need lifting—maybe by borrowing a pioneer tune and changing the lyrics.
5. Or maybe you need to celebrate a holiday of your own. Pioneer Day was created to celebrate an event that was particular to one locale. What important events in your area should merit their own celebration? Or perhaps there is a person, crop or a natural feature that should be celebrated. Does your community need a geyser day, a blueberry day, or a day to celebrate a local hero? Create it, for your home, your school, or your community. And please share.