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Hands-on history on Prince Edward Island

Students learn skills and lessons about life in 1895 during visit to Orwell Corner Historic Village

ORWELL – Jason MacNeil is the first person the students see when the school bus pulls into the parking lot at Orwell Corner Historic Village.

He’s also the last to wave goodbye to them at the end of the day.

Wearing the finest clothes of an 1895 tradesperson/farmer, he’s a travel guide on a tour of the past.

And in the past month he has welcomed hundreds of P.E.I. children to the village.

On Wednesday morning, MacNeil greeted 70 Grade 2 students from West Kent Elementary with high fives as they entered the site, located at 7 Old Uigg Rd.

“The job is amazing. I get to be a blacksmith. I get to be a farmer. I get to be a teacher. I get to be a shopkeeper. I get to be all those things and I get to see the kids light up when I tell them about how life used to be,” says the site director.

The day begins with a tour of Orwell Corner. The historic village includes a church, school, general store with connected residence and a blacksmith forge, as well as several halls and barn buildings.

His favourite stop is the school building.

“It’s amazing to see Grade 2 students that are sitting in a one-room school house where, in 1895, there were kids in Grade 2 sitting. Then you tell them that the teacher used a strap to discipline the students. And you see them react, calling it child abuse. They become so involved and engaged that they invest a lot of themselves back into the experience.”

There’s also a visit to the farm’s animals like Tartan, the friendly horse, a constantly-crowing rooster and a variety of baby goats and cattle.

After a picnic lunch on the grounds, it’s time for hands-on experiential learning. The students are broken up into small groups to learn candle-making in one area and Mi’kmaq songs and dances with Dion Bernard, a Mi’kmaq interpreter, in another. They also get to imagine what transportation was like in 1895 as they enjoy a horse and wagon ride around the property with driver Kevin MacLean or witness an old-world art as MacNeil works his magic in the blacksmith’s forge.

“We’re going to make a little coat hook today. And the way we are going to do is to use the hammer on the hot iron and straighten it out. But I need your help,” says MacLean, inviting students to wind a mechanical blower that fans the flames to make the fire even hotter.

Maddon Terry is one of the first to step up to the forge. Winding the handle of the blower with all his might, he’s rewarded when he sees the flames rising in the furnace.

“Now that was cool. I’d love to have a job like that,” smiles the Grade 2 student.

Taking advantage of the newly-fanned flames to heat and bend the metal, MacLean places the iron in the fire once again, takes it out and pounds it with a hammer. After repeating this process several times, he turns it into a decorative hook.

“Everything that was made of metal in communities in 1895 would have been made by a blacksmith, just like this.”

Outside, Kyrie Robinson and Rachel Hamilton are teaching six students at a time how to make handmade candles by dipping wicks into pots of wax, cooling with water and re-dipping them again and again.

“This is fun,” says Andre Bruyneel, dipping the string into hot wax. “But, for me, the best part was seeing the animals this morning.”

His teacher, Jennifer MacEachern agrees, adding she enjoys her annual visit to the site. It’s the “highlight” of the school year, she says.

“It’s huge and it really ties into our curriculum. These guys don’t even recognize that it’s a fieldtrip and there’s learning happening because they’re having so much fun.”

Need to know:

Orwell Corner Historic Village offers free admission to school groups. Its goal is to get young people interested in P.E.I. history.

Members of the museum created experiences for every grade level in connection with the social studies curriculum. For example, on Wednesday Grade 2 students from West Kent Elementary School learned about life before plastic.

Other students went to Macphail Woods for lessons based in their science curriculum.

Last fall, MacNeil was contacted by province's department of education and lifelong learning and they started picking up the cost of students going to the site.

School groups and teachers interested in booking a visit to the Orwell Corner Historic Village can contact the admissions office at 902651-8515 or email site director Jason MacNeil at

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