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A Pioneer Sampler -- A Look into Long Ago

Share The year is 1840. The place is a farm in the woods. Signs of spring are beginning to appear as A Pioneer Sampler begins. Curl up and read about a year in the life of the Robertsons, a pioneer family -- a real change of pace from daily life in the 1990s! A great addition to the middle-grade curriculum. Included: Activity ideas!

Pioneer Sampler Book CoverA Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family in 1840 details a year in the daily life of a fictional pioneer family, the Robertson family -- Granny, Ma, Pa, three daughters (Lizzie, Meg, and Sarah), and three sons (George, Willy, and Tommy the baby). In 1840, the family is living on their "backwoods" farm, far from the nearest town, exhibiting self-sufficiency and the uncompromised work ethic that is necessary for survival.


A Pioneer Sampler, written by Barbara Greenwood and illustrated by Heather Collins (published in paperback in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin), is a book for the middle-grade research shelf. Recommended for children aged 8 through 12, the book can be used by teachers and students in a variety of ways.
  • The handy index provides guidance for the student seeking specific information.
  • The sequential trip through the seasons offers a method of comparing seasonal activities, then and now.
  • A glossary provides clear definitions of period words. And in each class there is bound to be at least one reader who will read the book from cover to cover, cataloguing all the details and becoming an authority on the period.


Those who do read the book all the way through will be treated to slices of life memorably described by author Greenwood, such as the old woman who couldn't afford to retrieve a letter that had been sent to her.
"Shhh, she'll hear you ...She can't afford to pay for it. Just comes in and looks at it every so often. From her mother back home, Mrs. Jamieson told me." The extended family, so common in 1840, provides the opportunity for Granny to instruct her grandchildren and connect them to their family's past through stories she tells. One story that Granny shares with her granddaughter concerns two tiny rowan trees she brought to the New World from Scotland. Granny told Sarah of the difficult trip, her efforts to keep her tiny trees alive, and of planting the trees in her new

"We settled in the new land and my trees flourished... And we flourished, too."


Beginning with the thaw that signals the onset of spring and continuing through the year to Hogmany -- the Scottish New Year's Eve celebration -- A Pioneer Sampler reads like a journal of family activities. The journal includes daily chores, school days, and the high points of the family's year. In the year chronicled:
  • the family worked together tapping maple trees and making maple syrup. (The children, alone in the woods, came face to face with a lynx one night!)
  • Willy stood up against a bully at school.
  • Pa took the canoe down the river to buy new livestock for the farm. (And happened to bring back a puppy too!)
  • the family had a visit from a peddler, who traded his goods for fleece (from sheep) and knitted mittens and stockings. (Pa bought a clock for Ma -- the first timepiece the family ever had!)
  • native hunters camped by the river and traded hunting bounty for other food they needed. (Willy became friendly with a boy about his age, who showed Willy how to fish with his hands.)
  • crops were planted and harvested -- corn, wheat, hay.
  • the family visited the general store -- only two hours away by wagon -- where Sarah learns about mail. (The recipient had to pay when a letter arrived for him or her; some people could not afford to get their letters.)
The biggest event of the year was building a new house, the third for the Robertson family on their land in the woods. Neighbors arrived for a "house raising." the Robertsons visited their German neighbors and shared the splendor of a Christmas tree.


Year-round farm activities are covered, some in great detail. Those details offer opportunities for city dwellers to compare farming, albeit long ago, to their city lives, and for today's farm dwellers to compare today and "yesterday." Farm activities include milking; sheep shearing, carding, spinning, and processing of wool; honey gathering; and preparing for winter. Sampler's year ends with Hogmany -- the Scottish New Year's Eve celebration, and another of the ways the family maintains ties to its roots. The diversity of the area is stressed as area farm families visit one another and join in their celebrations.


Much of the beauty of this book is found in its details. Sketch-like illustrations by Heather Collins give the reader a feeling of long ago and offer opportunities for students and teachers to extend their learning. Readers who see the children sleeping three to a bed or feeding the hens can also make note of clothing, footwear, furniture, farm animals, and other picture details. While captivating in content, several illustrations act as picture maps or diagrams, and offer even more.
  • A family portrait clearly identifies each person, shows relative size and clothing, and provides a ready reference to the family members.
  • A cutaway diagram of the family's log house clearly shows readers how closely the family lived and worked together.
Activity Idea! Students can make a cutaway drawing of their own living arrangements, highlighting modern areas corresponding to the living area of the Robertson family. Some students might research the changes in home architecture between 1840 and 1998. Another group of students might identify tools and appliances that have changed the activities of families. · A two-page spread of the farmyard is a picture map showing the location of the family's proposed new home, the barn, the log house, and the original shelter for the family -- their shanty. The illustration provides a visual overview of the extensive area for which the family is responsible and makes the descriptive text more real. · The country school attended by the children is also shown in a cutaway illustration. Combined with the vivid description of school activities, the school drawing provides a basis for studying change.

Activity Idea! After reading the descriptions of school activities, students can identify the parts of the school used for each activity. Then students can compare their own school to the country schoolhouse, and determine the similarities of their educational experiences with those of the Robertson children. The building of the third home on the family farm during the fall -- a two-story home with a separate kitchen and parlor -- is illustrated in several scenes. Those scenes show planning the new house, tools used, the house-raising by neighbors, and the final cutaway drawing of the new house.

Activity Idea! Students can list each activity of house building (shared by the whole Robertson family). Encourage discussion of activities that could bring your students' families together in a cooperative venture.


Old sayings throughout the book such as "Eat it up, Wear it out, Make it do, Or go without" help students examine and possibly determine the reasons for differences between life on a farm long ago and today. They will gain new understanding of old sayings such as "Many hands make light work," and "Make hay while the sun shines." And teachers will probably extend their own vocabularies with terms such as coursing the bee, the rule of three, shadow clocks, and wheat gum, along with many others.


Greenwood fills Sampler chock full of "how-to" activities for school or home. The activities would be valuable in planning a demonstration day for other members of the school community. Students can try measuring in the pioneer manner, making butter or cheese, trying "finger spinning," and dyeing cloth using onionskin. The number of activities could fill a school year, or provide an activity for almost every class member.


The only thing really lacking here is a sense of location other than "backwoods." The fictional family has been placed in an unidentifiable location, making it impossible for readers to extend their knowledge of the surrounding area, the geography, and the speed of change. (This book was originally published in Canada as A Pioneer Story: The Daily Life of a Canadian Family in 1840 by Kids Can Press Ltd.)


A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family in 1840 (240pp) is written by Barbara Greenwood and illustrated by Heather Collins. The book is published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 222 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116 . If you are unable to locate a copy of the book in your local bookstore, ask your bookseller to order a copy for you.

Article by Anne Guignon
Education World®
Copyright © 1998 Education World

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