YOUNGSTOWN, NY - If you’re looking for Robert Emerson, the Executive Director of Old Fort Niagara, the easiest days to spot him are on Fridays in October.
But he might not answer to that name.
October is the time of year when Old Fort Niagara puts on “Fridays on the Frontier,” as hundreds of students visit the historic landmark for a free, unique lesson on the impact of the American Revolution in New York state.
"It's critical to being a good citizen and making informed decisions to know how the country was founded,” says Emerson. “When you're sitting in class, and you’re thinking about King George III and George Washington, I think sometimes they're almost cardboard characters; they’re so remote you can't relate to them."
Emerson is the first person students meet during their adventure, but he’s dressed in full Continental Army garb, spoking a makeshift fire or organizing his tent; by this time, he’s in full character as “Major John Random,” ready to recruit students to their first taste of espionage.
"We give them the oath of the allegiance to the United States, which is straight out of the 1770s, and once its determined that they're not going to betray us to the British, we send them on a mission,’ says Emerson.
That mission: to discover which British regiment is stationed in the fort, to figure out how many loyalists have been recruited, and to report on the status of any Native American citizens inside.
They’re even given a cover story as “Loyalist Refugees,” before being sent into the fort with a rally of “Huzzah’s.”
But once they’re inside, the real fun begins.
Along with their mission, students can view musket demonstrations, learn about 18th century battlefield technology, perform an infantry exercise, learn how to become a blacksmith, watch how colonial bread recipes were prepared in wood-fired ovens, meet British soldiers to learn about their daily lives, and even participate in some hay bale races with other students.
But the biggest attraction is the artillery firing, as a troop of soldiers fire a live cannon out onto Lake Ontario.
And with all of those distractions, you’d think it was easy for students to forget all about their mission, right?
Once they’re done in the fort, the students are tasked with reporting back to “Major Random;” Emerson says the mission is always successful.
"Some of the kids, when they come out of the fort, they're just so excited to share the intelligence that they've gathered for his excellency General Washington,” Emerson says with a smile. “It's gratifying to see that you're getting through."
Emerson says the 2017 “Frontier” events filled up quickly, just like they do every year; he says they continue accepting students until they hit the 500-600 range, which is when he says quality might begin to erode.
And perhaps the best part of Fridays on the Frontier is that it’s free for almost any school looking to join.
Emerson says the only requirement is that applying schools utilize Title 1 funding; if they meet that requirement, the admission to the fort is completely paid off by the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, and transportation is funded by the New York State Connect Kids program.
Odel Northington, a K-8 teacher and parent facilitator with PS 81, says it’s worth it for teachers and parents to sign up as early as they can.
"The kids get a chance to move around… I mean they're kids, so they need that chance to move around and just say 'You know what? I'm out, I'm free!'” Northington laughs. “And they don't even realize they're learning, until it happens."
Northington’s students enjoyed everything from the live cannons to the kitchen demonstration; as a cook himself, he admits he was drawn to watching some of the 18th century cooking techniques, along with his students.
"They recognize the historic factor, and then they also recognize things that they saw in their books, so that was really cool to see,” Northington said. “I think that hands on training gives them that opportunity to say 'Hey, this is okay, it's okay to learn.' And that's what we want."
Old Fort Niagara is open year round, and even though Fridays on the Frontier are fully booked out through 2017, there are other big events to close out the year.
French Heritage Day has a public program all day long on Saturday, November 4th; the student day on Friday is fully booked.
And on Saturdays, December 9th and 16th, the fort hosts The Castle by Candelight from 6:30-8:30 pm.
For a full list of events, you can visit their events page at www.oldfortniagara.org/calendar/list/current_page,1/per_page,10
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