LACONIA — 42 third graders from Elm Street School, the classes of Andy Mercer and Megan Vesconvellos, spent a recent noon hour roving through the Lakeport Freight House Museum, the most recent stop on their weekly walking field trips that introduce them to the history and character of the community.
Mercer explained that the trips are part of the social studies curriculum designed to "get the history in the hands of the kids". Earlier this year the pupils visited Leavitt Park and followed the route of the Lakeport fire of 1903. With each trip, he said, the pupils engage in "place-based writing" about their experience. For example, at the museum they were asked to record three things they thought their teachers would like to know about and another three about which they would question their teachers. "It's stump the teacher," Mercer remarked, "like a competition."
The museum is filled with an eclectic array of exhibits for the pupils to draw from. A map designates each of the 108 buildings consumed by the fire of 1903 as well as the few that escaped the blaze. Much of the memorabilia commemorates the halcyon days of the railroad, including a tribute to the first woman conductor on the line. One features Hank DeCato of White Hat Realty, remembered as "the Gene Autry of Lakeport" for his friendship with the famous singing cowboy. Along with the machines from factories and mills there is also an early electric hair curler belonging to the grandmother of Ginger Ryan, secretary of the Lakeport Community Association. A horse drawn snow plow drew much attention. And of course, the late Wanda Tibbetts, "Queen of Lakeport", is well remembered with an exhibit that includes the original "Save the Hathaway House" bumper sticker in hot pink.
The pupils went from one thing to another, writing in their notebooks. Several boys were taken by the plow. A girl gazed at set of hand-sewn children's clothes. Sitting top a wooden chest, a boy wondered what was inside and learned about tools for working on the railroad. Another boy asked about a miniature motorcycle atop a display case and found it was a reminder of long lost shop in Lakeport.
Mercer said that when the children returned to school they would all present their work to the class and pose their questions to their teachers. But, before leaving he asked what they might like to donate to the museum. Several mentioned their "PAWS" T-shirts, which they were sporting for the first time. "PAWS" stands for "positive attitude, always respectful, wise choices and safety and is the moniker of their mascot, a tiger. One pupil even suggested donating a tiger.