Children feel pains, pleasures of pioneer life at Forest Park Museum


Pioneer life in Iowa in the 1850s was probably much like life in Iowa is today: rough and raw for the most part, with little or no margin for fruitless pleasures or unprofitable pursuits. People mostly worked and when they were not working, which was rarely, they were reading their bibles.

Upwards of 200 third graders from the Dallas Center-Grimes School District got a taste of the rugged prairie life —  or lifestyle, as we often say today, when one no longer has a life but a lifestyle — as nine of their teachers shepherded them through a daylong field trip at Forest Park Museum, the Dallas County Conservation Department’s little bit of living history.

The children moved among eight stations, including squeezing into a log cabin for a taste of domestic life on the prairie and squeezing into a one-room schoolhouse for a lesson in mental culture on the Great Plains. There was also time for traditional rural songs and stories and dances and games.

Forest Park Museum Curator Pete Malmberg, in period costume like all the field-trip staff and volunteers, led the children into the wilderness of Forest Park’s 13 acres of restored tallgrass prairie and arboretum and back again to the civilization of the middle 1800s, where Sue Leslie of Perry welcomed them to the comforts of an authentic log home, and Miss Rosa Lee, played by Wilma Blom of Pella, waited in the Alton School to deliver the day’s lesson.

School is a big part of the average 9-year-old’s experience, and the DC-G students seemed as attentive and well mannered as the children from farms and mines of a century and a half ago must have been, not least when Miss Rosa Lee brandished her little birch rod or switch, explaining it was used in olden times to make children smart.

Bleeding hearts are not native to Iowa.
Bleeding hearts are not native to Iowa.

The youngsters seemed to understand the notion of a whipping, because life in Iowa today is probably much like pioneer life in the 1850s.

Before the children entered the one-room schoolhouse — recently tidied up for the season by volunteers from Nu Alpha Gamma Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, an organization of women educators in Dallas County — Miss Rosa Lee asked the young people to form themselves into two lines, one for boys and one for girls, demonstrating by this that pioneer life could not afford the luxury of accommodating transgendered individuals.

Using a similar logic, the 19th-century school marm told the children they must all write only with their right hands if they “should ‘scape whipping.” Rules without exceptions kept lines clear and distinct in the sod-busting society of long ago.

Life today is much like but not exactly like life then. Civilization is a cumulative process, and culture is an inheritance of mixed blessings. That was the takeaway from the morning lesson at the one-room Alton School.

Forest Park Museum field trips and tours are one part of the Dallas County Conservation Department’s extensive suite of outreach services available to the public. For more information about the facility’s many programs, visit their website or call 515-465-3577.



  1. To the ladies who were cleaning up the school house on the Dallas County Conservation grounds, thank you for being an excellent example of volunteerism, fellowship and community collaboration!


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