Historic Site: Riley’s Farm, Oak Glen, California, USA
Date of Visit: multiple throughout 2015
Riley’s Farm provides unique living history experiences in a recreated environment. While most of the buildings are not “historic,” different areas of the farm correlate to different centuries with the “Colonial Chesterfield” area representing the 1770’s and the “Heritage Homestead” with its renovated fruit packing shed hosting the 19th century programs. The farm offers a range of programming: five tour options for groups, “Adventures in the Old World” weekend activities for families, dinner theater, an on-site tavern and bakery, tavern dinner events, gift shops, private events, and a summer Colonial Faire. Jim and Mary Riley, the owners and developers of all that Riley’s Farm offers, aim to create a place where history is experienced through interactive, engaging, and entertaining programming. You can tip your hat to the local Justice of the Peace, salute (or debate with) a King’s soldier in a red wool coat, smell the black powder of a musket, and taste a miner’s cornbread.
The tours, designed primarily for school field trip visits, are structured so groups rotate through activity stations. The different tours have different maximum capacity volumes with the Revolutionary War Adventure being the highest capacity. The student groups are divided into townships named after relevant 18th century locations such as Lexington, Concord, Waterford, Marshfield, etc. Each township holds 35-40 students, and the tour can host up to 27 townships in a day. This means that a sold-out tour equals over 850 paying guests! The tour leads, as the program supervisors are called, make this system work by offering the activity stations on rotations. The activities can be offered in duplicate set-ups to allow for one, two, or three separate rotation sequences.
Activity materials are stored in a central location in kits, and all employees learn a station script to ensure program consistency. For example, on three separate rotation sequences, each sequence will offer Weaving, Militia Drilling, Quill & Ink Writing, and others. Less portable activities, such as Blacksmithing, are limited to a single rotation sequence because of location limitations. Unique stations like this will be replaced with other unique activities to fill out the rotations. Each sequence has the same number of rotations to ensure that they start and finish at the same time. Tours run for 2-4 hours depending on the program, and most include a snack or small meal.
Since it’s a private operation, Riley’s benefits from some customization of the content, but it still has to meet curriculum demands in order to maintain the main source of income: schools. Example: In the guise of discussing colonial values, there is a repeated reference to the right to bear arms. While the Second Amendment is a direct result of the British Empire’s attempt to restrict the American Colonies’ access to weapons and ammunition in the 18th century, the repeated references make it seem like it’s being pushed as a modern topic (which is very much is!).
There is a very smart use of resources at Riley’s Farm. Many of the station materials are used by multiple tours, such as looms for Weaving or hoop-and-stick for Historic Games. The dining tables in the Hawk’s Head Tavern, the full-service restaurant on site, are set with candles in recreated 18th century lanterns. The candle stubs are then melted down for candle dipping activities. Fabric scraps from the farm’s extensive costume shop repair township flags, turn into bandages in the Civil War Tour’s Surgery station, and are used for rag balls. The overlaps are not obvious to the general visitor, and the context of the recreated buildings and carefully researched costumes help smooth out any minor disconnects.
Speaking of costumes, they are extremely well-done considering that they are all made on site. The costume department clothes over 60 staff members in order to recreate the American Revolution (including British Redcoats), the U.S. Civil War, the California Gold Rush, farm life in the 1890’s, and multiple time periods for the dinner theater productions. Living historians are dressed from the skin out and costume allotments include period-correct underwear, stays, corsets, linen caps, stockings, garters, multiple petticoats, and shoes. The head costume designer Mary Johns is a self-taught seamstress and a 12-year Riley’s employee, starting as a Living Historian and now runs the costume shop. She attends yearly industry events such as the popular Costume College and collects books on historic dress and fashion. She admits that a few specialty items such as shoes, buttons, and some hats are ordered in, but everything else is made on site. She had a special opportunity to design the costumes for the mini-series filmed at the farm, Courage, New Hampshire, and loved the chance to create the ball gowns and higher-status garments necessary for the filming. Many of the costumes are made out of linen, cotton, wool, and canvas so they hold up to daily wear n’ tear, but Mary likes working with the silks, satins, and finer materials when she gets the chance.
What’s almost as interesting as Riley’s programming series is its reception among other educational activities in the region. Historical and cultural museums are barely aware of its existence, or brush it off as an unprofessional, backyard operation. While some aspects at Riley’s lack polish such as the unpaved gravel parking lot and the lack of pre/post visit materials for educators, they’re doing many things right and making a healthy profit from their efforts. Based on program volume, approximately 20% of elementary school students in southern California attend a program at Riley’s. That’s one out of five students paying an admission fee to participate in Living History activities. A privately owned property which develops such an engaging and public-facing range of programs should serve as an example to history/historic house museums. Even if museums are more limited in their scope of content and material resources, they can learn from the adaptation of simple techniques and primary materials into a fun and effective experience. The activities are entertaining and educational, the lessons are effective, and they engage the participants. If you have an opportunity to explore history at Riley’s Farm, take the trip; it’s worth it!
You may even be found guilty of enjoying yourself…
Note: I was a temporary employee of Riley’s Farm at various times in 2014 and 2015. I was responsible for creating daily tour itineraries, researching content, auditing tours for curriculum relevancy, assisting with marketing, and the development of summer camp activities.