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Area students experience 1912 through NMSU Time Travel program

"Welcome to the Jubilee here in Las Cruces!" shouts Hiram McDowell to a group of students visiting New Mexico State University's Fabian Garcia Science Center on a recent April morning. "We just became a state a few months ago, in January. President Taft signed the proclamation making us a state on January 6. So we are here to celebrate this great day here, this great occasion!"

Young students in 1912 garb use shovels to dig adobe while man with hat supervises
Fifth- and sixth-grade students from the J. Paul Taylor Academy learn to make adobes from "Jose the adobe maker," played by NMSU student Alec New. They were spending an April morning at NMSU's Fabian Garcia Science Center as participants in a "Time Travel to 1912" event hosted by Jon Hunner, head of NMSU's history department, and students in his "Time Traveling Through New Mexico's Past" class. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)
Young students in 1912 garb sit around woman dressed as a curandera
: Fifth- and sixth-grade students from the J. Paul Taylor Academy learn a bit about alternative medicine from "Tita the curandera," played by NMSU grad student Theresa Illgen. Soon they will sample a cup of her herbal tea. The students were spending an April morning at NMSU's Fabian Garcia Science Center as participants in a "Time Travel to 1912" event hosted by Jon Hunner, head of NMSU's history department, and students in his "Time Traveling Through New Mexico's Past" class. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)
Young students in 1912 garb march past gazebo carrying pro-vote signs
Fifth- and sixth-grade students from the J. Paul Taylor Academy demonstrate their support for women's suffrage in New Mexico as part of a "Time Travel to 1912" event held at NMSU's Fabian Garcia Science Center in April. Their time travel experience was hosted by Jon Hunner, head of NMSU's history department, and students in his "Time Traveling Through New Mexico's Past" class. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)

Thus begins a "Time Travel to 1912" event designed to give local K-12 students in 2012 a taste of what life was like in the Mesilla Valley at the time New Mexico became a state.

It isn't actually Hiram McDowell addressing the students, however. It is Jon Hunner, head of NMSU's Department of History and director of the university's public history program, playing the part of the historical figure from a century ago. According to Hunner, McDowell moved from Iowa to the Mesilla Valley in 1909 and established a farm on what is now McDowell Road. In addition to being a farmer, he was an energetic advocate for improving the community by bringing in electricity, improving the roads, and pursuing other initiatives supported by the FIBAB ("Forget It, Be A Booster") club.

The fact that Hunner now lives in the house McDowell assembled from a Sears-Roebuck kit partially explains the special connection Hunner feels with his character.

"For a historian, it can't get much better than that!" Hunner says.

But what is this "time travel" all about?

"Time travel is this innovative educational technique that pretends to have everybody in the class back in a past time period," Hunner said in a recent interview. "What's also unique is not only are the 'adults' in this method back in that past time period, but all of the audience pretends to be back in that past time period, as well. So we all try to experience history as we, through our research, envision that the history was in the past time period."

The "adults" in Hunner's program are the NMSU students in his "Time Traveling Through New Mexico's Past" class; the "audience" is made up of the students from local schools who participate in the reenactment presentations.

Hunner brought the concept to NMSU after experiencing it during a Fulbright Fellowship in Sweden about 10 years ago. He met the technique's creator, Ebbe Westergren, who had incorporated it into programming at the Kalmar County Museum there, and recognized it as "an incredibly powerful method to recreate the past and to make history come alive."

Hunner is now vice president of Bridging Ages, the international organization that promotes this approach to first-person interpretation of history.

The college course he established at NMSU introduces history majors, education majors and other NMSU students to the teaching method.

"We pick a past year - this year it is 1912 - and the undergrad and graduate students in my class research the time period and the people who lived then," Hunner said. "We put together a scenario and create activities for what people might have done 100 years ago."

They each create a character, too, based on thorough research, and play that character during the time travel experiences.

Hunner and his students work with local schools and teachers to bring their students, ranging from fourth-graders through high school seniors, into this living history experience. During April and early May this year, eight groups of students from five area schools spent their morning in 1912.

More than 350 students participated this year.

"It is an interesting living history educational experience that helps all participants to understand that the past is different than today and also that some things stay the same," Hunner said. "Some of my students who have completed the course have gone on to do living history in museums and schools around the country."

On this particular day at the Fabian Garcia Research Center, the guests are fifth- and sixth-grade students from the J. Paul Taylor Academy.

Just before ringing a bell to usher in 1912, Hunner explains the two main rules to the visitors: participants "don't know about anything" that happened after the time period they are in, and if they do encounter anything more recent, such as video cameras or people wearing T-shirts, they "just ignore it."

The bell rings three times and Hiram McDowell introduces the visiting students to the dozen characters at their stations.

Some are historical figures, such as Mrs. Josephine Foster, co-editor with her husband of the Rio Grande Republican newspaper and a campaigner for women's suffrage; Col. Van Patten, a storekeeper; and artist Olive Rush.

Others are composite characters, with personalities based on the students' research of the time period. They include Tita the curandera, Joe the politician, Concha the laundress, Henry the cotton farmer, Zelfa the seamstress, Jose the adobe maker, and two smugglers known as Mr. Morales and Rojo, who make money by running guns and ammunition to Mexican rebels across the border.

And there is Gregorio Flores, a fictional assistant to legendary NMSU agronomist Fabian Garcia, Mexican immigrant and early NMSU graduate, whose research on chile peppers made New Mexico's chile industry possible and who directed NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station for more than three decades.

The visiting students have the opportunity to separate cottonseeds from the lint and plant those seeds, as well as chile seeds, in cups they can take home. They can also learn to make adobe bricks and use a washboard to get clothes clean. They sip an herbal tea, they buy store items for a penny, and they sew a star on a new 47-star American flag.

As the morning progresses, the weapons traffickers draw some of the students into their smuggling ring. Mrs. Foster pushes her agenda of getting New Mexico's women the vote, trying to convince everyone to wear symbolic yellow flowers; McDowell, adamant that women should not be voting, hands out red flowers and makes his case for the status quo.

The students experience dramatic moments: A weapons cache is discovered, the smugglers are rounded up, and upstanding community members question their motives. Henry the cotton farmer, who suffers from consumption (known today as tuberculosis), coughs up blood and is taken by cart to the hospital. A final vote about women's suffrage takes place, a majority favor extending the vote to New Mexico's women, and even Hiram McDowell is convinced to sign Mrs. Foster's petition - and remove his red flower.

At the end of the session, McDowell rings the bell, everyone returns to the present, and Hunner and his team lead a recap session to help the students better understand the experience.

This includes reassuring them that while Henry the cotton farmer might well have suffered from tuberculosis back in 1912, the student who played him in 2012 did not cough up real blood, did not go to a hospital, and is actually just back on campus attending another class.

Allie Conway is a fifth-grade teacher at the Taylor Academy who came with her class that day. She is also a former student of Hunner's who took his class several years ago.

"The value of the Time Travel program for students and schools is that it is hands-on history," she said. "Students are able to not only learn about history and seek connections, but to touch, feel, and analyze what is being presented to them in a way that is very real."

She has made sure that the morning of time travel was not a stand-alone experience for her class.

"Since the field trip, the fifth-grade students have been able to make connections referencing everything from the adobe they made in '1912' to thinking about the complex nature of history through the politics, culture, and society that was presented to them," Conway said. "It has helped to open a dialogue with this upcoming generation that connects the past and present."