A boy in period dress guides apples into an old-fashioned cider press

Step Back in Time at Lang Pioneer Village’s Applefest

Lang Pioneer Village Museum is a personal favourite of mine. As a living history museum it’s a remarkably complete and immersive experience. Apart from other guests in contemporary clothes, you’re unlikely to see many anachronisms in this recreation 19th century village. I often suggest Lang when I have visitors from out of town, but as a returning guest it’s nice to catch a special event. Late September’s Applefest sounded like a good excuse for another trip, so my wife and I bundled up our three-year-old son and off we went.

Built alongside the Indian River near Keene, Lang achieves the rare feat of looking pretty even from the parking lot. As you arrive you pass a fully-functioning grist mill still producing local flour. Once inside, you’re free to take an open-ended stroll through the grounds. During Applefest all the usual attractions were open and staffed by costumed interpreters. If you’re curious about history but don’t learn well by reading placards, this is your museum.

The interpreters are knowledgeable and happy to demonstrate period-appropriate trades. For instance the Fitzpatrick House is restored to 1840 standards, before cast iron stoves were widely available. Instead it features a large blackened hearth in its main room, where two interpreters cooked apple fritters with a swinging fireplace crane. Part of Applefest’s purpose is to demonstrate how settlers preserved the harvest and prepared for winter, so the chefs drew our attention to a basket of eggs coated with lard. Although the eggs in the fritters were of a more recent vintage, this was a pre-refrigeration method of preserving eggs over the winter when chickens stopped laying.

With detail like that you could be forgiven for thinking Lang has always been there. It’s actually a composite, made of original buildings relocated to the site blended with replica structures. Their artful layout allows you to progress through houses that represent advances by the decade. Milburn House’s 1870s kitchen has a large stove with piping routed throughout the house. The interpreters mentioned what a boon it was to the women who used it, and served up apple cake as proof. It would’ve made for a sweltering kitchen in high summer, but in fall it was pleasantly warm even for folks in layers of pioneer dress.

There are over two dozen buildings on the property similarly rich with history. The objects of fascination are virtually limitless, but if you want to put a number on it Lang lists their collection at over 26,000 artifacts. Even the walls tell a story, especially those decorated with handbills from the nearby print shop. The immersive quality extends beyond the architecture through to well-tended gardens and livestock. It even smells right, thanks to the woodsmoke in the air from the plant-based wool dying outside Fife Cabin. Interpreters were working on two batches using marigold and buckthorn berries.

The experiential nature of Lang makes it a gold standard for family-friendliness. Kids have something they can engage with directly, while adults will find the backstory equally edifying. The tinsmith recommended kids try their hand at the old-fashioned trade by working with can lids. My three-year-old was a little young for that, but he was still mesmerized watching the artisan hammer out her apple-themed artworks. The two-storey cider mill had a constant stream of young volunteers helping press local apples, and you could also bring a bushel home from the stand nearby. In keeping with the theme, apple fries from Peterborough’s Reggie’s Hot Grill were a popular bit of modern comfort food.

The site attracts historians and preservationists of all stripes, such as the film lovers of the Marie Dressler Foundation, who were on site to promote the Vintage Film Festival at Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre. Not far from Lang’s cider press, a broadaxe hand hewing demonstration by John Foreman embodied the effort and industry that went into some of the buildings around me. Same goes for the working loom in the weaver’s shop, and the blacksmith’s forge ringing with the sound of hammer and anvil.

To present a more inclusive view of the past, Lang has partnered with Curve Lake and Hiawatha First Nations. The Aabnaabin Camp is devoted to sharing the traditions and heritage of the Michi Saagiig people, which meant caught a demonstration of birchbark canoe repair during Applefest. I was glad to see the museum working to foster a complete and culturally aware perspective.

If any of the above sounds hushed and reverential, the emphasis falls squarely on the “living” side of “living history.” Cheryl Casselman and the Dandelion Wine Band put on a high energy show in front of the Keene Hotel, and the general store did a brisk business in period sweets. My three-year-old was late for naptime because he was so excited to ride in a horse wagon, and three days later he was still talking about mulled cider.

Lang’s mission is to “preserve and authentically recreate the history of Peterborough County.” As we left I saw another layer of importance to those words — with the glut of imagery from American westerns in pop culture, it’s easy for Canadians to forget their own past is full of similar intrigues and struggles. Lang presents that history as something real and vital, which makes me see the region I live in with new eyes. Chances to visit Lang in 2018 are running out, but there’s still time to catch A Folk Song History of the Peterborough Region, Historic All Hallows’ Eve, a their Fall Workshop Series (including a textiles workshop and pie-making with an award-winning baker Eila from Warkworth’s Perfect Pie Contest), and don’t miss the festive Christmas by Candlelight event. Hopefully I’ll see you there.

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