‘Uncle Milt’s Shed’ makes history tangible for kids

These girls are making their own miniature immigrant trunk by folding paper. The photo was taken in a previous year, but the immigrant trunks, and numerous other popular projects, will return this weekend to celebrate 15 years of “Uncle Milt’s Shed.”Goessel Country Thresh­ing Days returns this week with antique tractors and threshing equipment, steam-powered engines, farming demonstrations from generations past—all to inform people of their heritage.

But that doesn’t mean the weekend appeals only to adults, seniors and history buffs. Thanks in part to Uncle Milt’s Shed, children have their own special place on the Mennonite Heritage Museum grounds to have fun and encounter their heritage with activities created just for them.

“Uncle Milt’s Shed” will mark its 15th anniversary with the local celebration, and Susan Nafziger has been spearheading it since its inception in 2002.

“I started it with a group of others from the Menno­nite Heritage Museum, and at that point we were just trying to find more activities to give Threshing Days new ideas,” she said.

“We brainstormed a bunch of different things. My area was to focus on kids activities. I came up with this idea of a place to do make-it, take-it crafts with kids.”

In recognition of the anniversary, Nafziger is bringing back some of the most popular activities from the past for children from birth to age 12.

“We say it’s fun for kids of all ages, but I would say that’s our target age range,” she said.

Activities this year

One of the activities is making a paper-folded immigrant trunk that the kids can decorate and take home.

“They can put several different things in their trunk that represent the Menno­nites coming over to the south central Kansas area, specifically Goessel,” she said.

“They can put in a wheat head, which represents the Turkey Red Wheat, a little paper Bible, which represents the Men­nonite faith in God, a cloth block square that represents quilts or quilting, and a little clay zwieback.”

Nafziger explains the significance of the activities as a way of highlighting the local heritage.

“I describe what a zwieback is because not everybody knows it’s an ethnic food they would have had in their kitchen years ago—two balls of dough that were stacked on top of each other,” she said.

Nafziger has made small information cards that will help the kids think about what it would be like to leave their home, and what things they would need to pack in their trunk for the long journey.

Another project is to create what Nafziger calls a pioneer lunch tin.

“It’s an old tin can, and then we drill holes at the top and put a wire through it,” she said. “They’ll put a piece of fabric inside. My mom is going to make zwieback for all the kids, and we’ll have some funeral cheese from the grocery store at Goessel. They’ll pack their own little lunch and they can go eat it someplace on the grounds.”

A variety of craft projects will be offered inside the shed.

“We’re going to make paper-plate sunflowers,” she said. “We’re going to make little purses out of fabric, where they’ll do some simple sewing with a piece of yarn to make a little drawstring bag. Then they’ll get a penny, and they can go spend it on penny candy at the museum.”

Children can try to thresh wheat with a miniature threshing stone.

“We’ll have some wheat (heads) and they can roll that (stone) back and forth and kind of get the idea how wheat is removed from the hull,” she said.

“This year we’re going to add a wheat grinder and actually take some kernels of wheat and have the kids turn the crank to see if they can make it into flour.”

Kids also can make homemade fishing poles using a wooden branch, some string, a paper clip and a gummy worm for bait.

“They can go see if they can catch something in the creek or do something fun with it,” she said.

On hand annually are large, rectangular “grain tables.” One contains wheat, another corn, soybeans and milo.

“Kids can just play with toy tractors and scoops and funnels,” she said. “That’s really popular with the little ones. Preschoolers and toddlers stay in there for hours.”

Nafziger added, “I think parents forget that kids enjoy those kinds of things that are so simple, but it really keeps their attention. A lot of times, the kids want to stay when their parents are ready to go home.”

Each year, Uncle Milt’s Shed offers some kind of water-related activity to keep the kids cool as the temperature climbs.

“This year they’re going to wash dishes by hand,” she said. “We’ll have galvanized wash tubs, with water, some old tin dishes and some soap. They can just work on washing dishes and drying them with a towel.”

Still teaching

A former preschool teacher who has chosen to be a stay-at-home mom, Nafziger plans her activities with an eye toward education.

“I want to teach the kids about history—like Menno­nite history, agriculture, farming, threshing—all that kind of stuff,” she said. “Usually, I try to do something that might draw them to look around at the museum, or find something else on the property.”

Nafziger heads up the activity planning, but she said she gets a lot of help from others.

“I send out notes for church bulletins and say I need fabric and tin cans this year—can you save those types of things for me?” she said. “I have some ladies at Bethesda Home that I’ve asked to help me do some cutting of paper and fabric.”

Nafziger said she also appreciates the support from the museum board and the local engine club that host the weekend.

“I do ask volunteers to help out with staffing it over the weekend,” she said. “I’m wanting 19 volunteers to help with that. We have maybe six or seven people per shift, and they kind of space themselves throughout and work with these activities.”

“It’s a bunch of people who do little parts of it, and together we can make it all work.”

Uncle Milt?

For the curious, “Uncle Milt’s Shed” is named for Milt Reimer, a former longtime museum board member who donated a pole barn to be used for storage. Since 2002, the shed comes alive with children each Country Threshing Days—between 100 to 150 each year.

So, how long will Nafziger continue?

“I would love to pass it on, but I don’t know who to pass it on to, so I keep on doing it,” she said. “Everybody says, where do you get these ideas, and I say I don’t know.

“I usually keep some of the same ones from past years, but it’s different here each year and maybe I’ll add a couple of new ones,” she said.

“I think it has a good following. And it keeps parents on the Threshing Days grounds longer because there’s something for the kids to do.”

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