By Lauren Stepp
In 1978, Crystal Whitman’s fourth-grade teacher, Exie Wilde Henson, brought a Brazil nut to class. The nut was a token from Henson’s travels through the Amazon jungle, a wild and magical destination some 4,000 miles south of Rosman Elementary School, in Brevard.
As Whitman held the Brazil nut in her hand, she could hear the screeching call of macaws and smell the earthy scent of damp moss.
“I was transported to another world,” she says.
Decades later, when Whitman took a job at Rosman Elementary, she vowed to honor Henson’s legacy by stoking children’s imaginations. But rather than teach about far-flung places, Whitman wanted her students to learn about the ground beneath her feet. So, she tapped the Teaching Trunk Program.
Sponsored by the Transylvania Heritage Museum, the program allows K-12 teachers in Brevard and adjacent areas to borrow antique chests brimming with historical photos, maps, documents and artifacts. Each trunk is themed, offering lessons on topics like educational practices in the mountains and civil rights in North Carolina.
“Children learn better when they can touch and see history, not just read about it in a book,” says Rebecca Suddeth, museum curator.
According to Suddeth, the museum has long promoted hands-on learning through field trips to the Silvermont Mansion and the Allison-Deaver House. But when economic calamity struck during the 2008 recession, school budgets waned and in-person visits dwindled.
“The kids could no longer come to us, so we had to figure out how to bring the museum to them,” says Suddeth, who soon partnered with the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina to launch the outreach endeavor.
In the years since then, the roving trunks have traveled to dozens of classrooms, Whitman’s included.
“Many people say you can go places through books, and I totally agree with that,” says Whitman. “But I also agree that you can go places through objects.”
Whitman is most familiar with the “Touring Transylvania’s Economy” trunk, which investigates how generations of locals have eked out a living in these hills. The chest includes artifacts like coupon books from the Gloucester Lumber Company Store and postcards of one of the county’s 250 waterfalls.
As students explore the trunk, their goal is to determine what the items say about the local economy. A railroad spike, for instance, tells a story about the tracks that once brought tourists from Hendersonville to Lake Toxaway.
“You had very wealthy visitors coming here to escape the summer heat,” Suddeth explains. But when the Lake Toxaway dam burst during the catastrophic Flood of 1916, tourism faltered. “People had to reinvent themselves,” she says. “They had to take this bad situation and learn how to make it work.”
As Whitman notes, the Teaching Trunk Program helps students contextualize these historic highs and lows more than a textbook ever could.
“Times were tough back then,” she says. “But it’s important for students to be able to understand our little town’s past.”
For more information, visit TransylvaniaHeritage.org.
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