Frances Cortez-Stokes
Hot Springs Elementary School
1609 University Ave.
Hot Springs, South Dakota 57747

Just when we thought we smelled spring in the air we got socked with a mighty blizzard. Seven inches of heavy, wet snow is on the ground and more falling as I write this. We’ve had quite a winter. But...a winter such as this brings wonderful discussions into the classroom of winters past and how the Native Americans survived conditions such as these. It stirs questions about the early settlers and the hardships they endured, warming themselves over buffalo chip fires and sometimes nearly starving by spring.

We started our rag rugs in our studies about the Westward Movement. We studied the travels westward by each child putting themselves in the shoes of an early pioneer child. They wrote about their life as we studied this period in time and at the end they illustrated their writings and bound them as a keepsake.

Some of the things we did are:

a. We took a field trip to the Badlands of S.D., where they were able to actually see and inspect for themselves, sod houses which are still standing from so long ago. Then we came home and experimented for ourselves the building of a tiny sod structure.
b. Made rag rugs and a classroom quilt from colorful scraps of material.
c. Made lye soap by saving grease drippings from home and following an old-time recipe.
d. Dipped candles made from melted bees’ wax.
e. Made jelly and dried fruit.
f. Started a sour dough sponge (each child brought a glass container and 1/2 cup of flour. We set the sponge and within a week each child had a sour dough starter to take home. We then put together a little recipe book which had about 20 recipes...sourdough pancakes, biscuits, etc.
g. We researched games that the pioneer children played and then spent time learning and playing them at recess.
h. We took field trips to Wind Cave and Custer State Park (right outside of town). We studied the prairie and listened to the rangers tell us how the prairie is different today from its state in the 1800s.
i. We researched what animals were here then and what animals are here now and why the changes have taken place.
j. We also studied the impact of the white settlers on the Native Americans (culturally and otherwise) by interviewing elders of the Lakota who live in or near our community.
k. We visited Crazy Horse Monument. There is a wonderful Indian museum there.
l. We learned songs and dances of the time period.
m. We culminated this unit by a huge supper for all the children and their families. Every family brought a dish to share but the food they brought had to be food that pioneer families could have had. Therefore, there could be no Jell-o salads, no Kool-whip, spaghetti, lasagna, etc.

In the past we have actually had rabbit stew, meat dishes with wild meats such as venison, antelope, bear, and moose, and cooked greens such as dandelions and watercress salads. We have had wonderful breads and biscuits, home-churned butter and jelly and butters made from native wild berries.

Drinks were milk, coffee, and strawberry leaf tea.

Games after the supper included square dancing, singing, and several cake walks with music by our banjo-playing principal.

We displayed some of our bound books, maps, sod structures, and some children gave short presentations on our trips and what we had learned.

We had an absolutely wonderful time with this!

People, Prairies, and Plains Institute has been a very rewarding experience for me and for my students. I am adding things I gleaned from this Institute as I find places in the curriculum which need to be enhanced.

I think an important obligation I have is to excite other educators and to help them bring environmental history into their lesson plans.


Soap Making

Frances Cortez-Stokes

Introduction: Soapmaking was a regular chore that all pioneer women did regularly. Lye was made from the wood ashes and grease was saved and strained for the soapmaking.

Connection to Curriculum: Everything was recycled in the early days although they didn’t know the term “recycle.” Children learn what soap was made from and how it was made. They also learn how it was used on laundry days. Math is incorporated through careful measuring. The children will also learn that later on various oils were used for scenting the soap.

Materials: 1 can lye
2 1/2 qt. grease (6 lb.)
1/2 cup ammonia
4 Tbsp. Borax

Dissolve lye in water. Stir until dissolved, then let set until lukewarm. Have grease melted and strained. Put melted grease in lye solution, stirring constantly. Add ammonia and Borax. Stir until thick and pour into a box or pan lined with a damp cloth. (The pan should not be an aluminum pan. I use an old enamel cake pan.) When cool, cut into bars and let set 3 or 4 days.

Lysol may be added if you wish to make soap a disinfectant. Use 1 teaspoon Lysol.

In this project the children may help prepare the pan, bring the grease and strain it, but the teacher has to do the adding and stirring of the lye as it is caustic.

We discuss how, in the days of the pioneers they made their lye out of wood ashes and today we shorten the process by buying Lye.

The homemade soap is lovely and white and very usable. If you shave some into your washing machine when you have very soiled work clothes you will be pleasantly surprised at how clean and fresh they come out. I would never use the soap on fine things, however.

Time: One class period.

Procedure: Included with recipe.

Assessment: The end result is that each student gets to take home a small bar of homemade soap.

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