Growing up in Louisa – Field Trips
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
A few weeks ago my wife and I were driving around Virginia in hopes of discovering something we either hadn’t seen before, or was worthy of rediscovery. Frankly, we didn’t care if it was a place, a road, a village, or some park of some kind. Signs along our path reminded us of a place we had seen years earlier when we had taken our young children there. We had been told by one of those now adult kids, that the site had added some new attractions over the years. On impulse and totally without hesitation, I turned our SUV toward Luray Caverns. We visited their new ‘Car and Carriage Museum,’ which displayed various vehicles including some that belonged to some famous people! I was very impressed by a Rolls Royce that had been owned by the silent film heart-throb, Rudolph Valentino. This grand chauffeur-driven coach had an outer skin akin to alligator, and was upholstered with a ‘snake-like’ fabric. It must have been a sight when hauling the rich and famous around Hollywood.
In the museum, we saw some early handmade wagons, vintage bicycles, a horse-drawn prairie schooner (covered wagon), a stage coach, a magnificent gilded royal coach, and a slew of horseless carriages. These included Stanley Steamers, Piece Arrows, Cords, early Mercedes, more vintage Rolls Royce models, and lots of other cars from the early twentieth century. The whole fleet were in like-new condition highly polished paint that threw off the reflections of neighboring displays and those of us that were reading the signs on display. There were attendants rushing all about with soft rags ever polishing and shining, ensuring the viewer would find no dust, fingerprint, or smudge.
Because we had already seen the caverns and had listened to the stalactite organ that was somewhere deep beneath our feet, and being senior citizens, the tour was without charge. What a joy! Further, our free ticket also allowed us to tour a small toy museum that had everything from the old tin spinning tops I remember seeing when a child, to Legos that we still keep for our grandkids to spill all over the floor. (Those feel really good when a bare foot steps on them!)
This all set my mind to thinking back about the cave that our class visited on a field trip so many years ago. Propaganda passed out in our schools had me believing that Kentucky Caves were the ‘best,’ but I admit they look pretty much the same when you’re down there. Our trip to Carter Cave is only dimly recalled, but there’s still a picture in my mind of the cave opening and some paths that led downward into a number of big rooms deep underground. I also remember seeing a deep pit, but can’t say if it was within the cave or near the opening.
A kid’s introduction to these caves and tunnels immediately conger up imaginations of tribes of American Indians, (or River pirates) hiding there in safety from posse’s, or armies. I half-way expected to stumble upon an inhabited camp, or some clear sign of others being there before me. A little spooked from the dark and shadows, I tried to stay alert less someone or some animal might jump out from the rock formations and take my life. Underground rivers, deep holes, and steep cliffs where also a threat, so my heart raced. I remember several steep descents and inclines that made me want to scoot more than walk.
In those earlier days the lighting wasn’t real great, but I do remember seeing many large rooms with stalactites, stalagmites, and multiple-colored walls. Some rock formations seemed taller than skyscrapers I had seen and were of a rough marbled texture. They were likely limestone or sandstone. I could not help but look around for signs of minerals such as gold or diamonds. I never spotted any, but I did see a sparkle two, perhaps from something wet. A teacher or guide said the cave was full of various minerals but they had little value and were common throughout the cave. My general memories are like the pictures I found posted on the web when I tried to confirm and reinforce my memories for this article. Since the time of this school-sponsored visit, the caves have been much further developed into a tourist destination, with state park designation that includes all kinds of activities such as fishing, golfing, hiking, etc. Back on the field trip, I think we ate a picnic lunch, but maybe that was another time or place. Someone with a better memory can tell us.
I remember clearly in school when a teacher told our class about some kids discovering Mammoth Cave. Just the mention of such a place caused my mind to race with more romantic thoughts of mysteries of the past. One story was that the early explorers of the cave had found the body of an Indian girl who was just in her teens when she had fallen through a hole on the surface into the dark, cold and damp recesses of the cave. Whether she died on impact or of starvation wasn’t known. That was scary to think about. I worried about how her family must have suffered not knowing where she had gone. Like Virginia Wiley, hunting parties were prone to take captives. Throughout history caves and overhangs have been favorite places to bury the dead. Whether one was brought there to rest, or whether they died can be hard to tell. People lived in the first room or so of caves. Some out west, or in Europe, have drawings and carvings that give evidence that man had been there in the past.
When I was in school Kentucky boasted that Mammoth Cave was the largest in the country. First found by accident, organized spelunkers are still finding rooms and connections to other known cave systems, but they now generally understand it’s extent. The honor for biggest may have changed since discovery and exploration of the Carlsbad system in New Mexico. I have read that this system is also very long and still not fully mapped. Some of the fingers within this system goes very deep underground. I don’t want to get into an argument about the importance of size since nearly most any caverns are worth visiting and seeing. As a field trip for a bunch of kids back in the days of my schooling, it was an exciting new experience.
Later, I was remined of those sights when I first saw the movie, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” I’m not sure where the movie was filmed, but it looked a lot like what I recalled from my Carter Cave experience. Luray Caverns looks much the same, but has a few features I hadn’t recalled from Carter Cave, such as the stalactite organ. It was a pretty sound in the dead quiet surroundings so far underground. They actually have an elevator that takes you down to the system so you don’t have to climb. The beauty of these underground creations cannot be disputed or overstated.
That field trip was one of several my class took during my schooling. They were meant for their educational value that would help us little munchkins see and understand the wonders of the world. I cannot help but lump any trip out of town as a kind of ‘field trip.’ Maybe that’s a stretch, but if I can’t include a few sports competitions and scholastic events, the numbers drop significantly. All trips we had were a break from the classrooms and welcomed as a break from our regular studies. When given advanced notice of an upcoming trip I grew excited as the date grew closer.
As a kind of field trip, I attended a number of band camps at Morehead State every year. Some of those trips were for competitions and some were for musical education and training, or just plain music appreciation. I know I was exposed to new kinds of music and a broadening of my cultural understanding. We also marched in several parades, including an inaugural parade in Frankfort (mentioned in other articles), but I doubt we learned much on that trip beyond how to survive in frigid weather. As I stated earlier, many of us also followed our sports teams around to Raceland, Paintsville, Grayson, and other places, but these weren’t true ‘field trips.’ I remember once, when School Superintendent William A. Cheek took our little league baseball group to see a major-league ballgame in Cincinnati. As it happened, we drove from before sunrise to roughly midday to get there, but upon arrival inside the old Crossly Field Stadium we were told the game was rained out. Well, the trip was fun, anyway!
I also remember times when our whole student body was marched downtown to the Garden Theater to see a movie. They were special showings set up by Mrs. Cain, just for us kids. I’m guessing that the school system must have purchased the tickets because I don’t think we had to pay. We went straight in and got a seat. I remember one time when we had prior warning that the movie was to be very long, requiring it to have an intermission. I had brought some change so I could get popcorn during the break. Frankly, I remember it was good to stand up after around two hours for just the first half.
We were also warned to behave. I think we did behave because we found the movie was very dramatic and interesting. One movie we saw was the “Ten Commandments,” with Charlton Hesston playing as Moses. He sure looked the role with his grey hair and fierce expression. I remember that his hair changed to a lighter color when he was given the stone tablets that had the ten commandments God had written with His hand. Moses brought them down the mountain and saw the Hebrew children worshipping a golden calf. Not good!
We had been shown movies nearly every year during our schooling, but this was one that was special because it brought to life my Sunday School lessons. Of course, so much has changed since then. I doubt that schools would be allowed show this movie today. Somehow, it isn’t constitutional for kids to learn about God today. I can’t remember which of the other films we saw, but because of the care taken by Mr. Bill Cheek, they were kinds that helped develop our character. We learned to apply the morals we learned from these films to our lives. It speaks well of the strong characters graduating from our school system.
Field trips today are often to museums, parks, historical places, and even different kinds of industrial settings. Today, here in Virginia, I live within a mile of several nationally known museums. In fact, a wonderful park is closer than that. When I lived in Louisa, there were few sites we could visit close-by. There was a power plant, several mines, and nearby railway yards. These sites were generally unsafe for kids, so the buses stayed away. As a home-school parent, my wife and I took our kids to see a papermill, to Washington, DC, West Point, Florida Keys, and several trips to Dollywood. They enjoyed those field trips, and are better adults because of them.
Today, with new highways and better modes of transportation, kids can enjoy places that are much further away and include major tourist sites such as Washington, DC, or New York City. Those were well beyond our dreams back in my day. They were not only cost prohibitive, but would have been very difficult to pull off given the conditions of the roads in those early days. Today, some wealthier school districts can help fund trips to far away sites like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Hollywood, and even trips or cruises in the Caribbean. There’s no question that there are wide differences between what some communities can afford as compared to others. My experience with field trips were few, but those were appreciated and added to my appreciation for those learning opportunities.
In any case, field trips served to broaden our knowledge base and expose us to a variety of places, people, and perspectives. They were different than sitting in a classroom under the tutorage of a teacher. While books are good and travel films help, there is nothing better than being there. Seeing the world for ourselves, and talking with those who have first-hand knowledge of other places and events, help us see and understand the perspective of others. Without exposure to different ways of working, or living, our world focus will remain narrow. Kids are constantly learning and seeking answers, so this is the time they need that exposure. I believe in field trips when there are means to make them happen. Regimented schooling can be very restrictive with a tendency to regiment dress and thought.
Personally, I don’t think kids should be turned out as robots relegated to ranks of sameness, but instead they should become their own persons, capable of mature understanding of diverse environments. Peer pressures are difficult enough for kids. This is more true for those weak in understanding. Field trips enrich our lives, help us bond with each other, and broaden our outlooks. I think we were far better off because of these occasional ‘breaks’ from everyday schoolwork.