Little Day Camp on the Prairie

For my best friend and me, growing up in the ’90s, it wasn’t enough for us to just read about Kirsten Larson, the American Girl, and Little House on the Prairie books. 

We wanted to live it! 

So, in the summers, we dressed up in calico dresses and checkered sunbonnets sewn by our mothers and headed to camp at Minnesota Pioneer Park, a living history village in Annandale, about an hour northwest of Minneapolis. 

We wrote on slates in the one-room schoolhouse, played in a sod house, churned butter and sewed quilt squares in a real log cabin. 

Even now, more than 20 years later, the smell of bacon frying in a cast iron skillet still sparks happy memories for me as I think of the cabin’s wood stove, crackling in the heat of July.

Today a new generation is busy building memories at Pioneer Park’s day camps, held on select summer Wednesdays. 

Volunteer camp coordinator Cheryl Antl has been guiding children ages 6 to 13 through authentic pioneer experiences for more than a decade. 

I visited Pioneer Park last summer and witnessed her in action with a group of day campers. 

First, she finished up a lesson in the camp’s one-room schoolhouse. Then, after letting the kids race each other once around the schoolhouse, she rounded them up to head back to the camp’s log cabin for lunch. 

The absence of air conditioning on a sunny, 88-degree July afternoon was even more oppressive than I’d remembered it, but it didn’t deter the day’s six campers who were eager for an authentic historical experience. 

Photo by Abbie Burgess

A pioneer education

Antl runs the day camp for groups of up to 10 children with the help of one or two teenage helpers, usually former campers themselves. 

“In the pioneer days, they had conversation at mealtimes. So let’s have a discussion,” Antl instructed while passing plates of baking powder biscuits, hand-churned butter, sliced ham, strawberries and carrots around the table. 

An innocent conversation about the children’s pets turned into a count of how many wild animals their dogs and cats had caught. 

Maybe, I thought, the tough realities of life aren’t so different, after all, for pioneer kids and kids of today?

The children were surprisingly well-behaved. They seemed to grasp the responsibility of the demands of pioneer life. In fact, parents might be surprised by one of the pioneer experiences the campers joyfully embraced: Chores! 

Photo by Abbie Burgess

“Most of these kids have never washed a dish by hand,” Antl said. “These are really simple things, but they love doing it.” 

Indeed, not a whisper of complaint escaped any of the kids when it came time to wipe down the table or, later, carry heavy buckets of water. 

“I think that looks good,” said 9-year-old Nora Ausman, as she swept a wood floor, having redone a spot she’d missed in her initial rush to complete the job. 

With chores completed, the campers gathered around a metal washtub in the yard to try out cleaning clothes on a washboard. 

After that, they were ready to take a tour of the re-created main street of Pioneer Park, which includes many of park’s 24 buildings furnished with artifacts to showcase life in the 1800s.

Donated antiques add authenticity at every turn, including vintage seed packets in the General Store and blue-and-white checked voting booth curtains in the City Hall. 

A smell, that can be described only as “old,” emanates from the buildings, mingling with the fresh country air, pouring in from open windows and doors. 

The campers were most excited to see the jail cells, and argued over who would get to play the sheriff. 

Nora was eager to take on the role, and pointed out that — in pioneer days — women unfairly didn’t get to be sheriffs, and they also couldn’t vote. 

Nora attended the day camp with her sisters, Aleigha, 11, and Kaitlyn, 6. 

Making pioneer camp a family affair was the way to go for Stacy Engel’s kids, too.

She brought her daughters, Josie and Elizabeth, who are homeschooled, and her two nieces. 

Engel said the authentic schoolhouse was one of her daughters’ favorite buildings in the park, along with the Finnish church and the 1902 farmhouse. 

Hanging the wash on the line at Pioneer Park day camp. Photo by Abbie Burgess

Living history

Pioneer Park was created in 1972 as a nonprofit educational museum, with historical buildings that date back as far as 1884. Furnishings include pioneer-style dishes on the shelves and animal pelts hanging from the walls. It’s all very realistic — and quite rustic. 

And attendees of day camp are plunged into this lifestyle, with limited access to the camp’s lone modern building. 

Parents can get in on the fun, too, with a self-guided tour — or, more likely, a child-led tour — when it’s time for pickup after camp. 

In the barn, Ivan, 12, and his sister, Reece, 7, demonstrated how to use a hand-operated corn-sheller machine. 

“That was fun: I want to do more!” he said, adding that he wished he could have such a machine at home. 

His mother, Laura Hartkopf of Maple Lake, is also interested in history. So when she found the day camp listed in a community-ed bulletin, she knew it would be a natural fit. In fact, it was such a good fit that 2016 marked her son’s fourth year of attending the camp. 

Now in seventh grade, Ivan’s one of the oldest campers. 

“I like the hands-on experience,” he said.

Other history camps 

Pioneer Park isn’t the only historical day camp for Minnesota kids. Closer to the Twin Cities, Fort Snelling and Gibbs Farm, both in St. Paul and The Landing, in Shakopee, all offer immersive historical experiences, including some for kids as young as 4. 

Claire Davis once attended a variety of historical day camp programs at the Gibbs Farm in St. Paul. 

Now 16 and a junior in high school, she dons a long dress and apron again as an intern at Gibbs Farm, helping young campers make corn-husk dolls, perform skits and try on the schoolhouse dunce cap. 

“Dressing up is the best part,” said Davis, whose favorite camp theme is Victorian Days. 

“A lot of the campers dress up, too, and it’s so cute.”

Davis began expressing interest in history after reading the Little House and American Girl book series. Her mom found the Gibbs Farm for her daughters to attend when Claire was 7 and her sister, Emma, was 4. After Claire graduated from camper eligibility in sixth grade, she still returned each year to serve as an intern. 

She enjoys the authentic farm setting, complete with garden crops and animals. 

“It’s a place where you’re in the middle of prairie grasses and you forget you’re in St. Paul,” she said. 

Davis’ mother, Cara Bailey of St. Paul, pointed out that Gibbs Farm incorporates learning about the Dakota people and their language, not just the European settlers. 

“The value,” she said, “is in giving them a chance to participate in living history in the place where they live.”  

Davis said the kids learn by doing. 

“It’s real; it’s not like school,” she said. “History is fun.” 

The day-camp experience has made such an impact on Davis that she hopes to minor in history when she goes to college. 

Her plans also include returning to Gibbs Farm to volunteer in the summers, helping a new generation of children build memories of wood smoke (and, perhaps, frying bacon) that will last for decades to come.

Abbie Burgess is a Twin Cities freelance writer and lifestyle blogger at

Photo by Abbie Burgess

History Camps

Historical re-enactment camps immerse kids in a different era, allowing them to see it firsthand — not sketched out in the pages of a history book or school text.

And, remember: History camp fees may even be tax deductible because of their educational nature. (See our Grows on Trees column of this issue for details.)

Help your kids find their own Little Day Camp on the Prairie experiences at these Minnesota sites:

Fort Snelling – St. Paul

Little House in the Big Fort Day Camp — inspired by the Little House series — caters to ages 7–11. Day camps run for four days from 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Dates not sold out at press time included July 11–14, July 25–28 and Aug. 8–11. Cost is $250 per camper. Learn more about other Minnesota Historical Society sites at

Gibbs Farm – St. Paul

Summer day-camp programs for ages 4–13 are offered through the Ramsey County Historical Society. Choose from Pioneer PeeWees for ages 4–5, Pioneer Kid for ages 6–10, Gibbs Girl for girls ages 6–10 and Digging History for ages 11–13. All camps run from 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Tuesdays–Thursdays and cost $99, except for Pioneer PeeWees, held from 9:30–11:30 a.m. on select Wednesdays at a cost of $19.

The Landing – Shakopee 

Many day camps with a historical focus are offered through the Three Rivers Park District, including Little House on the River Camp for kids ages 6–12, Civil War Camp for ages 10–15, Adventures of Tom Sawyer Camp for ages 6–12 and Advanced Little House on the River Camp for ages 10–15. Camps, which cost $160, are held from 9:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays.

Pioneer Park – Annandale

One-day camps for ages 6–13 give kids a chance to experience the daily life of a pioneer farm child. Offered from 9 a.m.–3 p.m. on select summer Wednesdays — June 21, 28; July 5, 12, 19; August 2, 9, 16) — camps cost $43 per child and includes two snacks, water and lunch.