IT'S HARD for kids to imagine life long ago -- without cars, electricity or TVs. Somehow pictures in history books don't make things real enough for kids to experience the past. But Williamsburg is too long a drive for just the day, and Mount Vernon is too roped off for the feel-me/touch-me school of learning.
Instead, the perfect spot for our family has proved to be Rose Hill Manor in Frederick, Md., a children's museum with a hands-on approach to history. Here costumed guides gave us more than a peek at 18th- and 19th-century living -- they made the past come alive by demonstrating everything from broom-making to candle-dipping while we toured the 1790s Georgian-style manor house.
Rose Hill sits on 43 acres once owned by Maryland's first governor, Thomas Johnson. He gave it to his daughter Anne Jennings Johnson as a wedding present. (Rumor has it that she was forced to sell the estate to pay off her husband's gambling debts.)
"Please touch" is the motto of the manor's first floor, which is filled with over 300 items. In the place of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the playroom is stocked with toys of yesteryear. Children can ride on an antique rocking horse, pull up a chair and have a tea party with a stoneware tea set, sit at an old fashion school desk, challenge someone to a game of corncob checkers or sift through a trunk overflowing with antique dress-up clothes (sorry, no neon). My 7-year-old and 5-year-old spent all their time playing with the iron bank collection and a wooden toy using marbles.
The dining room is used to demonstrate how clothing was made -- from the shearing of sheep to weaving to sweater knitting. But rather than just looking at the spinning wheel and loom, visitors can add a stitch to a quilt, card wool, spin the spinning wheel and work the loom.
The kitchen on the main floor contains an array of gadgets that are a tribute to the ingenuity of the 19th century. On display are cherry pitters, sausage stuffers, cabbage slicers, a cream separator and even a food processor, all operational without electricity. Of course all the children were drawn to the noisiest piece of equipment: the food chopper, forerunner of the Cuisinart.
When our tour group left the interactive part of the museum and headed for the second floor, our children chose to stay and play in the toy room. This was a welcome pleasure for the parents, since now we didn't have to referee our children and could listen uninterrupted to the guide's description of the furnishings in the master bedroom, children's room and domestic quarters.
After completing the tour of the manor, we all headed for the carriage museum. Although there's no touching allowed, this proved to be one of the highlights of our visit. This building houses more than 25 beautifully restored carriages and sleighs. Our guide, Barbara Howard, pointed out the pony cart that was used by children for "drivers ed." There are sporty convertible-type carriages for single types and a family carriage pulled by four horses that was the 19th-century version of the mini van.
Once the formal part of the tour was over we were free to wander around the courtyard. Here we viewed another pre-electricity innovation -- the icehouse. Set in the ground for maximum insulation, the icehouse was designed to keep ice that was harvested in winter solid through the summer months. Also on the grounds is a blacksmith shop, a summer kitchen and a log cabin.
And life would not have been complete without a garden and orchard. Both are still maintained and produce a large variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables that were once eaten for food and used for medicinal purposes.
Although Rose Hill Manor doesn't have the breathtaking views of Mount Vernon (the house looks out on Frederick High School), it's a good place for both young and old to travel back to the past.
ROSE HILL MANOR -- 1611 North Market St., Frederick. 301/694-1648. Take I-270 to U.S. 15 north and Exit 8 to Frederick. Turn left onto Motter Avenue, left again on 14th Street and left onto North Market Street. Rose Hill Manor is on the left. Open 10 to 4 Saturdays and 1 to 4 Sundays in November, December and March. Reopens in April with hours 10 to 4 daily (Sunday 1 to 4). Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for children (free for Frederick County children) and ages 65 and over.
DEC. 8 -- A Child's Christmas. From 10 to 2 the holiday-decorated manor is open free of charge and children's activities are offered.
DEC. 9 -- Holiday Open House. From 1 to 4 the manor hosts craft demonstrations and other activities geared for families. Free.
Alice Rindler Shapin last wrote for Weekend about renting limousines.