Every few minutes a gun shot would ring out along the Overmountain Victory Trail behind the Elkin Recreation Center as Frank McMahon demonstrated how to use a muzzle loader to fourth-graders getting a close-up look at hands-on history.
McMahon and his fellow exhibitor Greg Jones, who was at another of 17 stations set up for students to visit Friday portraying the role of a messenger during the Revolutionary War, traveled from Fort Dobbs State Historic Site in Statesville.
While many people may not know, Elkin was one of two major gathering points for the Overmountain Men, patriots who defeated Maj. Patrick Ferguson, British commander, at the battle at King’s Mountain, which was a major turning point in the American’s victory over the British during the Revolutionary War. The other gathering point was Abingdon, Virginia.
The Surry Muster Field, which is located at Elkin Municipal Park, is the trail head for the eastern leg of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail. From the muster field, the Surry County militia led by Maj. Joseph Winston marched into Wilkes County and met up with its militia leader Col. Benjamin Cleaveland. The two militias made up 350 patriots of the Overmountain Men.
The approximate 1,000 militiamen from the Overmountain region, which was east Tennessee and southwest Virginia, gathered with the 350 men from Surry and Wilkes counties on Sept. 30, 1780, at Quaker Meadows, near Morganton, which was the home of Col. Charles McDowell and his brother, Maj. Joseph McDowell, according to information on the Overmountain Victory Trail Association’s website.
Each year, members of the OVTA and exhibitors from Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina gather at Elkin Park to share with young students what life was like during the age of the Revolutionary War, for those at home and for those in the militia, explained Teresa Howell of Elkin Friday.
On Monday, eighth-graders from area schools will get their chance to get a hands-on history lesson.
Friday’s event included students from Bridges Academy, C.B. Eller Elementary School, Ronda Clingman Elementary School, Yadkin Valley Community School, Elkin Elementary School, Roaring River Elementary School, Traphill Elementary School and C-HIM (Christian Homeschoolers in the Mountains). They rotated to each of 17 exhibitor booths to learn about music and dancing, weaponry, marching, signing on as a Tory or Loyalist, cooking, primitive camping, wildlife, storytelling, spinning, games, cartridge making, pumpkin importance to the pioneers and the National Park Service.
John Slaughter, superintendent for the National Park Service’s park group including the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, Cowpens National Battlefield, Kings Mountain National Military Park, Ninety Six National Historic Site, was in attendance Friday, in his first chance to visit Elkin since taking on his role over all four parks in August of 2014.
Part of Friday’s events was Every Kind in a Park program, which kicked off in September, Slaughter said, as part of the 2016 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. “The goal is to reach every fourth-grader in America to expose them to the National Park Service or their public lands,” he said.
Each of the fourth-graders attending received a national public lands pass, which will get the children and their families into any National Park Service park or public land nationwide free of charge for a year. Slaughter said, while some parks have free entry, there are many with a fee for entry.
“More importantly, it gives the fourth-graders a personal connection. They’ll come in the park office and say they’ve got their pass, and that’s great they are excited about that,” Slaughter said. “Fourth grade is that key grade to do that because they are still in that home room atmosphere and learning American history, and more specifically Revolutionary War history.”
Education days are held all along the Overmountain Victory Trail each year, he explained. “This is the first year the National Park Service has had a presence at the eastern terminus of the trail.”
Slaughter said “the coolest” federal job is being part of the National Park Service and the best part of working for NPS is teaching and molding the lives of “the future stewards of our parks and trails.”
“For some of these kids, today is the day they will make the decision to work for the National Park Service,” he said. “This is also a way for us to connect with the community.”
The national historic trail is “entering into an agreement with the Yadkin River Greenway to make a master plan of the OVT. It is a collaboration with Elkin, Wilkesboro, the US Army Corps of Engineers at Kerr Scott Reservoir,” Slaughter explained of what will be the third segment of completing the OVT. Already completed are segments from Lenoir to Morganton and Morganton to Lake James, he said.
He said the key reasons for the projects are to “have long-term preservation of the trail and how the communities can leverage the trail for economic development.”
The project will include landowner research and giving the land owners a history of their property. Slaughter said he uses Elkin’s trail community as a model when he talks to other areas about how to connect the trails with the community and creating a system of trails.
“Heritage tourism and trail tourism are two of the top three segments of tourism in America, and the fastest growing,” said Slaughter, who noted that sports tourism is the third of the top three.
Friday’s educational event in Elkin on the OVT is unique, he said. “You’ve got the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service and the state Forest Service, it is so cool to see different government organizations come together.”
Whether it is a national park, state park or local park or public land, Slaughter said the theme of the 2016 100th anniversary is “Find Your Park.”
As far as Friday’s event goes, Howell said “They’ll remember this more than anything they learning in class. I remember my field trips still.”
She said the importance of the OVT should be remembered, because “we wouldn’t have our freedom today if they hadn’t defeated Major Ferguson at Kings Mountain.
“There are only 19 national historic trails, and for one to begin in Elkin is pretty special,” Howell said. “I want to see it to Kerr Scott Dam before I die, even if I’m in a wheelchair when they take me on it.”
Jennifer Furr, director of the Wilkes Heritage Museum, was one of Friday’s exhibitors. While she originally was supposed to help out with the cooking station doing corn grinding, Furr found a new destination at the quill station, where she taught students about how quill (feather) pens were made and then allowed the fourth-graders the opportunity to dip a quill in an ink bottle and sign their name as Tory or Loyalist before lining up to get a wooden gun they would rest on their shoulder at the weaponry drill station.
“I’ve been with the museum for 11 years. We had [OVT Day] at my site yesterday,” Furr explained. “It’s great for the kids because it’s hands-on experience and they learn more hands on. They are able to immerse themselves in a different time to see what life was like then compared to now.”
In addition to exhibitors, many of the stations had assistance from members of the Elkin High School Interact Club, with 15 of its members assisting Friday and another group of student volunteers expected Monday.
“I like it so far,” said club member Carla Martinez, who assisted Furr at the quill station. “I like helping the little kids and they learn a lot.”
Those running stations Friday included Becky Phillips, cooking station; Gordon Myers and Joe Hicks, drills; Jennifer Furr, quill; Kerry Maserik, carding and spinning wool; Greg Jones, messenger station; Lorraine Voelker, games; Frank McMahon, musket firing; Dennis Voelker, weapon usage; Buck Stewart, primitive camp; Park Ranger Scott Graham, pumpkin usage; Bob Myers of North Carolina Forest Service, wildlife; Dub Harris, Tory station; Mary Bohen, laundry and storytelling; R.G. Absher, Bob Kogut and Roberta Kogut, music; Bill Blackley, trail walk; Katherine Lynn, National Park Service trail talk.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.