“STATE YOUR NAME!” was barked at Dakota, who was sitting on a hay mattress in the jail at Fort Clinch. The Sergeant, as we were instructed to call him, was using a feather pen to write the thirteen names of my group on a pass to notify the gate keeper that we had permission to leave the fort. By this point Dakota did not question him and simply stated his name. We had just spent the day with the Sergeant, learning about life in 1864, from someone who was “living” in 1864. Part of that learning included a four-hour service project that consisted of cutting back the woody plants that kept the dirt walls of the fort from eroding. For this effort, we each received thirty-five cents in paper notes as our day’s wages.
The project required our group to clear an entire side of the fort, creating two mountainous piles of brush, thirty-feet wide by ten-feet high. The work was hard, sweaty, and demanding. The trees were dense and required a person with tools to cut, a person to remove the brush from the sloped wall, and a third person to carry it to the burn piles. While the Sergeant helped when he could, he was also responsible for bringing history alive to the constant stream of visitors at the fort. Seeing his dedication to preserving the fort and the limited available manpower inspired us to work even harder.
The only time the Sergeant came close to coming out of character the entire day was when, with tears in his eyes, he expressed his appreciation for the work that we had done. He shared that the responsibility of the fort was his alone and that although cutting back the brush only needed to be done every other year, he just could not seem to get to it anymore. The Sergeant was in his late 60s and the work was more physically demanding than he, wearing a woolen soldier's uniform, could do in the 98 degree weather. To express his gratitude, we were granted a behind-the-scenes tour of the entire fort and its history. He took us to every room, every building, and even let us “steal” candy from the general store because the “shop keeper had raised his prices again.” We hammered metal tools in the black smith’s shop, role played how a sick person was moved up and down the stairs (with teens as “patient and stretcher bearers”), and learned about louse racing and the role of washer women.
The Sergeant is a park ranger, and not the only one of his type. There are dedicated people all over the country that do what the Sergeant did for us - showing that history is more than just books, and that there was something that we, as teens, could do to help preserve it. During reflection that night, a teen shared, “We helped today by making it possible for the Sergeant to do a job that he otherwise had no way of doing. The fact that for the next two years he has one less thing to worry about is more important than we realize.”
This project was part of the CF66 Service-Learning Road Trip program, a series of six day service-learning road trips provided by the Camp Fire USA Sunshine Council in Florida. Each summer, middle- and high- school-age students travel the state, each day learning about the needs in a different community and completing a service project to address those issues.
Camp Fire USA, founded in 1910, is one of the nation’s leading youth development organizations. The organization serves thousands of boys and girls in hundreds of communities across America.