BRADBERRY: Ready or not, here they come

The whole City of Niagara Falls, New York suddenly changes once the “season” starts, and kids are out of school for summer vacation — it’s interesting to watch as families begin to arrive here by mid-May when school districts around the country start shutting down for the season while we prepare for the next one-hundred days of entertaining them.

I just happened to be standing in the lobby at the new train station on Main Street a few days ago after a meeting with staff and consultants who have been working feverishly to complete the final design plans for the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, scheduled to open next March 10, 2018 Harriet Tubman Day.

While casually explaining to a group of three or four Homeland Security officers who patrol the border out of their headquarters on the second floor of the Old Custom House above the Underground Railroad Center, that the Underground Railroad was not actually a train, I noticed a young couple with a little boy, probably about 6 or 7 years old, walking toward the entrance to the Center.

The boy was holding a copy of a Junior Rangers book; he was headed straight for the door, determined to get in, whether we were ready or not.

When I asked, “Can I help you?” the lad, prompted by his mother who asked him, “Why are we here?” replied, “To visit the Underground Railroad!”

I explained to his parents that the center is not quite open yet.

“Ok, we can wait. What time should we come back?”, they asked. “We plan to open next year,” I replied.

Dad, an “assistant fire chief”, and mom, a stay at home mother who home schools their only child, visiting from West Virginia, had stopped at the Visitor Center downtown, discovered the Junior Ranger booklet on the racks there and made their way across town to find us.

There was no way under the sun that I was going to disappoint them; I invited them to take a personalized tour of the unfinished center with me.

I explained that we were just breaking for lunch, that the space is still being developed but that the artists sketches, drawings, engineering renderings and technical wiring, lighting charts hanging on the exposed brick 1863 walls will eventually tell the story of Niagara’s role in the Underground Railroad.

We strolled through the center for about a half hour, stopping at each rendering to discuss its relevance.

To my utter surprise, the youngster already knew much of the history of the Underground Railroad. His mom said that his major project for the school year that he’d just completed was on “Black History”

This little kid not only knows his stuff, he’s articulate with an attitude, knows how to verbally punctuate his sentences with superior confidence and has the wisdom of a much older spirit.

I was stunned and amazed by his enthusiasm; floored by his parent’s dedication to making learning fun.

Which brings me to my point.

Beginning later this summer, a small but potentially huge archeology project will begin to emerge at the site of the famous Cataract House Hotel, across from the also famous Red Coach Inn, close to the rapids at Niagara Falls.

Led by Douglas J. Perrelli, Ph. D., RPA, director, Archaeological Survey, clinical assistant professor of Anthropology, University at Buffalo and supported by research conducted by Judith Wellman, Ph.D., director Historical New York Research Associates, Professor Emerita, SUNY Oswego, and Karolyn Smardz Frost, Ph.D., archaeologist, historian and award-winning author, who teaches at York and Acadia in Canada.

Her latest work, “Steal Away Home,” opens with a dramatic escape from the Cataract House, and follows Cecelia Reynolds through her enslaved childhood to her death as a free woman.

Frost’s book, “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land” won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction in 2007. She co-edited “A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland,” which won the Historical Society of Michigan Book Award.

Together, this award-winning team has launched an exhaustive archeological investigation into the grounds that once hosted one of the most lavish, luxuriously appointed hotels in America during the 1800s.

Coincidentally, the Cataract House was also one of the most important Underground Railroad sites in Western New York and beyond.

The team will be looking for a few good students like the young ball of energy I met at the train station.

Perrelli has already arranged to bring several of his university students to work at the site, but he, Wellman and Frost are encouraging local elementary and high school students to get their hands dirty with them this summer.

And that’s not the only program looking for a few good kids who are looking for a lot more than water parks; there are several more that offer much more than fun, students can actually earn and learn at the same time. Another groups, MAPScorps is enlisting kids to help map out the city’s social assets with an eye toward better connecting them to render better, more efficient services to those who most need them.

As a youngster, I could barely wait for summer to get here; it marked the end of a long hard school year and the beginning of the fun season, time to relax, play in the parks and travel with the family.

And when I was old enough to work outside of the house, summer also meant money. Just about everyone I knew had a summer job of some sort.

Back then most of the kids in my neighborhood got jobs in the parks and recreation departments, or through programs funded by the state or federal government to do real work in the community.

Others got jobs in family businesses or in the downtown shopping and tourist districts. Yes, believe it or not, there were actually family-owned stores and other businesses downtown, and as hard as it may be to conceive it today, young people worked on Old Falls Street, Main Street, Third Street and all over town.

Those were the days ...

My first job was at home. My parents, as I’ve said before, believed in teaching their children the value of the dollar, and one of the most important lessons they taught us about money was that you had to earn it, and that meant that we had to work.

Outside of the house, besides shoveling snow, mowing lawns and babysitting, I got my first real job at the American Way, the grocery store where my parents bought everything wholesale, the most affordable way to feed eight children aside from growing your own, which Dad did every year in the sprawling back yard.

That backyard garden, or farm as I used to call it, was my first real full-time summer job. There was always something to do out there; planting, pulling weeds, watering, fertilizing, harvesting, you name it.

Just like on a farm, work in the garden began at the crack of dawn and could last all day, there was always something to do. Of course, we never got paid for that work, instead we ate the produce which included the most delicious tomatoes I have ever tasted, sweet orange carrots, deep green cabbage, dark red beets, and all the cucumbers and radishes we could eat, and eat we did.

Watching so many of the young ones today as they rediscover the city, it is a little disappointing to me that most of them will not be able to share the same experiences I had when I was growing up here

Most of the neighborhood parks are gone, as are some of the neighborhoods, some of those that remain do not have the kinds of programs that we enjoyed as kids. Gone for the most part are the organized events, the field trips, sports and training that we had back in the day.

And as for jobs downtown and in the tourist district? Well, there’s not much of that left either, it’s hard enough for adults, let alone summer kids to find work as it is.

Yet, there is hope on the horizon.

Things sure ain’t what they used to be; a healthy economy creates opportunities for everyone, including the youngsters, but summer is summer, and sometimes we have to create opportunities where they don’t seem to exist, as my folks say, “Make a way out of no way”.

This year, some young men and women will see a need and fill it within the tourist district; they will realize that some of those eight million or more people who will find their way here to Niagara Falls, New York might just be looking for something that they might just happen to have to offer.

I invited the youngster and his family to come back again next year.

“We’ll be back!,” they promised.

We may just have the perfect summer job for him and others as a tour guide at the falls or as a docent here at the Underground Railroad Heritage Center in Niagara Falls New York!

Looking for work? Come on down!

Contact Bill at [email protected]

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