Caroline Schoonover Manages Historic Farm, Leads as Activist

by Ash Bruxvoort

You have a pretty interesting job managing a historic farm at Living History Farms. How did you end up in that role?

I started volunteering at Living History Farms with my mom and sister when I was 10-12. My best friend volunteered there and it seemed like the coolest thing ever. I was already really into history, the Oregon trail, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read a lot and wanted to do the things I read about and it was fun to do it. When I was in graduate school I applied for a job there because I wanted to be in a museum and not academia. There was a job in the gift shop and I worked there for two years. I was honest with my boss and told them I wanted to do interpretation, which I eventually started doing.

Now I manage a farm that’s set near 1850 in period clothing. The management of that farm entails taking care of livestock, managing annual butchering and livestock sales a couple times a year, and then I also maintain the garden and the household because I am the domestic supervisor.

What is the experience of being a modern woman working as a domestic supervisor like?

It’s something that I never thought about as being a weird thing until very recently. It’s interesting to see how visitors react to the work that I do in the house and outside of the house. The work that’s done inside the house is pretty regularly belittled. The work that’s done outside of the house I’m questioned if I’m the appropriate person to do the work. I was out hauling corn while my male coworker was in the barn and a guest gave him a hard time for not helping me. He said, “Trust me, she’s a very capable woman.”

I usually say farm work is something that everyone needs to know how to do. If something happens to somebody there isn’t really a manual you can just look at and understand. In 1850 especially, if something were to happen to your husband there is no way a woman could survive if she wasn’t knowledgeable and out there helping.

What made you decide to come to the learning circle and how did you learn about it?

I was looking at the PFI website researching their Labor4Learning program and when I saw the learning circle. I liked that it would be very introductory and the fact that it was for women was appealing. Farming is intimidating especially if you’re trying to learn from someone who isn’t understanding of your knowledge or the way they talk to you.

What was your main takeaway from the day? What did you like most?

Importance of having a community that could help them. None of the women would have been successful without that.

Do you have a long term farm dream?

I really enjoy textiles and fiber sheep. I’ve been spinning like crazy at work because we’re going to dye yarn soon. Sheep are very annoying animals but I’m not scared of them.

What is one resource you would recommend to all women working sustainable ag?

My Antonia. That book really stuck with me and made me think a lot about what I do at work and a woman’s role in the farm and community building and sustaining.

Everyone should study more agricultural history because it’ll inform your work in agriculture now so much more.