The students gathered around the museum display case and took turns trying on an authentic World War I helmet at the Wyoming Veterans Museum. Two historians explained how the U.S. military’s new helmets saved lives, though many veterans lived with wounds. The students watched an artist and her team sculpt masks for wounded soldiers in the exhibit’s video.
They learned about Anna Coleman Ladd’s work to create masks to cover the soldiers’ facial wounds and resemble their features. Then the kids tried their hands at making their own masks.
The six students visited the museum Saturday for the first Cowboy Future Historians meeting. The Wyoming State Historical Society and the Friends of the Wyoming Veterans Museum nonprofit started the program to spark kids’ interest in history, said Doug Cubbison, the museum’s curator and president of the historical society. The next free monthly meeting, geared for ages 12 to 15, is slated for Jan. 13.
The meetings focus on hands-on activities at museums and historic sites, rather than classes and lectures.
“They get enough of that in school,” Cubbison said. “So the intent is for them to learn about history, and at the same time enjoy themselves in a manner that the kids enjoy learning. That’s what we want to do, is show them history is fun.”
Robert Heward, 13, cut out the lower half of the thick paper mask to make a facial prosthetic like one he saw in the video. Then he mixed a light skin-toned color to match his own and began painting his mask.
“I kind of like the one from the video where it had his jaw gone,” Robert said. “So I’m just trying to mimic that a little bit.”
Robert has been helping at the museum to earn a Boy Scout badge, and because he enjoys military and war history, he said. That’s how he found out about Cowboy Future Historians.
One purpose of the program is to spark involvement in historical organizations, Cubbison said. Museums and historical societies, for example, need young volunteers as well as historians to portray what life was like in the past.
The Wyoming State Historical Society also started a similar program for young adults called Emerging Historians, Cubbison said. Its first chapter in Douglas with the Converse County Historical Society is drawing post-high school participants who can take on those roles.
“A lot of these historical groups are getting older, and they’re not attracting a lot of new membership,” he said. “We recognize that’s an issue, and we’re trying to come up with some programs that are successful in attracting young folks to our historical society and historical organizations.”
Saturday’s event was not just the first Future Historians meeting in Wyoming; it also was the start of a new educational series based on the current World War I exhibition at the Wyoming Veterans Museum. The series focuses on the cost of war – the service and sacrifice of veterans, Cubbison said.
The program is funded through a Natrona County Recreation Joint Powers Board grant and will add a new set of lessons for teachers, home-school families, scout leaders and others to download from the Wyoming State Historical Society website. The students on Saturday were the beta-testers, Cubbison said.
The Cowboy Future Historians is based on a program that Cubbison enjoyed while growing up in Pennsylvania. The activities at local historic sites and museums helped fuel his passion for history, he said. That program no longer exists, but other states including Texas and North Carolina offer similar options, he said.
Cubbison grew up with history in popular entertainment, including movies and radio shows. But history isn’t as much a part of young peoples’ lives today, he added.
“One of the concerns we have is that a lot of the youth today don’t get exposure to as much history and social studies,” Cubbison said. “We grew up with a strong sense of history, and we grew up with an interest in history and learning about history, literally from when we were kids. Unfortunately, a lot of children just don’t have that opportunity today, and this is an effort to try to bring that back.”
Fun and learning
Natrona County High School juniors Felicity Hall and Hannah Van Tassel tried on their masks Saturday to show each other their finished work. The friends had never heard of Anna Coleman Ladd and had fun learning about the work she performed for veterans after World War I.
“It’s really cool and historical, and they did a really good job of explaining what’s going on,” Hannah said.
The students also learned how tough it can be to match skin tones as they brushed paint and makeup over their masks. Some of the participants added eyebrows and mustaches with fake fur.
Fake beards could have covered some of the World War I veterans’ facial wounds, but it wasn’t the style at the time, historian Johanna Wickman told the students. Beards were in style during the Civil War, but young men by World War I considered the facial hair old-fashioned, she said. Next month’s meeting will feature demonstrations of military shaving when World War I soldiers were required to be clean-shaven with short hair.
The copper masks allowed the veterans to recreate their lives, walk down the street and hold down jobs without their wounds drawing attention, Cubbison told the group as they worked.
The participants also talked on Saturday about the new “Wonder Woman” movie set in World War I, which features a character with a mask like those many wounded veterans wore. Now, the students know a true story behind history referenced in the film, Wickman said.
Earlier in the session, the students learned about new military advancements of the time, like the first helmets U.S. troops wore. The gear gave protection from bullets and shrapnel, Cubbison explained.
The students also saw a first aid kit in the exhibition that U.S. troops carried for the first time. Advancements of the day also included trained medics who helped wounded soldiers survive injuries that would have killed soldiers in the Civil and Spanish American wars.
Micah Colling, 11, most enjoyed painting the mask most that day, he said. After he finished a lower face portion, he even painted the upper half.
Jefferson Colling, 12, added freckles on his mask to his to match his own. He enjoyed the activity too, though his favorite part was the video in the museum display case showing Anna Coleman Ladd and her team creating the masks, he said.
Their older brother, Jackson Colling, 14, said he thought a lot about what it would be like to be a wounded veteran wearing one of the masks as he painted.
The three brothers created the masks that day with their stepfather, Bob Ewings, who teaches social studies at Natrona County High School. Ewings and group also discussed how far prostheses have advanced since World War I to what’s now available for today’s injured troops. He enjoyed painting a mask of his own and watching the kids delve into a topic with real objects and tangible experiences, he said.
“The more hands-on and the more detail you can get,” Ewings said, “the better and the more chance the student can take something away from it and apply it to life today.”