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“Is Miss Foster Receiving?”

“Louise Scribner, you were one of Miss Foster’s best friends and a member of the wealthy Scribner family of publishing fame. Miss Nina Howland, you were the belle of Morristown and helped found the Morris Country Golf Club, one of the few golf clubs in the country founded by women. Mr. Marshall Mills, you were Miss Foster’s “beau,” but her father never allowed you to marry her. Mr. Revere, you were a great-grandson of Paul Revere, the Massachusetts patriot, and son of General Joseph Revere, builder of this house. I’m sure you’ll remember the house — you grew up here.”

These are a few of the introductions our guides use at Fosterfields Living Historical Farm in Morristown, New Jersey, to educate our visitors to the life and times of benefactress Miss Caroline Foster. Fosterfields is a living historical farm, the first to be so designated in New Jersey. It reflects both the farming practices of the 1900 era as well as the social standards of the time. Visitors to the Foster home — The Willows —which is on the property, get a ‘visitation card’ as their ticket to the house. On the front of each visitation card is the name of one of Miss Foster’s actual friends from the Morristown community in 1900. On the back of the card is a brief biography of that person. Thus, visitors get an understanding of Victorian social ritual of visitation and a better feel for the local community and friends of the Foster family at the turn of the century.

Miss Caroline Foster was a colorful figure in Morristown during her lifetime. She lived and worked on her farm from 1881 to 1979, when she died at the age of 102. She grew up in an era of Victorian restrictions for woman — her father would not allow her to go to college, nor did he consent to her marrying as he was afraid of losing his only daughter after having lost his wife and two sons to disease. Thus Cara, as she was known, helped her father with farming, machine repair, and general farm overseeing while she enjoyed the social functions of Morristown society. At that time, Morristown rivaled Newport and Long Island in its claim to millionaires. A country village 40 miles from New York City, Morristown was home to hundreds of millionaires who commuted to the city to make their fortunes. Cara knew them all.

The publishing Scribner family, the wealthy social belle of Morristown, the great-grandson of Paul Revere, and many others known to Caroline Foster contributed to the local history of the area and are part of the interpretation of our site. And, they become a bit more “real” when visitors take on the roles of these people while touring the house.

We do not ask that our visitors role-play these friends of Miss Foster throughout their tour. Most visitors would be uncomfortable fulfilling this kind of expectation. However, as visitors gather on the front porch of The Willows we do ask who their cards say they are. We embellish the information they have on the card, telling them a bit more about their characters. It’s a wonderful way to break the ice, and some really get into it. “I’m finally a millionaire!” some have proclaimed. Others say little or nothing, but brighten as they begin to understand who they represent.

How have our volunteers responded to this type of interpretation? Most are open to new ideas and love learning new methods of educating the public. A few are hesitant and do little to elaborate on the visitation cards given to visitors. In order to make this form of interpretation more palatable to our volunteers, we began with a training meeting where we provided research materials on all the Morristown visitors, and we had volunteers role-play these individuals based on the research findings. This proved to be extremely helpful. As an appropriate ending to our training session, we went to a local cemetery, where most of these Morristonians, as well as the majority of the Morristown millionaires, are buried.

Reaction to this interpretive technique has been positive. The education staff hopes to expand use of the technique in their new self-guided brochure, allowing visitors to role-play the part of a farm worker employed by Charles Foster during the early 1900’s. This allows all visitors an opportunity to understand the daily operation of a farm in early 1900 in a thought-provoking way. It also provides another perspective — that of a worker, rather than of a wealthy socialite.

Louise Scribner, Nina Howland, Marshall Mills, Augustus Revere, and others live again through our visitation card interpretive program at Fosterfields. This interpretive tool is a wonderful way to make our tour more personal, more informative, and more entertaining, while allowing visitors the opportunity ! to experience the life and times of Caroline Foster and the character of Victorian society. It permits visitors to see for themselves if Miss Foster is “receiving.”

Rebecca Hoskins is curator of education for Historic Sites at the Morris County Park Commission in Morristown, New Jersey, which owns and operates Fosterfields Living Historical Farm and Cooper Mill in nearby Chester. Ms. Hoskins holds a Masters degree in history and has worked at several living history sites in the country in an educational capacity. A native of Morristown, Ms. Hoskins knew Miss Foster and wishes she had known Miss Foster’s many friends.

Hoskins, Rebecca. “‘Is Miss Foster Receiving?,'” The Docent Educator 6.2 (Winter 1996-97): 16-17.

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