Pioneer Themed Family Reunion

 Ancestral home, we were lucky enough to be invited in.
It was our turn last year to organize the annual family reunion, and we'd been waiting for it eagerly (ok, maybe not eagerly) but we'd been planning out a Pioneer theme for when our time came. 

To get things started, we sent off a reminder invitation, that hinted of the fun to come a few months in advance.  In the invitation we included food or other assignments, and called people the week before to remind them of what they'd been asked to bring.


Family History Tour

Our first activity was a potluck lunch.  Instead of holding it at the family farm, where the rest of the reunion would be held, we all met at a small town a little to the south.  There are several pioneer homes still standing that were built and occupied by our ancestors.  My dad is a cartographer-and he made a fantastic map of the town showing locations of ancestral properties that we handed out, and on the reverse we included a brief history of some of the ancestors that had lived in the homes.  We lucked out on our first stop.  It turned out that the town had hosted a historic home tour the week before, and the distant cousin that lived in the first home had it all spruced up and let us come in.  She even gave us a booklet that had some information about the homes we'd planned on visiting, and it mentioned another home we weren't aware of.  After a great tour of the property, we finished out the tour as planned, then headed back to the family farm.

Of course we couldn't have a pioneer themed reunion without some dutch oven food for the evening!


 Pioneer Crafts for the Kids
There are a few simple toys traditionally made by pioneer children.  We made button wizzers-a simple toy made of string and a button.  I'd bought some extra large buttons thinking they would work well, but they didn't make the wizzing sound the smaller buttons I'd brought as extras did, so we ended up using the smaller buttons.  Here is a video showing how to make and spin the wizzers.  It is easier to watch than for me to try and explain how to pull it.  We also made yarn dolls by winding yarn around cardboard squares as shown in this tutorial. Corn husk dolls would be cute for a smaller or older group of children than the group I would be doing crafts with.

Pioneer Games
Some of the games we had ready included sack races, three-legged races, tug-of-war, and stick pulls.  You are probably familiar with most of these pioneer games.  The stick pull is a wrestling game, where two people sit facing each other with their feet together.  Both hold onto a broomstick, and attempt to pull the other one off the ground.  The first person who's seat is off the ground looses.
Other games that would work for a pioneer themed reunion include pie or watermelon eating contests, watermelon seed spitting contests, horseshoes, egg races (where you put an egg in a spoon and try to finish the race first with an unbroken egg).

Photo Booth
We knew not all of our families would enjoy dressing up, but we knew some would, so we brought some pioneer clothes, and encouraged others to bring some if they had some.  I created some costumes on a stick for those who wanted to get pictures but didn't really want to dress up much.  (here are some printables I used)Here is a link to some great mustache templates, I cut mine out of brown and black craft foam, and attached them to bamboo skewers. 
I also made a cut-out wanted poster.  Technically we didn't have a "booth" because the family farm had so many great backdrops.  A simpler backdrop could have been created using cardboard and paint, or a plain sheet. We brought a laptop and blank CD's to burn copies of the pictures onto right after they were taken, so nobody had to bother with e-mailing or mailing them out and trying to figure out who's who etc.after the reunion.  We used camera settings and a free Photoshop type program (GIMP) to adjust the photos so they looked old.  Some turned out really good.  Another option is to provide the backdrop and costumes, then let families take their own photos.

It has become a yearly tradition to have a pinata for the kids.  I couldn't find a western one I liked, so I just took a box and wrapped it with brown paper, cut out four wheels, and folded another piece of cardboard wrapped in white paper over the top to form a covered wagon.  I ran wire under the box and up through the canopy for something to tie the rope to.  (If making a homemade pinata, be sure the thing can be broken.   I scored the box with a box cutter before wrapping it to weaken it so it would be sure to break.  We attended a party where the pinata made for the toddlers had duct tape holding it together.  It was cute, but took some strong guys and a baseball bat to finally break it open).

Homemade Ice a bag
We let the kids have their hand at creating their own icecream.  The recipe and method we used is here.  The only suggestions we have is to DO IT OUTSIDE.  The salt and ice tends to get everywhere, especially with enthusiatic shakers. I would double bag the outer bag, and possibly double bag the inner bag.  This icecream is a bit softer than soft serve, just shake it until it is thick enough to eat with a spoon, and eat it as soon as possible-it melts fast. If you try to get it thicker, the ice will start to melt too much, and so will the ice cream.  This recipe also hardens to a rock if placed in the freezer long...we had to microwave some leftovers to get it soft enough to chisel into serving sized portions :)  If you want to make something more like store-bough ice cream, don't do it in a bag, and use a different recipe. We have a hand-crank ice cream maker that is great when you want to involve kids. Ice cream in a bag is mostly for the fun of making it rather than the quality of the end result-though it does taste yummy!

Quilt Tying
We have the tradition of tying a few quilts while at the reunion that are donated to charity after the reunion.  It makes a fun gathering spot for chatting too.

Food Ideas

Potluck the first evening, then we had pancakes for breakfast-a fast way to feed a lot of people.
Lunch was dutch oven again-but we cheated a bit to speed things up.  We brought frozen roll dough, let it thaw, and fried it up as scones, and topped it with cheese, chili, tomatoes, and salsa.  We set up the toppings so people could help themselves to what they liked, and had some side dishes.
We don't have a reunion fund we use for food, instead we try to spread it out so everyone brings an ingredient or side dish.  We make allowances for those traveling longer distances and assign non-perishables to them.  We try to divide up the more expensive ingredients fairly and assign less critical ingredients to those who aren't sure they can make it.

Other ideas we didn't use this year but would have been fun:
Campfire and sing-along.
Evening Program, with things like stories from ancestor's biographies or journals, skits, humor, talent show, songs, etc.
Mini-museum.  Have people bring heirlooms and set up a mini museum with cards describing the objects and the person it belonged to.  (You may want to assign someone to keep an eye on them so valuable items aren't handled by children, or suggest a photograph of valuable or delicate items be brought instead of the actual item.)  Be sure to include historic photographs and journals, etc. of the people who owned them.
A hollyhock decended from original seed planted by our ancestor.
History Swap: Collect relevant family histories ahead of time, and create a CD to hand out or sell for the cost of producing it.  Include scanned historic photographs.  Another option is to post the histories on a website accessible to family members, like
Pedigree Charts:  Hang a large pedigree chart up, with photographs attached when available.  You might have smaller charts available, or cute blank ones for people to fill out themselves as an activity. There are some nice ones available here, and some designed like trees here.
Make some homemade butter:  just put some heavy whipping cream into a jar, and pass it around during a meal or program.  Have everyone shake it for a minute or so and pass it on until the butter solidifies.  Pour off the buttermilk, and add a bit of salt if desired, then serve.  
Have a special guest:  Have a family member or someone else come in costume and either tell a story or demonstrate a pioneer skill.
Pedigree Nametags:  For extended family reunions, Have name tags that look like a partial pedigree so people can see how you descend from a common ancestor.  Three generations would be about all you could reasonably fit onto a larger tag.
Hay Ride

Fun with Grandpa's tractor


What are some tips you have for a successful family reunion?

Quilt Swap and Auction (for fundraising): another side of my family has the tradition of raffling off a quilt each reunion.  Funds are used to provide a few things for the next reunion.  The catch if you provide the quilt for the next year.  We also bring little items to sell-things like used toys, books, DVD's, crafts, baked goods, etc.  We buy tickets for $0.50 and drop as many tickets as we want into a cup by the item.  A ticket is drawn for each item.  
Location: Each of the different family reunions I attend has different ways of organizing the location.  Some meet at the common grandparent's home, or when the family outgrew that location, we meet at a nearby park (make sure to reserve your space if needed) or church.  Some rotate locations to rotate the longer traveling between members fairly (as possible and reasonable).  Pick locations that will still work if the weather turns cold or rainy, or have alternate places to go so you don't have to cancel.
Timing: Would it work best for your family to meet yearly?  Every other year?  It seems to work best to choose a date at the previous reunion and stick to it.  There will always be conflicts, but it helps to have your date on the calendar way in advance so people can plan around it, rather than surprising everyone with a date a few weeks away.  It also helps to always use the same weekend every summer, so people get used to having it then.  A common ancestor's birthday, anniversary, or a holiday make it easier for people to remember the date.
The "Committee": how formal do you want your reunion?  How much planning is needed?  Who is going to keep track of any funds?  It is a big job to organize a lot of people, make sure there is enough food, and something for everyone to do.  It helps to have a meeting at each reunion where the person in charge of the next reunion is assigned.  You might want to rotate through siblings, or some other orderly way so people aren't surprised when their turn comes around.  If you have a large family, you could either make assignments for subcommittees now, or let the person in charge for next year make the assignments.  What you should avoid is making the same people do the lion's share of the work year after year.  As willing as they might be, you don't want them to get burned out, and if someone feels involved and important, they are more likely to attend.
Think of the kids:  you may look forward to getting a chance to catch up with family you don't get to see much, but all this sitting and talking is very boring to kids, especially if they don't really know these people.  You may want your children to get to know these people who are important to you, but it is a much better idea to do it through activities. 
These activities don't need to be grandiose or expensive.  As a kid, we waited all summer to be able to go to the "Balloonion".  What made it special?  A tank of helium and some balloons.  We couldn't wait.  (Even if the majority of them were breathed in so we could talk funny...).  We always knew there would also be a few games and races with a bit of candy for the winners (and losers). 
Think of things like Frisbee, sidewalk chalk, bean bag tosses, balls, and if you are brave, water guns and water balloons.  Just be prepared for a few adults to get a little wet too.  Assign someone to be in charge of the kid's crafts, activities, and games.  Every second of the reunion doesn't need to be planned, just have a few fun things for the kids to do when they get bored of chasing each other around.

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