School Districts along the 195-mile Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor are embracing Tales of the Towpath, a four-to-six week program focusing on the region's cultural heritage formed during its halcyon days when coal and canals fueled the rise of the American Industrial Revolution.
The Jim Thorpe School District, which includes the Mauch Chunk Historical District – once the epicenter of the coal transport industry – helped pioneer the introduction and testing of Tales of the Towpath with pilot programs at the fourth grade level at the L.B. Morris Elementary School, and at the fifth grade level at the Penn Kidder Elementary School in 2008 and 2009.
The program, created by the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor Commission, consists of a traveling trunk, teacher training, a teacher's guide, and the book, Tales of the Towpath Adventures Along the Delaware & Lehigh Canals illustrated by Dennis Gerhart and written by Dennis Scholl.
Scholl, the outreach director for the D&L, is now offering the book to the public.
"The book is a children's storybook designed to introduce elementary students to local history in the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor," he said.
The book follows the life of Finn Gorman, a fictional man of Irish descent who reflects back on his time as a ten-year old boy growing up along the Lehigh Canal in Freemansburg.
When the books are used in the classroom, they are supplemented with a traveling trunk containing replicas of 1850s-era memorabilia items, including bars of pig iron, mule shoes, mining tools, pieces of coal, a conch horn, a Jacob's ladder toy puzzle, period clothing, and facsimile textbooks. Even the trunk itself is a historical replica.
Aware that children get more involved with subjects that they can see and touch, Scholl worked with Michael Brolly, a history buff and the woodworking teacher at Moravian Academy, to create a historically accurate reproduction of an 1850s period trunk.
"He researched types of trunks and found one at Mystic Seaport," Scholl noted. "He built one, duplicating the dovetail construction, when he had the design worked out, his students build nine more for a total of 10."
Scholl wanted to have 25 trunks available for the program. Lehigh County Vo-Tech built five more. The last 10 were made by Redline in Walnutport. Each trunk is 32-inches long, 17-inches wide and 16-inches deep with a tray inside to hold smaller items. Casters were placed on the bottom so that the students can roll them around.
"As teachers and students work their way though the book, they will learn about the items contained in the trunks," Scholl said. "Because Tales of the Towpath is set in the Lehigh Valley, students will also learn about the often-forgotten history of their hometowns."
The Tales of the Towpath program is currently in 32 elementary schools. The curriculum is offered free to participating school districts through $95,000 in grants and funding that the project has received.
"I'm real happy with the program," Scholl said. "We are pleased with the response we are getting. All the school districts that did it, want to get in again next year."
The in-school program includes a teacher's guide containing supplementary material, detailed explanations, and activities to do, materials not available in the book itself. Scholl is hoping to make this supplementary information available online. He is also hoping to produce an audiobook version of Tales of the Towpath.
During the pilot phase of the program, 300 copies were published. For the current school year, 4,000 copies of the final version were published.
At 1 p.m. today, Scholl will be at a book signing at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem. He will have another signing at 11 a.m. on March 20 at the Barnes & Noble King's College-Wilkes University Bookstore.