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FOR THE KIDS

History, Herds at Home at Former Estate of Western Film Star William S. Hart

May 29, 1997|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a hill above the intersection of Newhall Avenue and San Fernando Road in Newhall, there's a fine old home--a designated historical monument, actually--that looks like what it is, namely the country estate of famous western movie star William S. Hart.

What isn't so obvious to passing drivers is that it is also home to a herd of buffalo (American bison, to purists) as well as a collection of donkeys, sheep, geese, ducks, cows, pigs and horses.

This is no secret to 25,000 youths who visit the place by school bus every year or come with their parents on weekends.

Another attraction is the absence of "Don't Feed the Animals" signs where the domesticated creatures are kept. Rather, kids get to buy special food at the museum's store and feed these animals (except the bison) until they're stuffed, according to Nancy McDonald, tour manager. (She says kids learn quickly that the animals "are really responsive to the sound of a crackling paper bag.")

Such goings-on also are well-known to hundreds of Santa Clarita elementary school kids who have seen Hart Park's "movable museum." It's more of a traveling theatrical show than a museum. The presenter, Cheryl Jones, sometimes dons Annie Oakley-style garb for the hands-on demonstration of frontier gizmos like lariats, gold pans and Native American crafts.

The program is particularly appropriate for California third-graders, who study Native American history and culture. When invited to put on her presentation for these kids, she takes along a rich selection of objects from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History so kids can learn, hands-on, about life in the area 300 years ago.

In fourth grade, the emphasis is on the era of the ranchos, the Gold Rush, and local railroad and oil development. For this, Jones uses slides from the period--a sort of time-travel experience for modern-day kids.

All this is an undertaking of the natural history museum and a local support group, Friends of Hart Park & Museum.

Sometimes, McDonald says, families visit only the part of the site--an early 1900s ranch--at the foot of the hill where the historic home is perched.

"If they walk around and up the hill on the driveway," she said, "they'll get to see a dozen or so of our bison grazing--'free-range bison' some people call them."

In the historic home itself are the authentic frontier and Native American artifacts, including weapons, that Hart collected. He left his estate and collection to L.A. County upon his death in 1946, after a career that included nearly 70 movies.

These were all silent movies, by the way--something nearly incomprehensible to modern children for whom even black-and-white flicks are an oddity. McDonald says, "What works best, especially with kindergartners to second-graders, is when I explain [silent movies] by having the kids make a sad face, a mad face and a happy face. Then they can see how you can paint a picture for people without [using] words."

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there are periodic "character tours," where volunteers reenact life in the Hart household. Every Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., visitors can join a 30-minute docent-led exploration of the historic house on the hill.

BE THERE

William S. Hart Park and Museum, 24151 San Fernando Road, Newhall. Park is open sunrise to sunset. Museum is open Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Tours every half-hour. Free. (805) 254-4584.

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