Lander woman receives prestigious ‘Outstanding Educator Award’

(Lander, Wyo.) – Bonnie Willhelm, Curator for the Museum of the American West, was given the “Outstanding Educator” Award for 2014 by the Oregon-California Trails Association. The award was for the pioneer school she founded and has run in the summer at the Museum of the American West since 2009.

The Oregon-California Trails Association, based in Independence, Missouri, is the nation’s largest and most influential organization dedicated to the preservation and protection of overland emigrant trails and the emigrant experience.

OCTA members protect the trails to prevent the destruction of trail remnants, graves and other trail-related sites. Members also place markers on the trails and maintain existing markers.

Willhelm was given the award at the OCTA annual meeting held in Kearney, Nebraska, on August 7.

Willhelm was born and raised in Lander. Her family homesteaded in the Lander Valley. Her great-grandparents’, George and Alice Wroe’s, homestead was on the current site of the Museum of the American West.

Willhelm taught math and science for 34 years at Fort Washakie and at Starrett Junior High School. “I never had much interest in history, I was a math teacher!” she said. “But I became involved with MAW and I love learning about and preserving the Valley’s history.”

Willhelm and Mary McAleenan came up with the idea for the pioneer school as a fun way to educate young people about the pioneer lifestyle. The school is for kids age 6 to 12, and is taught just as it would be in 1888. School is held in the historic Bonner’s Garden school house. The kids dress in period clothing, work on penmanship with a quill and ink, read from McGuffey readers, and do arithmetic on slates with chalk. The kids learn about trails and forts in Wyoming, do crafts from that era and make butter or ice cream by hand on the last day of school.

The school is tremendously popular and there is a waiting list to attend.

Jim Corbett, Executive Director of the Museum of the American West, nominated Willhelm for the award.  “The work and creativity Bonnie has put into the pioneer school is amazing,”  he said. “Kids love the school, learn a tremendous amount about history and have a great time. It is a really fantastic opportunity for young people in this area.”

–Provided by Randall Wise