In the backwoods of the Portage County Historical Society, a secret lies. The smell of campfires and the crunching of old leaves create the feeling of being in another world. Well, that and the entire Native American village built in it. Wigwams, old tools and a small Iroquois longhouse fill the area.
The strong voice of Portage County Historical Society Outdoor Science Coordinator Robert Kunst echoes over the clearing, an upbeat, chipper sound. This architect of the forgotten comes in the embodiment of an older gentleman, complete with a full white beard and a hearty personality. The worn, weathered hands of Kunst seem fit for the task he’s completed: the erection of a Native American village.
“[I’m hoping to instill] the excitement of actually going into the subject and studying more of the subject and understand more about mankind, both in this horizon and horizons past,” Kunst says.
However, Kunst’s amazing feat hasn’t just benefitted himself; as a lifelong teacher, he shares his knowledge along with the village. Kunst has taught grade levels from junior high to college classes at Kent State itself, and now continues his legacy. He speaks with fondness of a Girl Scout troop that came in and slept next to the warm fire for the night to earn their camping badge. Inside his barn are books upon books of worksheets for kids to come in and complete while they explore this portal into another time.
“The parents could be here, they could be researching or going through the museum, and they have to go retrieve their kids because they’re down there with him,” says Portage County Historical Society volunteer Barbara Petroski.
Petroski has watched the visitation numbers at the Historical Society grow steadily at the same pace as Kunst’s village. Not only that, but the ages of visitors have gone down. The sound of screaming children and the exploration of young minds is a common sound between the snapping of twigs under youthful feet.
“I think those kind of hands-on experiences for young people could be pivotal in what decide they decide to study later on in life,”
Dr. Linda Spurlock, Kent State Anthropology Department
“I think those kind of hands-on experiences for young people could be pivotal in what decide they decide to study later on in life,” says Dr. Linda Spurlock of Kent State’s anthropology department. “He really is making archaeology come to life.”
Archaeology isn’t the only thing that’s coming to life. Kunst’s face lights up as he immediately offers to take any visitors to the center on a tour. He guides the two boys around, encouraging them to move his Dakota oven into the right spot with a homemade lever. The duo works to communicate and gently places it on the correct location, much to Kunst’s delight.
Everything in this village looks as if it took years to complete; six years, in fact. But that doesn’t mean it’s delicate in any way, and neither is Kunst.
“To make questions, to make mistakes, is basically the reason for this village,” Kunst says.
“To make questions, to make mistakes, is basically the reason for this village,”
Robert Kunst, Portage County Historical Society Outdoor Science Coordinator
He has worked solo, day in and day out, to make a home for a child’s imagination.
“This aboriginal village is very much a durable place, and if something rips, he will mend it,” Spurlock says.
Spurlock says the village is not only incredibly beautiful, but durable as well, a rare combination Kunst has mastered.
“You don’t have to be an expert potter or an expert weaver to help at his village, you can come away with something that you’ve made,” Spurlock says.
The village is much more of an experience than a location. From the long, woven gate that lines this historical site, to the warm fire inside one of the wigwams, every aspect of this village feels like a connection to something long since past.
“Each person is going to find a little different thing that they’re interested in, and you just guide them along that path of what they’re interested in and how it relates to the people who used to be here,” Kunst says.