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My days as an American historian may be numbered.
For the better part of 40 years, my extended family has featured American “living history” on our 760-acre apple farm in Oak Glen, California. When my wife and I built our Georgian inspired home on the farm in 1994, we originally hoped to offer 18th century dinner theater, but two mothers of fifth grade students approached us, asking for a field trip on the American Revolution.
I didn’t think it would work at first. As a child, our field trips were to museums and bakeries and theme parks. Allowing children to witness a mock battle? Allowing 11-year-olds to pretend they were soldiers? I loved the idea of showing kids redcoats and minutemen, but I wondered if California elementary teachers would approve.
I could not have been more wrong. Within five years, we were seeing 50,000 students a year, and in the last 17 years, more than 1.2 million students, parents, and teachers visited programs on the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the California Gold Rush.
Our program has no contemporary agenda and for decades it has been loved by all sorts of Americans, who are left, right, and center on the political spectrum. I’ve had great conversations with parents who were federal judges, Hollywood producers, fashion designers, actors and other farmers like me. I once had a pleasant dinner conversation with Bradley Whitford, (“West Wing,” “Saving Mr. Banks”). I wonder, had he known my politics, if the conversation might have taken an arch turn because I’m pro-life, a lifetime NRA member, and a property-rights advocate, but Brad and I kept it very human and convivial. I think, over the years, quite a few of my guests may have known something about my politics, because I’ve always been willing to speak my mind online, but if they ever did have trouble with my views, it always felt like a very Henry Fonda/Jimmy Stewart relationship. I love my customers, and most of them love me, my family, and staff.
Enter ubiquitous social media and a crusading socialist “blue wave” activist—who took the trouble to urge several public schools to blacklist our programs. For my thinking that the Reverend Louis Farrakhan is a bit more dangerous than some mythological (and certainly minuscule) “white nationalism,” I was called a “racist.” For thinking Stormy Daniels was wildly over the top assaulting an undercover police officer, I was called a “misogynist.” For being bewildered by a sudden multiplicity of gender identities, I was called a “homophobe.” Suddenly, in these polarized times, Riley’s Farm is no longer considered a “safe space” for children by timid, progressive school administrators.
This isn’t Ben and Jerry’s, folks. I’m not asking you to celebrate “Pecan Resist” when you come to my farm. There are no contemporary politics on display. Unlike companies engaged in political virtue-signaling, we’ve never asked anyone to celebrate the cause du jour. I have a political life on my own time. It has absolutely no effect on my living history programs. I hire a very diverse group of people who have one goal: making the learning of American history fun and accessible for children and families.
To that end, if I ever had any doubt that American history, her values and freedoms, could be universally appreciated it ended one day when I was leading a group of Asian American kids up through an orchard with sticks in their hands, (the sticks serve as “muskets”). I heard one of them shout to the other, “Death to tyrants! This is cool!”
One night, before one of my “Patrick Henry” performances, we asked the guests to lift their tankard and propose a toast of gratitude. There was a boy of about 14 years old, surrounded by a large family, and he kept trying to give a toast, but he kept getting emotional. His uncle put his hand on his back and said, “Alberto, you tell them what you were about to say.” The boy stood up, raised his tankard, and said, “I am grateful to be in America.” He bit his lip. “And no longer in Cuba!” His grandmother had waited for 20 years for a lottery visa, and when it came in, she gave it to him.
That’s a common reality here. I’ve talked to Cambodians, Hungarians, and Russians who love America intensely. They “get” Riley’s Farm right away, even if there is no contemporary political conversation. You can see it in their eyes when we tell the kids at the end of every field trip, “If you remember anything about today—don’t let it be the funny three-corner hats or old language or the buckled shoes—I want you to remember that there were Americans, and there are Americans, of every sort who love you, and what you believe in, enough to give their lives.” I’ve seen Americans of all sorts, but particularly immigrants, wiping away their tears.
Well, it turns out that some believe this sort of business can’t be owned by a conservative, by an outspoken Christian, by someone who has a caustic sense of humor on his own time. It’s safer to take your kids on a tour of the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream plant or maybe someplace safely zoological—where they can be lectured for making the mistake of being a human being on planet Earth.
Really, folks, all we do is celebrate American history. We’re far less political than most “educational” destinations these days, but if a lot of public schools continue to blacklist us, we will be forced to pack up and sell.
We don’t know how this will end. Thanks to some very good legal advice from our attorney Tom Eastmond, we’ve decided to fight back. Public institutions, of course, may withhold their business from an establishment for a variety of reasons, but the political speech of the owner isn’t one of them. It seems to me that the history I celebrate produced a document called “the Bill of Rights” that just might protect not only me but you as well. Do you really want an America that can deny you a job for everything you’ve said on Twitter or Facebook? Do you really want to give up your right to speak just because you made the mistake of starting a business?
That isn’t my America.
Photo Credit: MPI/Getty Images