GREENSBURG — When she took a job at Greensburg Community High School (GCHS) in the mid-1980s, Family Consumer Science Teacher Sharon Mang had no idea she had family roots in the Tree City stretching all the way back to the mid-19th century.
While living in Greensburg during a 15-year period from 1850 to 1865, Mang’s great-great-great grandmother, Margaret Bird, married, gave birth to five children, divorced and remarried.
Mang didn’t even learn of Bird’s existence until she’d been teaching at GCHS “10 or 15 years.” In the time since, Mang has studied Bird’s life when she can, but recently found a way to incorporate an in-depth investigation of Bird’s life and times into her work as a school teacher.
Her subsequent lesson plan, entitled “Through the Eyes of Margaret and John Bird: The Civil War in Decatur County, Indiana,” was recently named a state winner in ING’s Unsung Heroes program.
Mang first conceived the idea when GCHS History Teacher John Pratt announced that his Fall Chautauqua would revolve around the American Civil War.
Mang’s Housing and Interior Design Class will design and build scale models of the Courthouse square as it looked during the Civil War Era. Her Fashion and Textile students will create Civil War Era clothing, including dresses, uniforms and a quilt. The results of both projects will be displayed at the Fall Chautauqua.
According to a press release, Unsung Heroes honors innovative educators, granting them the means “to bring to life their innovative and engaging teaching methods and ideas for their students.”
Mang has been awarded $2,000 through the program and is now eligible to compete at the national level for awards of $5,000, $10,000 and $25,000.
She told the Daily News that a portion of the grant money will be used to pay the travel expenses of noted Civil War author Deborah Petite. Petite’s book, “The Women will Howl,” details parts of Sherman’s march to Georgia during the Civil War and his seizure and closure of a textile mill in Roswell, Ga.
“This textile Mill was still producing Confederate grays at the time,” Mang said. “Sherman shut it down and shipped the 300-to-400 women and children working there across the Ohio river into Southern Indiana. These refugees were branded as traitors, dumped off a boat, and told, ‘don’t come south of the Ohio for the remainder of the war; you’re on your own.”
She continued, “This was done so they [the workers] couldn’t restart the mill and because the Union didn’t know what to do with them. There are few records of what happened to these women and children. The only ones we know about are the ones who came back to Georgia after the war. Most, however, disappear from the record. For the most part they were illiterate with no money; a lot of them probably starved.”
Mang will use the remainder of the grant money to take both classes on a field trip the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers.
“Conner Prairie is a first-person interpretation of history,” Mang explained. “Actors play people from the era in authentic dress and surroundings.”
Should she win one of the bigger, national grants, Mang has even grander plans, including the purchase of classroom iPads and a field trip over Fall Break to Roswell, Ga., so students can tour the old textile mill in person.
For now, she and her classes are in the process of researching the Chautauqua projects.
“We have piles of papers,” she explained, “where we’ve gone to the library and gone downtown. I’m trying to help them develop an understanding of their past and their community’s past.”
“In many cases,” she added, “this is original research; nobody’s really done this before to this extent. This is stuff you can’t just go to the internet and look up; it’s simply not there. This kind of stuff takes a lot of leg work, a lot of searching and researching sources.”
One also senses, in speaking with Mang, a hope the project will serve as a kind of memorial to Margaret Bird.
“She had a rough life,” Mang said of her great-great-great grandmother. “She never had anything and spent her whole life taking care of others. Her father committed suicide when she was about two. She lived in Decatur County 15 years. When she first came here, she lived with a farmer and ill wife, who had no children.”
She continued, “Robert Whiffing was her first husband. She married him in 1850 at Kingston Presbyterian Church here in Decatur County. He took off in 1860. Shortly after, she received a letter from him from New Orleans, but she never heard from him again.”
Although all five of Bird’s children were by Whiffing, Mang has been unable to locate any records of what ultimately became of the man. The former Margaret Whiffing divorced Robert and married John Bird the same year – 1860. The oldest of her children at the time was 10, with the youngest being one. The family left Decatur County for good in 1865, migrating to Indianapolis.
The irony of using a previously unknown Decatur County ancestor to teach local, state and national history isn’t lost on Mang. If her lesson works as designed, in fact, her students will learn about the Civil War and its effects on Decatur County “through the eyes of Margaret and John Bird.”
“Sometimes, it just seems weird to me how life comes full circle,” she said.
Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011