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By Miriam Raftery

June 1, 2009 (Warner Springs)—“It’s always fun when we get an adult to volunteer to be the cow,” Sherri Freeman quipped, then deftly lassoed a running parent. Nearby, youngsters saddled up on a bucking mechanical horse, ground acorns, studied history of the Butterfield Stage Coach, hiked with an ecologist, visited farm animals, and learned about wild herbs from a Native American healer.

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View our videos! Acorn-grinding lesson; teacher lassos a parent “cow”

“We have a lot of resources that other schools don’t,” said Freeman, founder of the Warner Springs Outdoor Academic Experience program for children ages five through fifteen. “We have the Pacific Crest Trail, Native American history, our own local Warner Ranch history, and agriculture.” An agricultural teacher at Warner Springs School, Freemans wrote a grant and established a program to teach agricultural skills to children countywide—also preserving the region’s rich Western heritage and lore.

The program has also helped the small K-12 school become more sustainable. “We realized since we are so small, we needed to reach out with the budget cuts,” Freeman noted. “We’re really excited to have partnered with Cleveland National Forest and various other agencies to bring about this program.” More than sixty students have enrolled so far in the program, which is also supported by local tribes and Dr. Richard Schrock, a Nobel Prize winner, said Freeman.

“Our first year was challenging due to schools cutting transportation costs,” she noted, adding that she has written several grants and hopes the program will grow as more people around San Diego County learn about the program.

“This is black sage,” Melody Sees, a Cahuilla Indian, explains to students. “I’m a sun dancer. We use this to make our crowns.” Students also learn that the inner bark of a willow tree can be boiled to ease headaches, while pine needles can be used to make tea and baskets. Students also learn how to select black oak acorns and try their hand at grinding them. The program also includes a visit to a new Native American museum at the Warner Springs Community Resource Center across the street.

“Geronimo rocks!” exclaimed Tana Zaph, 10, saddled up atop a mechanical horse. Nearby, an exhibit includes old cavalry saddles, photos and memorabilia from the Butterfield Stage Coach and other elements of the region’s western heritage.

Geologist Norrie Robbins led a group of Girl Scouts on ecology walk, assigning a team leader, data manager, recorder, and scientific illustrator to record findings such as rocks, birds, plants and animals/ Students at the school also raise farm animals for 4-H including goats, pigs, chickens, cows and rabbits, also learning vermiculture and farming skills such as gathering eggs and growing vegetables. Worm castings and swine manure are used to fertilize a vineyard on the property.

School board member Cindy Magill shared the rich history of Warner Springs in an exclusive interview with East County Magazine, taking a break from teaching students how to burn brands into leather.

“Since the beginning of time, the Cupeño Indians were here,” she said, adding that the region has long been prized for its hot springs. Later, the land fell under Mexican rule and was granted to Antonio Pico and later, John Warner. Ultimately the property was split up between Pico and Warner.

“They would wash sheep in the hot springs and called them Soda Springs,” Magill explained. “The wool was really white and sought after around the world. San Diego got on the map with the best wool in the world.”

The region’s colorful history includes “a lot of fighting, cattle rustling, and murder on the trail,” Magill said. “When we go riding out here, you can feel the spiritualness, a connection, like all these spirits are here saying `Now you know who we are.”

Around the turn of the century (1901 or 1902), the Cupeño Indians were forced off their native land and moved westward, forming the La Jolla, Rincon and Pala reservations.

In 1960, the Vista irrigation District acquired the land and leased the cattle ranch, where Art and Stan Farr still run cattle today, aided by two cowhands who have worked the ranch since they were teenagers.

“The hot springs, a 16-acre parcel, was sold separately,” noted Magill. The property was developed into the Warner Springs Resort.

Now Magill revealed, “It’s for sale—and the Pala Indians are the closest to buying it back.” Smiling wistfully, she concluded, “Boy, the angels are going to be singing if that happens!”

For more information on the Warner Springs Outdoor Education Program, visit http://www.ilacsd.org/pdf/WarnerSprings.pdf.