Pioneer Room will lift a cup to history

April 5, 2007 | By Pat Sherman

Growing up in inner-city Chicago, the daughter of a steel worker, MaRaya V. Schrokosch longed to escape her bleak urban reality for a life of Victorian-era refinement.

She found nothing signified the life she coveted more than the ritual of afternoon tea service.

“It’s a chance to experience the beauty of the cups and bowls and tea pots,” said Schrokosch, 64. “It’s very warm and comforting…. It captures another era.”

Schrokosch will host “A Victorian Tea,” the theme of the Pioneer Room Friends’ annual “Spring Fling” social, from 2 to 4 p.m. April 20 in the Turrentine Room of the Escondido Public Library. Schrokosch will discuss the history of high tea service during the free event, which is open to current and prospective members.

A variety of teas, from Earl Grey to Darjeeling, will be served, as well as fresh scones and “savories,” tiny British finger sandwiches.

It wasn’t until years after Schrokosch moved to Escondido with her four children that she caught up with her childhood dream, in the quaint Victorian-style home she built with her late husband, Harry.

Over the years, Schrokosch has trotted out her finest antique porcelain to entertain guests.

“You have no idea how many parties I’ve had where I pull out the tea cups and put them on the tray,” Schrokosch said. “People get so tickled. They say, ‘You don’t have to fuss’…(but) they love being treated to this.

“It does take extra time and effort, but so what? It makes people feel special.”

Schrokosch said the regal-sounding term “high tea,” which is used in upscale American hotels, is a bit of a misnomer. In England, rather than being a light afternoon tea, high tea is a heavier spread of meat, pickles and bread, served later in the day, traditionally on high-standing tables.

The high tea popular in the United States and Canada is typically served on low tables, surrounded by high-backed chairs, as is the tradition at the historic Fairmont Empress hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, one of Schrokosch’s favorite places to sip tea and enjoy a warm, flaky scone.

“As a woman who loves to decorate, I drooled all over the place,” Schrokosch said of the opulent milieu.

Though tea was once considered the luxury of English nobility, during the Industrial Revolution methods for harvesting tea improved. Prices decreased, making the beverage more accessible to the masses.

Manufacturing also made it affordable for people to own their own tea services.

“For the first time it was affordable for people of modest means to acquire beautiful porcelain,” Schrokosch said.

While urban expansion related to the Industrial Revolution may have contributed to deadly outbreaks of typhoid, dysentery and cholera, it is thought that tea may have fueled industry by keeping workers alive.

“Back in those days, the water was horribly polluted,” Schrokosch said. “Water had to be boiled. …It was either (tea) or beer strong enough to kill the bacteria.”

Schrokosch said the ritual of high tea seems to be making a comeback with today’s baby boomers, a generation authors William Strauss and Neil Howe termed “idealists.”

“They’re the ones that, when they came of age, wanted to recreate the Victorian era…with the teas, the clothes with everything just so,” Schrokosch said. “Victorian tea parties have become quite popular…. It’s back with a vengeance.”

The Pioneer Room houses historic records, photographs, municipal documents and other pieces of the city’s past.

Having served on Pioneer Room Friends’ board of directors for several years, Schrokosch’s daughter, Cathrine Laguna, decided to bring her mother on board and tap into her creative energies for this year’s event.

The annual mixer serves as a thank you to current members and a way to entice others to join the organization.

“It’s a fun way to do it,” Laguna said.

The Pioneer Room and the Escondido History Center are collecting oral histories of Escondidans, specifically those who worked in the city’s agricultural industry or whose families lived in specific neighborhoods for multiple generations.

“Escondido is changing every single day,” Laguna said. “It’s important to preserve that history in any way that we can so that people know where we came from.”

Pioneer Room staff offers training to volunteers wishing to conduct oral histories.

They are also seeking a current or retired water district employee to help process the city’s sizable water district collection.