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Make Your Own Memories as a Grand Central Guest

Tobiason Glass Studio

St. Joseph, Missouri

Famous for its massive stained-glass windows in churches across Grand Central, Tobiason Glass Studio gives groups the chance to work with small-scale stained glass at its location in historic downtown St. Joseph.

Owners Rick and Terri Rader have been in the business for decades and love showing off their workspace and sending visitors home with a keepsake.

“We’ve come up with a good whole experience,” Terri Rader said. “You get to put a piece together and see some of the different things we do: our work, the equipment we use, our warehouse full of glass and some of the finished work.”

When groups arrive, half are sent off for the grand tour with Rick Rader while the other half set to work. Eighteen can work at a time. The glass pieces are precut, but it’s up to visitors to pick out their colors and fit them together with 700-degree soldering irons.

“For the majority, it’s their first time, and they’re just a little nervous to work with hot irons,” Terri Rader said. “But there’s someone at each table to explain it, and after their first attempt, they think, ‘Wow, this isn’t so bad.’”

Groups have created angels in the past — Terri Rader laughs about the time a woman decided to reject the design and solder her pieces into a lighthouse — but the studio plans to come up with a new design for 2016, maybe something in the bird or flower category.

One group requested the chance to cut the glass themselves, and the Raders obliged, but cutting is a time-consuming project best left out of the group experience. The usual project takes about an hour and a half.

Cherokee Heritage Center

Tahlequah, Oklahoma

Tucked away in the Oklahoma foothills of the Ozark Mountains, the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah takes visitors back to 1710. Native Americans dressed in traditional garb showcase ancient games and crafts in a re-created outdoor village.

After wandering the village and watching demonstrations such as flint knapping and blowgun-making, groups can choose among a few Native American crafts. The most popular group activity is basketweaving.

“For a lot of guests, this is their first experience with Native American culture,” said Candessa Tehee, executive director of the center. “To work on a basket alongside a Cherokee instructor educates them about the culture and tradition through its making, and the object serves as a reminder of their time on campus.”

Cherokee basketry dates back thousands of years. Women wove cane, white oak, hickory bark and honeysuckle into the main source of storage. The baskets were also used as strainers, for hunting and fishing and as bassinets of sorts.

Visitors make a traditional double-walled round reed basket. Center guides prepare the first wall ahead of time, and groups finish the baskets by weaving the reed around the spokes to create the outer portion. The process takes roughly an hour.

Currently, the Heritage Center is displaying a basket exhibit that includes the world’s tallest Cherokee basket, standing more than 10 feet, as well as a basket that survived the Trail of Tears.

“We’re happy to do other add-ons other than baskets for groups,” Tehee said. “Some are just more time-consuming and more expensive.”

Other relatively easy take-home projects are corn-husk dolls and pottery, and more involved projects include feather capes, beadwork and center-seamed moccasins. Group organizers can make specific requests in advance.

Crater of Diamonds State Park

Murfreesboro, Arkansas

The “finders keepers” policy at Crater of Diamonds State Park makes the $4 entrance fee a worthwhile gamble.

“This is the only place in the world where people can search in an original volcanic source and keep anything they can find,” said park interpreter Waymon Cox.

The Murfreesboro park stretches for more than 900 acres along the Little Missouri River, but groups spend their time searching through a 37-acre field nicknamed the Pig Pen for its muddy terrain after heavy rain and regular plowing. More than 75,000 diamonds have been unearthed since the first diamonds were discovered there in 1906. An average of one to two diamonds are still unearthed each day.

In addition to white, brown and yellow diamonds, visitors find amethyst, garnet, jasper, agate, quartz and other rocks and minerals. Before hunting, groups can either watch an instructional video or learn mining techniques from park staffers. Mining tools are also available for rent.

“Mining is not like fishing at a lake,” Cox said. “You don’t just show up and know how to do it.” But it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it.

Park staffers are trained to identify and register stones, but they won’t put prices on them. Last year’s most sensational find was an 8.52-carat diamond named Esperanza by the Colorado woman who unearthed it. Gemologists determined Esperanza to be the most perfect diamond ever discovered in the United States, and it’s expected to sell for $500,000 at auction later this year.

Gems like Esperanza and Uncle Sam (the 40.23-carat diamond discovered at Crater of Diamonds in 1924, which is still the largest diamond ever discovered in the United States) are rare finds, yet groups still venture out in all sorts of weather to try their luck.

“We’re open year-round,” Cox said. “Only snow slows us down.”