Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Decoration Day at Greenfield Village

The view from my campsite

All reenacting events are, at their worst, fair. Just the idea of wearing period clothing already places an event above the 'poor' category. Some events are good. Some are very good. And then some are great. I just spent three and a half days living at Greenfield Village, portraying a postmaster of the 1860's and I'll let you, the reader, decide what kind of time I had.
To begin with, this is the first year that we spent every night sleeping in our tent. That in itself was a major plus due to the fact that there was no rushing about at 6 in the morning, attempting to get ourselves ready to be at the Village by 8. That creates tension and we didn't have that this year.
That was wonderful.
Unfortunately, I do not sleep very well outside of my comfort zone - it takes me quite a while to acclimate myself to become comfortable enough to get a good night's sleep - so I chalked up around 11 and a half hours of sleep over the course of three nights.
But, I did it, and without complaining - I was just so excited to be there!!
So anyhow, I thought I'd run down, by day, my weekend living as an 1860's gentleman:

Friday May 28 -
We arrived at Greenfield Village mid-afternoon and parked alongside the Village Road until they let us in after the Village closed at 5. I love this part of the event almost as much as the event itself, for it gives many of us from different units the opportunity to visit with each other for the first time in seven or eight months. Of course, once they let us in, we rush to get our informational packets and then the "land rush" begins. Many of us that portray civilians in the 21st Michigan prefer to camp on the inside edge of the grove of mulberry trees near an early 19th century silk mill. In fact, nearly all those who participate have their favorite locations and have camped in the same spots for years, just like us.
Once the campsites have been set up, we settled ourselves to an evening of relaxation, knowing we didn't have to journey home only to come back in the wee morning hours.

Saturday May 29 -
The bright early morning sky awakened me from my solid 3 1/2 hours of sleep. This is my favorite time of day, and to see the sun rise over the roofs of 150 and 200 year old homes, as well as the hundreds of tents that belonged to the reenactors, made it that much better.
After a bit of scurrying we were all dressed properly for citizens of the 1860's and ready to greet the public. Speaking to the visitors as a period postmaster and sharing knowledge of the Civil War era is one of the nicest parts about reenacting, and I had plenty of opportunity to do that! I had the usual questions: "How much were stamps?" "When did the Pony Express take place?" "How long did it take for a letter to be delivered to its recipient?" Even (after spying my surname) "Were there Italians in America back then?" (I answered that question by naming a number of explorers of Italian descent from a few hundred years earlier!). I also offered many other bits of information to the visitors, like the importance of mail that gave information from the homefront - the soldiers loved hearing about home. Then there were the sweethearts who sent their soldier boy a tintype of themselves to remind them of what they would be coming home to. I tried to cover the depth of what life was like for those at home during that time.
As I spoke to the patrons, I jumped back and forth between 1st person and 3rd person - - a sort of 2nd person. I wanted to do and be more than just a teacher or lecturer on my chosen period occupation, but there were times when 1st person could become awkward. So, a playful 2nd person seemed to work quite well for this particular event.
Next to my tent in our little cul-de-sac was the good Chaplain, Mike Gillett, who explained his role in not only his community, but in the soldiers' camps as well. We also had a laundress, a Quaker abolitionist, an insurance salesman, a musician, and Senator Howard from the great state of Michigan, so the folks that ventured through the trees to come to our site certainly received quite a history lesson!

By afternoon, some of the ladies pulled out their projects: some were making bonnets, others worked on quilting, and others worked on their sewing needs.
For our mid-afternoon dinner, a few of us walked over to the finest restaurant that I have ever had the pleasure of dining in, the Eagle Tavern. The meal is not only delicious and correct to the era of the mid-19th century, but is also correct to the time of year as well. The atmosphere inside the tavern - especially with so many of us wearing period clothing - makes it a true time-travel experience in every sense of the word.

I shoulda photo-shopped out the EXIT sign!

From there, I took a much needed break from the post office and moved, with digital tintype in hand, over to where the battle was going to take place. I know, if you've seen one battle you've seen them all. I hear that a lot, but I vehemently disagree.

I enjoy seeing the men, who have been marching and drilling to perfect their 'school of the soldier,' put what they have learned into action. Yes, I agree that some of their 'deaths' could be a little more realistic (slowly getting down on your knees then catching your fall with your hands, and finally laying down on the ground as if you're climbing into bed - all the while gently laying down your musket - does not look at all like you had been shot by a 58 caliber minieball. Nor does laying comfortably on one elbow so you can watch the rest of the battle). But, for the most part, it's pretty exciting to watch.
Evening came and my wife and I were invited to an evening social at the 'homes' of Mrs. Root and Mrs. Smith in the location of the Michigan Soldiers Aid Society - another reenacting group I am a member of. It was here where we were treated to tea, coffee, and punch, with desserts.

Music was provided by my son, Tom and his guitar, and Mr. Andy Smith, who played the concertina. The carousel, located directly behind us, 'entertained' us as well, although we did prefer the period appropriate sounds of Tom and Andy.

Darkness came and it was back to our camp. Patty and I, along with our neighbors, sat by the fire for a while, still wearing our period clothing, as most of us feel that after the public leaves is when real living history can begin. She and I then enjoyed a night time stroll through the closed Village. There is something special about walking through Greenfield Village in the relative darkness (streetlights keep the Village from a total authentic night appearance). Probably my favorite part of this stroll was crossing the Ackley Covered Bridge. Sight, sound, touch - - - crossing the bridge brought me 'there' for a split second.
I loved it!

Sunday May 30 -
Another beautiful morning to awaken to, this time after a 4 hour sleep. That extra time over the previous night really did make a difference.
Since I wear nothing but period clothing - inside and out - while at events, folks in the area had the...ahem...good fortune to see me in my period undershirt while I stumbled my way to the necessary to wash up (no, the drawers were definitely covered by my pants!). Funny thing...I received numerous inquiries from folks on where they, too, could purchase such a shirt! As I have said before, when I am reenacting, I do not want that 1979 penny on my person!
Once dressed, many of us walked to the Martha-Mary Chapel, where a Baptist minister gave a wonderful (albeit LOUD) sermon. I always enjoy good preaching - I just wish he didn't yell so much.
After the service a few of us stopped in front of the Eagle Tavern (known as the Union Tavern during the Civil War) to have our image taken.

Then it was back to the visitors, and the day continued on not unlike the previous. We had been blessed with sunny, hot weather - I say "blessed" because I find that much better than the alternative: cold and rainy.
Sunday evening during Decoration Day at Greenfield Village can only mean one thing: a Civil War Ball. The ladies all dressed themselves up beautifully, my wife wearing the gown she made for our 25th wedding anniversary last month. She was definitely my "belle of the ball."

Lovett Hall, where the ball is held, is an actual ballroom built by Mr. Henry Ford himself specifically for period dancing. It is beautifully ornate in its decor, and I consider it a privilege to be allowed to use it for its intended purpose.
What a fine time we had, especially when we danced the Virginia Reel - one of my absolute favorites. But, there were also waltzes, the fan dance, and others of the period. It was a great pleasure to dance with my daughter as well.
After the ball had ended, it was back to our tent where Patty removed her gown and, in true reenacting fashion, put on her day dress (she does not have an evening wear dress yet). We had hoped to take another stroll but, unfortunately, she was very tired from another full day of activities and decided to relax by the fire. Mr. Gillett and I decided to walk and had a nice talk. We ended up meeting with other friends out for a walk and the few of us ended up speaking for over an hour; it wasn't until after 2 a.m. before we returned!

Monday May 31 -
The final day of our time-travel excursion.
On this Memorial Day, I dressed in my Sunday best and closed the post office. This was going to be my day to walk around the Village while it was opened to the public. A nice surprise was having my niece show up. She had never been to a reenactment (sans our wedding vow renewal) and was amazed at the shear magnitude of the reenacting community. I have found the same thought with others who have never been to a reenactment. They sometimes do not comprehend the idea that there are literally thousands of us that participate in this form of time-travel, and she was in awe of this.

We posed for a family photo

My son, Rob, had decided, due to his very sore feat, to sit today's battle out, and spent time convalescing in civilian camp. Well, he didn't sit too much for many visitors were very interested in his musket and accouterments, so he spent much of his time speaking to the guests and even dressing a few of the little ones up in his uniform!

As I wrote a year ago, the Memorial Day holiday is celebrated at Greenfield Village as it should be, with a beautiful tribute. I shall present here what I wrote a year ago:

"(T)hrough all of our fun, we do not forget our reason for being there on this Memorial Day Weekend, and, just as women did soon after the Civil War ended, the ladies of the different units laid wreaths and flowers upon the graves of those who had fallen. Since there are no actual graves (anymore) at the Village, they lay wreaths at the garden in front of the church. Then, men and women who served in the actual military are called out to the Village Green so honor can be paid to them. Veterans from WWII, Korea, VietNam, and the numerous wars after walk out to the center. Very solemn and very touching, a dry eye could not be found. Much better, say, than a parade down main street with clowns, politicians waving from convertibles, and kids decorating their bikes.
This is truly one reenactment that pays the homage and respect in the way that it should be."

For the first time, Patty witnessed, with many tears shed, this very solemn presentation. She loved it.

Shortly after the ceremony we had a terrific thunderstorm whip through, nearly blowing tents and flies from their locations. We all battened down the hatches and held our own as the thunder, lightening, rain, and high winds threatened to ruin what had been, up until that point, a near perfect event. Lucky for us, it was a fast moving storm so we were able to get back into our 'zone.' Many visitors had left, but quite a few remained and when one group found the re way to our area we gave them a standing ovation for sticking it out. I then told them that we try to be as accurate as we can so we wanted to show them period-correct rain.

The rest of the afternoon went well, the sun coming out once again. I made my way around, saying goodbye til the next event to many of my friends. By the time the sounding whistle for the park to close and for us to pack up was heard, another storm threatened, so we scurried to get our tents down and our things packed. Most of us were able to do so, but a few happened to get stuck in another downpour. We helped who we could and then *poof* just like that we were in our carriage turned van and on our way home, reveling in the glorious weekend we had just experienced.

My favorite part of the event? Believe it or not, it came after we had returned home. My wife and I were reminiscing of our wonderful time when she said that it was one of her very best reenactments ever. This from a woman who swore to never do another three day event after Jackson last year.

The event at Greenfield Village, even with the farby Model T's riding around, is always top notch, and most of us strive to look and act as authentic and accurate as we possibly can. It is an honor to be a part of an internationally known museum for a few days and show thousands upon thousands of people what we do and know best: living history of the Civil War era.


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3 comments:

Deborah said...

Good Evening,
May I ask what the wreath is made of at the Greenfield Village Memorial Day service? I am a member of the UDC and our wreath was made from Magnolia leaves.
Thank you.

Historical Ken said...

I'm not sure - - I will see if I can find out for you - - -

unmitigated me said...

My dear sir, I am so pleased to hear tell of the survival of all concerned from the terrible storm that passed through on the Monday of which you speak. From my more comfortable environs in nearby Nankin, I was a-feared that many a soldier might be blown away by the storm. You, sir, and your lady wife, are brave in the extreme, and part of what makes the weekend such a wonderful, awe-inspiring event.