Friday, November 5, 2010

My Passion for History Did Not Begin With Reenacting (or...And How Long Have YOU Been Into History?)

This is a posting I wrote a couple of years ago. I recently came across it as I was looking for something else and thought that those of you who might not remember it - or maybe have never read it before - might be interested. I added a bit more to it to add a touch of color.

My wall oil lamp
Conversations around the supper table - - - - - - -
Recently I asked my mom, who lives with us, how long have I been into history. She replied that she thinks I came out of the womb into history.
I believe she's right. I cannot remember a time when history wasn't on my mind. Thinking back to the late 1960's (which, I guess, is now ancient history in itself for many!) when I was learning to read, I asked for (and received) a couple of books from the school book fair. One was called "If You Lived In Colonial Times," and the other book was about Christopher Columbus. And I read those two books over and over from cover to cover. Every year from then on, I would purchase more books with a historical theme: "The Cabin Faced West," "The Ghost of Dibble Hollow," "Father's Big Improvements," and others I can't remember at this time, as well as the yearly "Guinness Book of World Records" with lots of historical facts and figures.

Then, in the early 1970's ('73, I believe), the Detroit News celebrated its 100th anniversary and put out a series of replica front pages of the newspaper covering the great events from the first front page through most of the 20th century. Of course, I collected every one - still got 'em.
And around the same time, Life Magazine printed a book called "The Best of Life," covering the period from the late 1930's through the early 1970's - not exactly my favorite era in history, but it was cool nonetheless.

As silly as it may sound now, I also ate up every TV show that had a historical theme. I say silly because, well, do you remember when Samantha and Darin on "Bewitched" went back in time to the Plimouth Colony? I loved it. How about when Aunt Clara brought George Washington and Ben Franklin to the present? Great stuff! Or when they found themselves in the time of King Henry the Eighth? Not American history, but still history.
If history was involved, I was glued to the set.
Of course, "The Waltons" and "Little House on the Prairie" were watched weekly, although I would never admit it to my friends. Teen boys wouldn't be caught dead watching those shows!
Even the dumb nostalgia TV shows like "Happy Days" - not really history - was fun to watch, at least for the first two seasons. And, of course, "Bonanza" was a family favorite, as were any of the John Wayne westerns that were shown. My father and I together would sit and watch every one of them whenever they were shown on television in this age before VHS, DVD, and DVR.

Aside from the TV and books, I, without realizing it, sort of practiced an early form of living history.  No...not pretending - there is a difference. You see, the house I grew up in had two fireplaces and, after reading about how Abraham Lincoln would study by the light of his cabin's fireplace, I tried to do the same. I would turn off all the lights and sit at the hearth with a book and make the attempt to read. It was tough but, I figured if Abe could do it, so could I. So rather than pretend to read like young Lincoln did, I actually made the attempt to do so.
No other of my friends willingly went to this extent to get a feel of what it was like to live in the past. I was the sole 'nut.' In fact, they really weren't into history at all, and if they were they certainly didn't show it.
Yup - I was the odd man out!
Besides the fireplace (that my dad would have lit continuously from early autumn through springtime) my mother would begin to burn candles right after Labor Day, and that would also continue til about Easter time. They were normal everyday candles, not the perfumed fancy garbage that are 'in' today. It seemed like we had firelight flickering from the fireplace and from the candles nearly as often as the electric lights. Well, maybe not that much, but it was quite often.
And when I found out that our 1941 home was actually built with bricks from a 19th century building, I was elated! That was almost like living in a Victorian home! least in my mind it was.........
It's the bricks from this late 19th century structure that were used to build the 1941 house I grew up in
It was during this time (the early '70's) that, while playing outside, I would also pretend to be living in the colonial and pioneer days. If it was a good day, I could get a friend or two to begrudgingly play along with me.
Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit did not leave much for pioneering but one of our neighbors up the street from us had a privacy fence that ran from their property through their next door neighbor's property. Behind this privacy fence there were trees and underbrush - the perfect spot to play pioneers of 18th and 19th century America, which we did. We would tromp through this "forest" pretending that we were explorers or pioneers of the past etching out a new life. Sort of our own early form of reenacting, so to speak. And this sort of pretending was especially fun if we were up at the cottage in Lexington (Michigan) where woods, creeks, and trails abounded. Now that made for great "living history!"
We would traipse through wooded paths or along the Lake Huron shoreline, acting as if we were Lewis and Clark finding the Pacific Ocean, or Daniel Boone in Kentucky, or any number of other historical heroes. Sometimes we just might be pioneers following the path along the crick. My friends did actually enjoy it when we were pretending in this way. Man! We would come back soaked up to our knees and as filthy as if we had spent weeks out there!
(I would also pretend to be one of The Beatles during this time, but that's another story!).

With me begging and pleading, my parents finally took me, at about age 10 or 11, to Greenfield Village. You would have thought it was Christmas, that's how excited I was. Walking along the cobblestone and brick streets of the Village, horses and carriages clip-clopping by, Model T's chugging past, the steamboat's paddle wheel splashing, and the locomotive train ride that bordered the entire Village - I was in heaven. And then to go inside the old homes and every-so-often seeing period dressed docents milling about, and also watching the blacksmith pound the glowing metal into a horseshoe, made for a fine day in the past. I even got a souvenir, of which I still have: a set of picture cards showing some of the houses, cars, and other Village scenes.
A scene from Greenfield Village 1969 - that's the Ford Home on the right (this picture was taken from an old book I have)

Then came the bicentennial year of 1976. What a great time to be a history buff! The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press had weekly articles and specials about America's (and Detroit's) colonial period. I still have some of the newspapers, all yellowed and fragile. But, I would immerse myself in the written words therein.
The shows on TV during that historical year, with the movies and documentaries of America's birth, including something called 'Bicentennial Minute,' also swept me away into the past. Then there were the Colonial themed festivals and parades that took place where I could see and hear the fife & drum corps, colonial soldiers, and the colonial civilians.
There was even a replica of an old 18th century sailing vessel that blew through the Great Lakes. It was out quite far but I could see it wonderfully with grandpa's telescope.
And I was loving it.
Was I ever!
But, like most teens boys, driving and girls took precedence and I left history behind for a number of years to pursue, well, driving and girls.
But the past soon re-entered into my life in a way I never would have expected.
Let's jump ahead a few years to 1982 when I met the girl I would one day marry. Our first date consisted of going to see "E.T." at the drive in movie theater and out to eat at the local Big Boys. Our conversation was spent on the topic history - are you surprised? Actually, it was more like history lite - I didn't want to scare her off. But, guess what? I discovered she had a passion for traditional crafts, 'old-time' living, and she also revered the past as well. We even had the same dreams and hopes of one day owning a real Victorian home and living a traditional lifestyle.
No kidding.
I went home trying to figure out what I did right...I mean, when most young people - especially girls - tended to shy away from the olden day, I found one who actually had an interest in them!
Divine intervention, I would say!
That first summer together we went to Greenfield and Crossroads Villages. We went in the summer, fall, and at Christmastime. In fact, it was at the Greenfield Village Christmas at the Eagle Tavern gala that I began my pursuit of having an old-fashioned Christmas (click here and here).
In 1985, the year we married, we bought our first antique - a mantel clock from the 1880's. Since then we have continued to feed our thirst for antiquing and period living by purchasing one or two (if cheap enough) items a year. Oh, nothing of great value. But, objects from the past that were once a part of someone's everyday life.
See the clock on top of the desk? That is the first antique that Patty and I bought together back in 1985

Early in our marriage we lived in an apartment, and we would do our best to give it somewhat of an old fashioned look. It didn't always look the way I wanted it to, so I got the itch to get into an actual house.
Of course, we did our best to decorate this new house in a traditional manner.
The real fun began when we re-mortgaged and added a room onto it - my Greenfield Village room, as some called it. Now, upon returning home from the Village I had a place I could go to help me 'stay there', even if it was in a pseudo sort of way.
Over the years we have improved the room greatly and now it has a fairly accurate period parlor look to it:

It has that period feel, don't you think?

One would never guess this was inside a home built in 1944. place of solace...

And it was also during this time that I worked at a record store. At times I was ribbed quite often (and even sometimes chastised) for my musical tastes and in-store play: old time country, 50's & 60's rock and roll, big band, and then, in the early 1990's, record companies began to comb through their vaults and release ancient recordings on CD such as Nippers Greatest Hits 1901-1920 (RCA Victor's earliest recordings), original recordings of WWI, Music of the Titanic era, original piano roll music (ragtime & cakewalk) from the 1890's and early 1900's, 1920's collections...Man! I bought every one! True historical music!
Of course, as I'm sure you well know, we now reenact the era of the Civil War and are able to live in that period - one weekend at a time - much to our pleasure. And, yes, our pseudo Victorian house (as I call our 1944 bungalow) is heavily decorated in the mid-19th century style with (mostly) original antiques from that period.

As you can see, my interest in history didn't begin with reenacting; reenacting - and, even more so, living history - became the culmination (so far) of all my years of studying. And I still study history - I still collect history books, most of which deal with the social history of Americans, especially the everyday lives of everyday folks mainly from the mid-colonial period through the 1880's, and, due to the extensive research of modern historians, I have a much more vivid feel for the way the earlier Americans lived.
It's funny, however, that the stodgy old history books that we had to use in school rarely interested me. They spoke of names and dates, but, except for a few, they bored me. I was always interested in how people lived - how they lived their daily lives from sun up to sun know, social history. That's where most of my historical interests have always been. But, history was not taught that way.
Believe it or not, I didn't do very well in history class in school because of the manner in which it was taught.

To repeat a favorite quote (from Henry Ford):
"History as it is taught in the schools deals largely with...wars, major political controversies, territorial extensions and the like. When I went to our American history books to learn how our forefathers harrowed the land, I discovered that the historians knew nothing about harrows. Yet our country depended more on harrows than on guns or great speeches. I thought a history which excluded harrows and all the rest of daily life is bunk and I think so yet."
That's exactly the way I feel.

By the way, we burn an awful lot of candles, just like my mom, as well as oil lamps, from September through early spring. One day maybe we'll have a house with a real fireplace. *sigh*

Well, that's my story - my History.
I've been 'time-traveling' a long time. Maybe one day I'll actually make it!



Civil Folks said...

Great post, Ken.

Wife and I have been involved in Christian and Historic theater since 1976.

In 2005 I spent time in Ecuador where I was on a mission team ministering to the natives there, climbing volcanoes and mountains. When I returned to the states I had a regular checkup and open heart surgery the next morning that resulted in 6 bypasses.

We decided that we were going to live out the rest of our lives as simply as possible and study the era we so loved for so many years.

That is how it all began for us. It was a pretty easy slide into Living History since we had done so many historic type plays. We just started looking at clothes as clothing instead of costuming and cookware and everyday items gained new meaning as we saw them as real life tools instead of theater props.

Of course, we thank God for His hand of protection on our lives.


Historical Ken said...

Frank - How interesting! You should write a posting about that in your blog, maybe even show some old photos!

Christine said...

I have an old photo around here somewhere of me in a prairie dress when I was about three or four years old. I suppose it snowballed from there. I'll have to dig it out and post it.

I too loved the books and tv shows about history. I always wanted to be Laura Ingalls. I also grew up as a homesteader living the farm life. I guess I just get it naturally.

Mrs. G said...

Ken I too enjoyed reading about your history with history. I didn't like history in school, it was boring and "stupid". Mr. G has always loved it and he makes it interesting, so I got drawn in. Home schooling helps too, I needed to learn the stuff to be able to teach it. Our children all enjoy history and I'm so glad.

Historical Ken said...

Paris and Christine -
I enjoy your blogs as well. I kinda live vicariously through them and enjoy hearing of your everyday lives on the farm, including your preparations for each season.
I enjoy hearing how others became involved in history and in living history. It's interesting how some are *relatively* new to it, while a others are 'lifers.' But, all are dedicated.
And, if I may, it seems that most (not all, I do understand) are of strong values and morals.
Wouldn't it be nice to have a gathering and meeting of all of us blogger friends some day?

Deborah said...

I so enjoy your blog. I grew up on the streets of Colonial Williamsburg and as a result have been into history all my life. I distinctly remember the fourth grade and my teacher, Miss LaFleur because she taught us history. I have the original text book and just open it often to just smell the pages. Sounds odd, but the pages take me back to that classroom and the wonders of discovering history. Again, I love your blog. You make it possible to step out of this world for just a few minutes and enjoy the past. Thank you.

Historical Ken said...

Wow Deborah! Thank you for the kind words!
You say you grew up on the streets of Colonial Williamsburg? I would love to hear tales of what that was like! Maybe you should consider writing something about that.

Lana said...

You have a photo on your blog of a wall lamp. Can you tell me what dates this wall lamp would have been used in American homes? We are restoring a small, rural schoolhouse in Illinois from 1853. WOuld they have used those? Or wall/candle sconces do you think?
thank you!!!!! for your interest in history. I empathize!

Historical Ken said...

Hi Lana - -
I have seen this style lamp used in homes as early as the 1860s inside historic Greenfield Village, so you can probably feel pretty safe in using it in your historic school house.
Would love to see pictures once it is restored!
Thanks - -