Monday, January 2, 2012

How One Family Became Living Historians

How did we get here...

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...from here?

I get asked every-so-often how and why did my family and I get involved in Civil War reenacting.
Here's our story, one that I wrote and originally posted three years ago but have updated since...

For years I have enjoyed visiting historical reenactments, seeing the participants wearing period clothing and living as if they were from the past. I envied those folks that were able to assume the role of a person from another era, and I would think about it quite a bit after returning home. But, I had always felt living history was an exclusive club and that a plain Joe like me could not just join. This want I had to join those who brought the past to life would nag at me each time I would visit an event. Because of my literal life-long love of history (And How Long Have YOU Been Into History?) I really wanted to be a part of this group of people! A big problem, unfortunately, was my job - my occupation at that time was in retail and that meant nearly every weekend was spent at work. This did not give me much of an opportunity to pursue reenacting.
After years of living the retail life, I wised up and found a new job - one that allowed me to have my weekends free. It was that same year (1996) that my family and I visited the Dickens Festival up in Holly, Michigan for the first time. What a great time we had, seeing street actors dressed up in Dickensian clothing, bringing the characters from Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" to life before my eyes. Now, you have to understand that "A Christmas Carol" is my favorite book and movie, and my wife, Patty, and I, years earlier, used to speak of having a Dickens Christmas party one day.
It never happened.
What did happen, however, was that the following year I contacted the entertainment director of the Dickens Festival, Sharon Thomas, and, through her taking a chance on someone she had never even seen before (I believe it was my enthusiasm over the phone that sold her), she gave me the opportunity to join the troupe, and thus paved the way for my, um, lifestyle today.
Initially I did simple easy tasks that no one wanted such as selling raffle tickets. This wasn't my favorite thing but I knew it was an "in." A year or two later I became a chestnut vendor, which was actually great fun: I got to roast chestnuts over an open fire and speak to many visitors as a London street vendor just like in days of old. Then finally I got a small part in the play as a charity man asking Scrooge for a donation. To me, this was the big time.

At the 2001 Holly Dickens Festival -
velcro polyester costume - - - Hey! Ya gotta start somewhere!

My wife joined me that first year...she hated it! She absolutely found it not to be to her liking. She did not like being in the cold, she did not like the tight scheduling of events, and she did not like conversing with the public as an actress.
But, luckily for me, she never tried to prevent me from my participation. And eventually, my two older children also took part - one as a vendor and a singer, the other as Tiny Tim. Like me, they enjoyed it immensely.
So on the weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas we donned our Dickensian costumes (for they really were costumes - far from authentic - purchased at a costume shop) and found a niche we never knew we had. We had a great time speaking in our pseudo-British accents and joking with the patrons and the other Dickens characters, doing our best to make "A Christmas Carol" come to life.

Yes, that's me between Scrooge & Marley

The trouble was, it only lasted through the Christmas season, and I found myself thinking about the Festival throughout the year. I wanted more. In fact, I would even throw on the costume here and there when no one was home. It was clear to me that one month of pretending I was from the past was not enough - I really wanted more.
It was in 1999 that my family and I visited the Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village on Memorial Weekend.
Wow! Literally hundreds of people dressed as soldiers and civilians from over a century earlier! Now this was a far cry from the Dickens Festival. I mean, yes, I had been to reenactments before, including Colonial Days (Greenfield Village has since removed this from its itinerary), but never the Civil War reenactment, for we always - without fail - spent our Memorial Weekends up at the cottage, so visiting anywhere beyond the cottage location was never an option.
But this particular year (1999) we came home a day early specifically to visit this reenactment.
I was like a kid on Christmas morning: we were surrounded by the America of the 1860's - and, even with my lack of knowledge on period clothing I could tell these people weren't fooling...was this for real???
It was beyond anything I'd ever seen!
Again, the want - the need - to take part in such a historical presentation came to the forefront of my mind. I could just feel the entire of my mind and soul aching - seriously aching - to take part in this form of time travel, even more so than the Dickens Festival; I could tell this was the real deal where the Dickens Festival was more play acting. I inquired to a recruiter for one of the military units on how I could participate in such a cool activity. The unit I spoke with (which shall remain nameless here) was friendly enough and explained how simple it was to join, which my eldest son and I did on the spot (my wife was uncertain at the time). The man told us of an event coming up that we could attend with them that was small enough and would give us a chance to see what it was like. After explaining that my son and I didn't have clothing nearly as authentic as what they were wearing - that what we had were Velcro costumes from a costume shop - we were told to wear it anyhow, that it would be OK.
We did.
---mm---not a good move...........
Unfortunately, at this event, we were shunned.
We must've had the plague or something.
No one spoke to us. No one explained to us anything about reenacting; what we were doing wrong or right. In fact, there was plenty of whispering going on.
And staring.
At my son and I.
Until we felt we had had enough and decided these people could kiss our...
Well, anyhow, we concluded that it was time for us to leave.
Then - and only then - did a period-dressed gentleman speak with us to tell us how great a time Civil War reenacting was and that he hoped we'd return.
Too late.
Yeah, I know I should have told this guy exactly what was on my mind, but I believe he could tell how we felt, for he had a very sympathetic tone to his voice.
My son and I were miserable and we both agreed that if this was the way people that reenacted were, then we wanted nothing to do with them.
Who needs 'em?
And I ached again. I mean really ached this time.
History was letting me down. This subject that meant the world to me - this subject that I had studied intently for nearly my entire life - blew me off.
The same year I joined the Dickens Festival I had also joined the East Detroit Historical Society and I helped to create programs for our 1872 schoolhouse, including having me every-so-often put on my costume and act as a 19th century superintendent to the schoolchildren that would visit during the school year. That was fun and it helped a bit during the off season, even if it only happened once or twice a year. And, I would also, at times, convince my wife to don her costume and play along with me here and there for the different historical society events we would put on. Sadly, it usually ended with her saying something to the effect of, "It was OK but once in a while is enough."
However, the fact that she was willing to dress 19th century (we didn't know about "farby" yet!) had always made me feel that there was some interest in this sort of thing for her. But, my question was not only how can we do more events like this do I get my wife to willingly portray history more often as well?
For me, though, even with these "extra" historical activities, there was just something missing...there was still this empty feeling...with my knowledge of social history (for I studied it daily - still do!), what was missing?
Of course, the memory of my experience with a real reenacting unit was very fresh in my mind, and I knew that had my wife experienced what I did, she would never even consider reenacting.
Enter an East Detroit Historical Society living history luncheon where Patty and I portrayed the famed author Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine. Yes, my wife willingly agreed to do this (!?!). As I researched information on the author and his wife I inadvertently discovered period clothing websites. Since my sister-in-law's sister was a seamstress, we ordered period correct (circa 1840) clothing patterns for Patty's dress and for my shirt and hired Miss Cathy to make them for us. The rest of what we wore was still costume.

Charles and Catherine Dickens -
we were trying...

Patty also learned as much as she could about Catherine Dickens so she could answer questions should any arise. However, at the garden party, the majority of the inquiries were not about Catherine Dickens, but of the period dress she was wearing. That had inadvertently become her main topic of conversation (see photo above). The funny thing about this was that once the four-hour luncheon had ended and we had returned to our home, Patty remained in her dress for a couple hours afterward.
It was shortly after this luncheon that three of us from our historical society decided to plan a fund-raising event in our local park: a historical timeline of the colonial era through the turn of the 20th century - one where all participants would dress in period "costumes". And, yes, I wanted my family to be involved. Patty actually offered to sew a dress for our two year old daughter, and, as for our only son that did not have anything period to wear (remember: my two oldest had their Dickens costumes), we would put together something we felt could "pass."

Here I am with the other two members of our historical society that put together our Erin-Halfway Days Timeline event in 2004

I had even found a ca 1900 jacket off ebay that I thought would work to improve my own impression.
Let us jump up eight months into the future, to the very next Memorial Weekend. The timeline event  was to take place in just a couple of months. However, I had convinced Patty to dress up, once again, in a "period" dress - one that I found that, to my untrained eye, looked a bit more accurate to the 1860's, and we attended the Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village, dressed "period" as best as we could. Her ensemble now included a hoop skirt of which she had never worn. (Looking at the dress now, it was far from accurate but better than the Dickens Festival costume).
Being the brave soul she is (and given the fact that she loves me very much) she ventured into uncharted territory. It helped that our friend, Lynn, who collects original garments and enjoys dressing period, came along with us.
Patty had a blast! She really did!

This was us making a first real attempt at wearing period clothing - not costumes - and we did it at Greenfield Village's Memorial Weekend Civil War event. No unit membership - it was totally on our own - but we continued trying. What brave souls we were...
It was on this weekend that I met a few members of the 21st Michigan Civil War reenacting unit - a group I had only conversed with through e-mail due to their participation in the timeline festival that would take place later that summer. I immediately felt a friendliness that was not present when I attempted to reenact with the other group a few years earlier. The members of the 21st even invited us to stay for the evening ball! Unfortunately, we could not because my mother was ill in the hospital and we had to be home early, but just the idea that we were invited stuck with us.
It was then that I started on the "Let's give it another try and join a Civil War unit" plea. Patty replied, "No, I really don't want to - I like doing it how we've been." I told her I'd really like to give it another go and that it would be a great thing for us to do as a family - every trick I could think of.
She still shook her head no.
So I mentioned to my two oldest sons about joining the 21st Michigan, Robbie did not hesitate to respond with a resounding "Yes!" Tom, the oldest, remembering what had happened previously was a bit more cautious and responded with "Will I get to fire a musket?" When I answered in the affirmative, his response was a very un-Victorian "Cool!"
Yesssss!!! Now to work on my wife.
Well, in early July, the timeline event, now called Erin-Halfway Days, took place. Patty wore her 1840 Catherine Dickens dress and spent the day crocheting while I wore my Ebay purchased jacket with my Dickens shirt and pants. We all got to see first hand the 21st Michigan - soldier and civilian - in action.
I wanted to join so bad! That evening, after my wife had left, I spoke with a few of the civilian members - mainly Jean Cook and Margy - and they agreed that it was a great family hobby. I knew Patty would enjoy it if she gave it a chance. But, I vowed to myself that I would not join unless my family joined with me.
Finally, I just confronted her.
"OK, Patty, here's the deal: you give it a try for three - just three - events. Why three? Because you cannot make a decision based on one or two events. The first may be good. The second not so good. The third one could be the tie-breaker."
That was my plea.
Believe it or not, she agreed. But, she had many questions: Did she have to play a role? What will she do all day at an event? What do we do with our youngest two children, especially Miles, who was autistic and didn't like loud noises, much less musket fire? And there were many more questions that I could not answer. So I told her to come to the drills that Tom and I planned to attend and maybe she could meet some of the women in the unit who could help her along.
She came, and I was ecstatic that she did. A couple of the women showed and made my wife feel totally comfortable, answering all of her questions openly and honestly. So much so, in fact, that we spoke positively of our joining the unit the entire 35 minute ride home. Patty actually showed signs of being excited about portraying a Civil War era woman!
Now, for the real test: we would attend our first reenactment, which would take place at Historic Fort Wayne in just a couple of weeks. And I wore what I did at the timeline while Patty wore what she did at Greenfield Village. Jean Cook rode to the fort with us, which helped to calm our nerves a bit - yes, we were very nervous. After my previous experience with an actual reenacting unit, how could I not be nervous? It also helped that we left our kids at home this first time out.
As it turned out, the day was a complete success! Patty had more fun and was more relaxed than I had seen her in quite a while, crocheting and talking with the other members of the 21st. We even had our photograph taken with an old glass-plate camera - the only picture of us taken at our very first event.

You can see just how farby we were - don't you just love photos from your first event?

Best of all was having the members help us along, giving us pointers, and generally accepting us.
We were not shunned at all, even while wearing clothing that was considered very farby (a word I learned earlier that year).
All the way home, after we returned home, and into the following days all conversations seemed to be about Civil War reenacting.
"All right!" I thought. "One event down, two more to go!"
Our second event was a big one, the Jackson event, which is considered to be the largest reenactment in the midwest. The whole family (sans Miles) was to come along this time. But in order for Tom to be a part (for he had been drilling with the military end of the unit) he needed a uniform.
Yep - Patty gave me the okay to order him one.
"I think she's hooked!"
If you have ever attended large events, then you know what Jackson is like. Virtually every Michigan unit, as well as some from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and even Canada, were there. Wall to wall reenactors - we had never seen anything like it. And, since Tom had received the OK from the drill masters and borrow the unit's musket, he was able to enter into battle.
Our heads were spinning!
Once again, the long drive home was filled with conversation of the day's events - all very positive. And Patty was on a Civil War "high" for weeks following.
Even though there was no need for a third event to cinch the deal, we more than willingly attended a living history festival in Wyandotte that September, this time bringing Miles. Although he cringed when the military fired their muskets for the public, by the end of the day, even he was enjoying himself! And when Patty realized this would be the last event of the season, she was, in her own words, "bummed."
The original three event test was now complete and it passed with flying colors.
That first winter I had made the decision to remain a civilian - much to the chagrin of a few of the military fellows - and studied period men's clothing intently. I found a number of living historians on line, including Bill and Glenna Jo Christen, and spoke with and learned from them. By the time the first event of 2005 rolled around, we were ready!

At Greenfield Village the following year - what a difference from the previous year, huh?
That spring we joined a second reenacting - actually, a living history - group, the civilian only Michigan Soldiers Aid Society (MSAS), whose membership thrived on and strived for authenticity and accuracy beyond any group I had witnessed. This wonderful group of social historians, especially Sandy Melcher Root, put into practice everyday life of the Civil War era, and apply their historical knowledge at each reenactment beyond what most units tend to do. They opened my eyes to first person presentations and, because of the early workshops and one on one conversations with them, I was now able to bring history to life for the visitors.

MSAS members at Walker's Tavern - a scene from the past!

I also remained with the 21st Michigan and, since 2006, I have been elected as 'Civilian Coordinator' for the unit, where, like the MSAS, we are always working to improve our 1st person impressions, our clothing, and our 19th century speech; we've taken our living history beyond "Civil War" and have delved into everyday life of the period.

Since our foray into living history, my family and I have immersed ourselves into the mid-19th century, applying much of what we learned from the past to our present day living. We have even attempted to recreate a Victorian parlor in our home:
Yes, this is the parlor in our home - my place of solace. Also, I fine gathering space for period Christmas parties!

We have also met some of the finest people one could ever meet and are proud to call them our friends. We have a like-mindedness like I've never experienced - a connection like no other. It's hard to explain.
And we continue to meet more and more...
My wife will now reenact without her dear old husband around - who'd a-thought, right?
I'm glad I never gave up on becoming a reenactor/living historian, for I can now live out my dream/fantasy of traveling to the mid-19th century pretty much as often as I'd like. The opportunities for our time-travel excursions have grown ten-fold over the years to now include Christmas and winter time activities as well.
And be with the finest folk on God's green earth.

Members of the MSAS, the 21st Michigan, and a few independents at Crossroads Village 2010: a fine group of living historians, if you ask me!

It just doesn't get any better.



Robin's Egg Bleu said...

If I'd have known there WAS such a thing as living history when I was a teenager, I imagine my life would have taken a dramatically different turn than it has. Glad I found out about it at all, living in San Diego! Here it's making a very late debut but slowly catching on.

I wish I could get my husband more involved, but it's just not his 'thing'. Shooting guns is his thing, so I tried to get him involved in SASS as I figured the compromise of me shooting should result in the compromise of getting him dandied up. Nope, didn't work!

I have high admiration for your family and others who devote so much time and energy to this wonderful activity. It's not easy, but the rewards must be extremely fulfilling!

The best of the New Year to you and your family!

Civil Folks said...

Great post Ken.

Been there,...done that,...burned the farby!

h00per said...

Nice story Ken. Thanks for sharing it.

Historical Ken said...

Here are some Facebook comments I received about this post:

Dan Conklin -
I find myself hating the word " FARB" I to started out having this word spoke towards me. I encourage everyone to become a living historian. I have talked to several people in the past that were leary about getting started because of there apperance and encourge them the pursuit is the important thing!!!!

Robin Lynne Leong -
So THAT'S how it happened, hey? I've always admired your passion for that period of history. Thanks for keeping us reliving parts of it with you, Ken. Fascinating stuff.

Gail Smalley -
I enjoyed reading the blog, thanks for sharing.

Carolina M Capehart -
I applaud your willingness to keep going despite the initial seeming non-acceptance. Been there, done that. Still do. I sorta understand it, and yet, I don't. And on so many levels, and because it goes both ways. Every time you move ahead and do better, there's always gonna be someone who's even further ahead (truly or supposedly) who'll "shun" you and/or what you're doing. On the other hand, if you're at that "higher" level and have most things in accord with what's deemed "correct," only to be "shunned" by those who think the lower is "good enough" cuz it's "just for fun" and "who are you to say, anyway?!" A tricky balancing act, for sure. I'm not certain that there's "an answer," other than to maybe stick with those who share roughly the same ideas, goals, standards, views, etc. of re-enacting/living history and who appreciate who you are and your level of expertise, and what you're doing or are trying to do. And then hope that doing so doesn't limit you in any way (that may be the kicker...ugh).

Lynn Kalil -
I was just re-reading the Mudsill's FB page, and it made me realize how much todays's living historians owe to all those who have gone before in reenacting, even some who are no longer with us. The Mudsills, Sherman's Bummers, and others truly paved the way for what living history is today. There were no civilian reenactors in those early days, except a few women and children. As I recall, the Mudsills were among the very first men to don civilian clothing-and they were exquisitely perfect! Some of the photos of days more than 25 years ago could match up with anything posted today.

An Historical Lady said...

Hi Ken,
I love this post. Adam did too. We read it together this morning! We laughed at the part about you dressing up when no one is home---We have often just put on some of our 18thc. clothing here at home!

Of course as reenactors, (Revolutionary War), as well as public speakers and program presenters, we feel we are definite kindred spirits with you and Patty. We love history and doing this so much---it's actually an entire lifestyle for us. We too have met some wonderful people, both reenactors and the public who come to see us!
Adam wistfully said he wished you lived closer and we all could meet. You must contact us if you can ever come to New England.
Thanks for a wonderful read.

Historical Ken said...

I can promise you that when (and I do mean when!) Patty and I plan a New England trip, we will definitely give you notice! We feel the same kindred spirit as well.
I have this urge - this want - to go to Old Sturbridge Village. I know it definitely will not happen this year, but maybe next...