Thursday, August 31, 2017

Down on the Farm: Presenting Victorian & Colonial Farm Life 2017

The past cries out to those who will listen.
And as true as this statement is, I anybody really hearing the cries?
Because so much history is not being told...
Living the Victorian farm life
at the Port Oneida Fair.
That's why I am very happy that my friend Larissa and I have formed a partnership and created a living history presentation group, 'Our Own Snug Fireside.' Since we began this venture, we have presented at historical societies, libraries, schools, fairs, and, of course, reenactments, and I like to think that we are not your typical presenters; we try to be lively, personable, and interactive with the audience, and we have created a 'credible' story around our presentations based on how life was once lived - a story that we believe our audience can identify with. We search and research primary sources, including letters, diaries & journals, store business ledgers, and home account books in hopes of giving our audiences as truthful and accurate accounts of the way life was as we possibly can.
Recently, for the second year in a row, we did our Victorian/1860s farm life presentation at the wonderful Port Oneida Fair located along the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near the top of the lower Peninsula of Michigan. "Each August, amid the pastoral setting of meadows, maples, barns, farmhouses, and corncribs, the Port Oneida Rural Historic District awakens from its peaceful slumber and comes alive with activity true to the period when it was a community of robust farms. Visitors are invited to step back in time to experience life as it was in the late 1800s and early 1900s." This two-day rural history-based event spotlights historical demonstrations, including cooking, spinning, broom making, basket weavers, timber framers, quilters, and blacksmiths.
It is the perfect place for Larissa and I to give our 19th century farming presentation, don't you think?
As I mentioned, we have a back story that serves as our theme during our talks, and for this particular exhibition we based our tale on an immersion event story we've done during reenactments.
The model we use as our "home" - The Waterloo Farmhouse - - 
We have reenacted in this 1850s farm house quite a few times over the years 
so it seemed natural to us to use in our description.
Over the years we have honed our story into what could have been a very real situation that tends to draw our audience into our world of the 1860s:
You see, we are a farm family with around 80 acres of good land in which to grow our crops. However, we have been blessed with only two children - and they are both girls. It seems that all historic stories and movies show farm families as having a dozen kids - six boys and six know, the perfect farm family...and everything runs like clockwork. Well, we know that life wasn't always as what Hollywood (or storybooks) like to show, hence the reason why we decided ours would have that bit of realism added to it by having two daughters only - no sons. And the audience definitely took note of that situation.
We did four 1860s farm life presentations that August day up in Port Oneida, and we had large audiences for each.
As our story goes, my sister, who married a man that did very well for himself in the mercantile trade, offered to send our eldest daughter, Christine, who is 16, to a finishing school in the big city in hopes of her learning to be a fine lady instead of living the life of a farmer's daughter.
And that's where the conundrum occurs; because we have no sons, we've raised Christine to do traditionally 
boy's chores, and thus, while our younger daughter, Jill, is helping mom in the kitchen with the food preservation, preparation & cooking, along with house cleaning, clothes washing & mending, soap and candle making, emptying chamber pots, and other duties, Christine is spending the four seasons of the year out in the fields with me doing farm chores normally more suitable for the male sex, including manuring, plowing, harrowing, planting, harvesting, hauling, fence mending, making maple syrup, banking the house against the cold weather, and other necessities that need to be done.
And because of the help I need completing these chores, Larissa and I then discuss with the audience how necessary it is to have Christine remain with us rather than send her off to some fancy school. 
We drew pretty good crowds for each of our four performances.
You see, at the end of our presentation, we leave it to the audience to help us in our decision by asking them what should we do - send Christine away to finishing school or have her remain with us.
More often than not, the audience votes to have her remain with us, for they realize how much we depend on her help.
In addition to our little tale we also speak about our clothing, show our period home and farm accessories, and throw in a little bit of fun humor to keep it lite.

When describing an 1860s farm woman's clothing fashion, Larissa will usually bring a few extra items for some of the ladies in the audience to try on. Yes, she knows most farm wives would not have worn a cage crinoline very often, but audience members always ask about how women "back then" would get their dresses in a bell shape, so an explanation (and a fitting!) is always welcome.
This is the historic Charles Olsen Farm where we've done our 19th century farm life presentations two years in a row. It has been wonderfully restored, along with a few other farm houses in the area that are also part of the annual country fair.
The good folks who put on this event do a super job, and we enjoy the appreciation we receive from all involved.

Inside the Olsen Farm kitchen we found our good friend Heidi cooking away at the hundred year old stove. Since this particular farm was built in 1918, that is the year Heidi is representing in fashion.

I really enjoyed watching the lumbermen with their contests taken right out of the 19th century, including axe throwing, log sawing, and log chopping. The two men in the pictures below really showed their might in each contest.
Never in my life have I seen chopping in the way I saw the two men here in the photos. They told me they travel around the world participating in logging contests.

How very cool to watch these guys! It definitely gave us a peak into the logging
past to the days when they would have contests such as what you see here for entertainment purposes.
The Port Oneida Fair really is the perfect venue for us to present our Victorian Farm Life narrative, and we appreciate that they have us. I also enjoy when many of the more elderly folk repeatedly come up to us to let us know the memories we've brought back for them. To me, when you can please farmers - those who remember hearing the old stories from their parents or grandparents - and you bring back in them a little flickering spark that had lay at the recesses of their mind for decades, well, that makes it all worth while.

And now - - - 
From the 1860s we shall go back further in the 1760s.
Shortly after presenting at Port Oneida, Larissa and I were asked to give another historic farming presentation, only this time it would center around daily life on a colonial farm.
Our reaction?
Excitement...and a challenge!
But also..."Yes! Another opportunity to expand our repertoire!"
Larissa, chained to the kitchen...
Photo by Jean Cook
Ken, chained to the plow...
Photo by Jean Cook
We grabbed this chance with all the fervor of a child on Christmas Eve and dove right in! The best part for us is that this was an entirely new audience. Luckily, with Larissa being a long-time presenter at a historic 1750s farm house, her role would almost be a no-brainer for her. For over a decade she has experienced the life of a woman of the 18th century, and she easily transferred her knowledge of that era to our presentation.
And I came to find that many of the farming procedures from the 1860s had not changed much in a hundred years. I was easily able to modify and adapt my Victorian agricultural information to fit the 1760s.

However, we needed to come up with a new back story; we still like the idea of having only two daughters rather than this large a-typical farm family, for we believe it adds to the sense of it being more realistic. 
So we did...
We agreed from the start not to base our colonial farming presentation on the Daggett family. Instead we utilize the general description and style 
of their saltbox house.

We decided to go through an entire farm year, just as we do for our Victorian presentation, but rather than have to decide on sending one of our daughters off to finishing school, we decided to ask the audience if they felt whether or not we may need to pay for hired hands, for we both need help with our work. You see, on our Colonial farm, same as our Victorian farm, our eldest daughter works with me doing the farm chores and duties, while our younger daughter helps mother inside.
Again, we brought artifacts - mostly replicated (the walking wheel is an original) - to allow us to better show everyday life on a colonial farm. Some of what we have on display, besides the wheel, are various farm tools such as a scythe, sickle, and hay rake, as well as various 18th century lighting apparatus, a butter churn, and a...
...shoulder yoke. Also known as a milkmaid's yoke, this 21st century young lady got a small taste of what it was like to try on a yolk - bucketless.
Photo taken by Vicki Johnson
"The wooden yoke around my neck doesn't hurt at first. I winch up two brimming wooden buckets from the well and attach them to the yoke. Now carrying 40 extra pounds of water weight, my shoulders visit my knees as I lurch away from the well and stagger across the garden to pour the water into the cistern, where it must warm to air temperature before it is scooped out again to water the vegetables.
If it were 1750, it would take 49 more trips just to keep this garden alive another day. With men off doing the hard labor, this Sisyphean task fell to women or children."
(Taken from THIS site)
Describing making beeswax candles by dipping as well as by a tin candle mold.
Photo by Darrin Green

One of the oldest and most famous of farm tools, the scythe.
Photo by Darrin Green

We also described our clothing, which is a bit of a history lesson in itself.
By the way, though farmers did wear cocked hats, I have ordered a replication 
of an original colonial farm hat. 
Can't wait to get it!
Photo taken by Vicki Johnson

Larissa also spoke a bit on dairying, spinning and dyeing wool (sheep to shawl), the preparation of food, as well as food preservation, and I spoke on my job repairing tools, mending fences, manuring, plowing, harrowing, and planting followed by harvesting.
Daily life in colonial times.
We were very pleased on how well our presentation went. A few long-time reenactors congratulated us as well, and among a few other comments we heard:
"You two work together so well - when one stops speaking, the other begins. It flows very natural."
I think what makes us most proud is that we can gather up and hold an audience. I mean, I am sure attending a sort of lecture on history is not at the top of everyone's list of entertaining things to do, especially if you are very near a beach on a sunny summer's day. So when we can keep the interest of adults and children (for we do not forget the young ones), why, that means we are doing our job as living historians.
Yes, I suppose the past really does cry out to those who will listen. And I'm glad that there are those who do.
~ Benjamin Franklin, Sybil Ludington, and Paul Revere ~
Another historical presentation available from Our Own Snug Fireside!

Until next time, see you in time...

If you would like to further your reading on colonial life, please click HERE
If you would like to celebrate a Victorian Harvest, click HERE
If you want to contact Our Own Snug Fireside for a historic presentation (metro-Detroit area only), click HERE

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