Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Presenting Historical Farm Life in the 18th and 19th Centuries

The job of an 18th or 19th century farmer, his wife, their children...what was it like?
The social history of the everyman and everywoman has always been my favorite type of history to read and learn about.  Unfortunately, very little of this past was taught when I went to school all those years ago.  I mean, I just wanted to learn about the daily lives of the people from times gone by;  how they lived from morning til night, day by day, season by season.
Especially life on the farm.
That's what interested me.
But very little of this was taught in school in the 1960s and 70s.
So it wasn't until I was an adult that I was able to research this subject on my own.  And now, after years of buying the deep-rooted history books and diving into their pages, as well as researching in libraries and historical research centers, I have not only learned much on that very subject  (with much more learning to go, of course),  but I am also now teaching it as well, whether in a classroom or  "in the field."
That's what today's posting is all about:  


Meet your 18th century farmers...
In my opinion, farmers were the unsung heroes of the founding of our nation.  As Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in the book,  'Farmer Boy':
" was axes and plows that made this country."  said Father.
Almanzo asked,  "Father, how was it axes and plows that made this country?  Didn't we fight England for it?"
"We fought for Independence, son,"  Father said.  "It was farmers that took that country and made it America."
"How?"  Almanzo asked.
"Spaniards were soldiers that only wanted gold.  The French were fur traders, wanting to make quick money.  And England was busy fighting wars.  But we were farmers, son;  we wanted the land.  It was farmers that went over the mountains, and cleared the land, and settled it, and farmed it, and hung on to their farms.  It's the biggest country in the world, and it was farmers who took all that country and made it America.  Don't you ever forget that."
Let's add the fact that George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison,  and every member of Washington's First Congress were all proud farmers.  So it is unfortunate that farmers, though over 80% of the population in the 18th century, are almost an afterthought by too many so-called historians and in stodgy history books.
Meet your 19th century farmers...
Farmers are also sorely overlooked in the living history world.  In fact, other than myself and my presentation partner, Larissa, I cannot think of anyone else in either of the two reenacting eras that I participate in - colonial or Victorian - who portray agricultural laborers.  Now, I'm not talking about actually plowing up the land or anything like that during my presentations.  Rather, I mean to show the tools of farm life - the objects recognized and used by any farmers of the period - and to tell the stories behind their uses.
I suppose it's just not glamorous to wear work clothes rather than the fine silks, top hats, and bonnets, as most civilians tend to wear.  So it's a pretty unique niche, wouldn't you say?
It was nearly a decade ago that Larissa and I formed  'Our Own Snug Fireside,'  a historical presentation partnership, and since then we have had great success in this endeavor, whether speaking at reenactments, to children  (as young as kindergartners all the way through high school),  or to senior groups, at libraries, fairs, historical societies, Sons of the American Revolution  (SAR)  meetings, museums, folk societies, fundraisers, and anywhere else that has people who are interested in obtaining a more personal  historical learning experience might congregate.
And we do try to make it an entertaining and enjoyable experience.  It can be difficult to explain an entire year of our lives on a colonial or Victorian farm in a single hour, for we speak of the chores and jobs that must be done daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly  (seasonally),  and yearly, both indoors and out in the field.
And yet, we do.
To be honest, historic farming is, perhaps, the most gratifying presentation I've been a part of.

I believe the following pictures and commentary will give you a good idea on how our presentations pan out.
We'll begin with the 1860s then move back in time to the 1760s:
Our first time presenting at Port Oneida, back in 2016.
We're already booked again for next year  (2020)!
If you look on the table in the picture below, you will see such period items as an ice cream maker, an oil lamp, and a porcelain chamber pot.
At Port Oneida, which is located in the upper part of Michigan's 
lower peninsula, we present in a rural setting, upon farmland 
from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so 
our mid-19th century farm experiences fit in quite well.  
And we draw fine crowds indeed!

A few youngsters from the Eastpointe School District learned of their lives had they lived in Michigan in the 1860s.

One of the most interesting locations we presented at was inside a 
historic barn in Eaton Rapids in 2014.  Our audience?  
And kind of, um...shall we say, elderly farmers at that.  
But they loved us and said that we brought back many 
memories of their own youths as well as recalling 
stories their farmer parents and grandparents had told them.  
That made us feel great.

Speaking in front of an audience at the Flat Rock Historical 
Museum in Flat Rock, Michigan, in 2018 was another first for us, 
for we were inside a historic house.

And from the Victorian farming we went back in time to colonial farming.  The main process is the same: plowing, harrowing, threshing, grinding, etc.,  but there are a few changes that make each era distinct, both inside the house and out in the fields.
But the main thing we try to show during either presentation is the importance of both the husband and the wife together as a team, for without each other, neither could run the farm.  Well, at least not very well.  They worked together like a well-oiled machine.  And when children are thrown in, why, that's what a farm family was all about - working together to make it all a success.
Here we are at a middle school in Warren, Michigan.  We like the kids to get more of a feel for the time, so Larissa will sometimes dress 'em up.
And we explain the role of each family member so our audience will have a deeper understanding of life in the past in comparison to today.
And a young lady at Warren Woods Tower High
School got to see what it was like to hall water from
the well or creek.  The buckets were heavy enough
without the water in them!
Mending, manuring, plowing, harrowing, planting, haying, harvesting, spinning, dyeing, dipping, cooking....we cover it all in each season.  I believe our audience gets rather shocked at life on the farm.
We were proud to be asked by the Sons of the American 
Revolution  (SAR)  to present to their membership.  Just imagine having 
an audience who are all descended from Revolutionary War soldiers!
Above picture courtesy of Chris White
Here are a few of the accessories we brought along to the SAR presentation:  I spy candles at various dipping stages, a betty lamp, candle snuffer, carding paddles, shears for sheep, wool, a sugar cone, a butter paddle, and a number of other items familiar to an 18th century farm home.
I've been asked how I got into the whole farming thing.  It all kind of morphed from when I presented on taverns & travel and I spoke on how many tavern owners were also farmers and grew their own food to feed their patrons.  I picked up a couple of farm tools - a scythe and a sickle - and allowed the younger visitors to experience holding the implements and even trying them out.  It seemed to me that this was a better and more hands-on approach that drew a strong interest, so that's the direction I headed in.
Ah...the hayfork.
Another favorite place for Larissa and I to present colonial farm 
life is at the Lac Ste. Claire Voyageur reenactment, located on the 
banks of Lake St. Clair (the smaller body of water between the 
Detroit River and Lake Huron). 
As you can see, indoor and outdoor life is greatly represented. 

We haul out most of our accessories for such events. Larissa 
mentioned that the collection is like a  "prop shop"!
In a way, I suppose it kind of is.
Now we don't necessarily speak about each and every item we 
bring, for then it almost becomes strictly a show and tell, but 
having a variety allows us to change our presentation up a bit to 
not only keep it interesting for folks who return to see us 
year after year, but it also keeps it fresh for us as well.
Above picture by Barb Baldinger
A bed warmer;  yes, we do show the comforts we had in the 1760s.
It truly is a unique niche that we do, so Larissa and I as presenters are both pretty happy to have found such a distinct segment of a market normally low-played.  Of course, with Larissa working on period historic farms from both eras for twenty years at Greenfield Village and me intently studying the same - and even experiencing some of it first-hand here and there - the two of us make a fine partnership in this venture.  Between us we pretty much cover a considerable amount of information on the  "ordinary"  lives of our male and female ancestors.
So now the sales pitch:
If you are metro-Detroit  (or even lower peninsula Michigan)  local and are interested in hearing our presentation, please feel free to inquire within for details.  Those who have had us previously tend to ask us back.
That's a good thing.

Until next time, see you in time

To read more about colonial farm life, click HERE
To read more about Victorian farm life, click HERE

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1 comment:

Barbara Corson said...

lovely blog ! thanks for presenting our agrarian past. Barbara Corson, Dauphin Pa.