Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Museum Quotes & Pics

I love it when history is shown accurately. In southeastern lower Michigan we are bless'd with two open air museums - one is Greenfield Village (which I have written about in a previous blog from November of '07). The other is Crossroads Village in Flint - I plan a blog about this place in the very near future. The first two pictures were taken at Crossroads. Notice the wood-plank sidewalks and authentic roads and streets.

The last two pictures were taken at the Firestone Farm at Greenfield Village.

Anyhow, before we get into the pictures and blurbs, I'd like you to read an interesting quote first. The only thing I don't like about this quote is that I didn't come up with it. Rats.

This is from Gordon Cotton, curator of the Vicksburg, Mississippi museum (taken from the book Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz):
"I'm not going to go through this museum rewriting the past just to please someone in the present."

Man! I love that quote! Too bad more curators do not have that attitude!

From Crossroads Village in Flint. Michigan:
Welcome to Crossroads Village. Please watch your step. Walks, streets, and floors replicate those of the 1800's and are uneven.

This is a notice for all to see as they enter the Village. I love the fact that they haven't put in curbs and sidewalks like another Village I know (don't worry, GFV, I still love you!).

From Greenfield Village (taken from the Firestone Farm Training manual):
At Firestone Farm, we create an immersion experience. From the moment visitors step from the concrete of the front plaza onto the gravel lane leading to the farm, we want them to feel as if they have traveled back in time to the year 1885.

That the site looks like it is from the 1880's is important, but not enough. We want Firestone Farm to feel like the 1880's. To do this we must make sure the sounds, smells, sensations, and people also seem as if they are out of the past.

You know what? It works! One truly does feel as if they stepped into the past when they enter the gravel walk to the farm. The Daggett Farm is similar, only the era is about 100 years earlier. And they do a pretty good job at the Adams' house as well.


As I said, we are truly bless'd here in the Detroit area for the historical museums we have access to.

More on Crossroads soon and maybe even something about the Detroit Historical Museum.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Civil War Movies

Over the years I have amassed a decent collection of Civil War oriented movies. These have all been, at one time or another, available on DVD.
This is not all-inclusive by any means – just what I own in my collection. Shortly after I became a Civil War living historian/reenactor, I bought anything and everything of the era – I couldn’t get enough. Well, most of what I purchased was a worthy investment. The others, well...mistakes happen.

The following is what I do have in my collection. Some are good and some are bad - I included a small review for each. I am interested in what my one or two readers think about it. Maybe send me some of your own favorites…maybe even what you consider to be the best or the worst.

Gods & Generals – One of my very favorite CW movies. It’s filled with drama as well as the great early battles of the War. Unfortunately, it does not include Antietam, which was filmed for the movie but cut from the original. Supposedly, there was talk of releasing a director’s cut which would include this and other deleted scenes, but so far nothing. The only downside to this movie is that it is very rebel-centric. It should have been more balanced.
Many reenactors do not like it because there is quite a bit of drama, but, to me, that’s what makes it real.
Gettysburg – This is right up there with Gods & Generals. The battle scenes are terrific and the feel is real. It really helps one to understand how horrifying this three-day battle actually was. The beards are obviously fake, however – one would think they would have taken more time in the make up department.
There is a director’s cut available on VHS but not DVD – go figure.

The two above films use reenactors extensively.

Ride With the Devil – This is a movie that shows what the War was like for those living in the boarder state of Missouri. Southern leaning, there are some battle scenes, but the action takes place mainly on the homefront – the personal battles between Jayhawk and Bushwack.
Violent and touching at the same time.
Friendly Persuasion – A flick from the 1950’s that only touches on the Civil War itself, but the film centers around the lives of a Quaker family and how they learned to deal with the violence that eventually surrounded them due to the War. A fine, exceptional film.
The Blue and the Gray – Made for TV in 1980, this is OK as far as a story goes. It shows a number of things that took place during the War that other films never have: brother against brother, battle tactics (use of hot air balloons), folks setting up blankets and chairs to watch some of the early battles…
Due to this being made before extensive research of the era was accomplished, there is a lot of farbiness in this flick, especially in the clothing department. I guess it’s good to watch if you’re in the mood to watch a lengthy (6 hours) light-hearted film with your wife who may not like war movies. Not for the serious CW fan.
Cold Mountain – A depressing but good movie. The short battle scene at the beginning is great – unfortunately, that’s it as far as battles go. But then, this is not a battle movie. It’s more of an adventurous love story.
The look and feel of Cold Mountain is gray and sad. It portrays the times well. Great music.
North and South – Made for TV in the early 1980’s.
Um…it’s bad. Especially the first couple of hours. No one ages – even after twenty years. Not a wrinkle. The clothing is, except for a few exceptions, not period correct. Prom clothing galore. Lots of fornication/adultery going on here as well, like every half hour or so. Lots of cleavage, too.
Why did I buy this? Because, at the time, I didn’t know any better. Why do I still own it? To throw it on when fellow reenactors are over we watch it for a good laugh.
Wicked Spring – A film made by reenactors starring reenactors. The ten minute introduction is like spying into a portal to the past. Very accurate in almost every way – clothing, buildings, scenery. The battle scene that follows is as good, if not better, than any I have ever seen. Lots of screaming and writhing with a “you are there” feel to it.
The rest of the movie is so-so. The plot is questionable and the acting is OK to fair.
But, it’s worth getting for the first 30 minutes.
Andersonville – About the Confederate prison for Union soldiers located in Georgia. Except for a battle at the beginning, the rest shows the awful life in the prison and how the prisoners plan (and attempt) an escape. A very well-done movie.
Gangs of New York – No battles but it’s based on the tough intersection of lower Manhattan during the draft riots of the early 1860’s. Graphic violence for the sake of violence.
I don’t know if I would consider this a Civil War movie per se, but it is based around the War’s effects.
The Love Letter – OK, I may be grasping at straws here but read on and tell me what you think:
A man purchases an antique desk and finds a secret compartment with letters written by a young woman from 1863 stuffed inside. He responds to the letters and sends them to this woman of the past via a historic post office. She received the letters and the two begin corresponding. There is a scene from the battle of Gettysburg inserted in the middle where this woman’s “man” is about to fight.
A romantic time-travel (in a way) Hallmark movie. That’s it in a nutshell.
Glory - (thanks for reminding me that I have this Mike!!). A super movie about the colored infantry of the 54th Mass. Volunteer Infantry. Shows marching and drilling excercises better than any other CW movie.

There are also movies such as Dances With Wolves and Into the West, which touches on the Civil War as well. However, these are very anti-whites of European descent movies. Watch them to see what I mean.
You will notice that I haven't mentioned Gone With the Wind. That's because I don't own it. We'll leave it at that.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hillbilly As Korn Likker

What happened to country music? In the late 1970's through the early 1990's, country was my music of choice, and I listened to it daily. Artists such as Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis, Patty Loveless, George Strait, The Whites, Waylon, Goerge Jones, Iris Dement, Mel McDaniel, Holly Dunn...there are so many more. And the radio stations, especially WCXI a.m. here in Detroit would play this wonderful hillbilly music. My wife and I would go to every concert that came to town and, in many cases, even got to meet our country music heroes. We took our honeymoon in Nashville, listening to our favorites all the way down and all the way back. One time we traveled north during an ice storm to Saginaw, Michigan to see Ricky Skaggs and The Whites perform together at the Saginaw Civic Center - awesome show!
But, sometime during the 1990's something happened. This great traditional hillbilly music changed seemingly overnight. I guess I directly blame Garth Brooks. Why? Because he was a rock and roller who turned country but kept the r&r roots, thusly pretty much becoming a rock and country performer. And he made a whole lot of money. Then others followed suit, the record labels searching to find pretty boys with loud guitars and women who wore less clothing than their supposed rock and roll counterparts. Next thing you know, we have all rock and country musicians who cared more about how good they looked in their videos than playing real country music. Even many of the traditional artists whom I loved began to turn rock and alternative, and the music went straight downhill from there. I guess what sealed how bad country music had become was when my brother-in-law, who had always hated the music, became a fan. I knew then what was being played was not country but some bastardized off shoot.
Then, a ray of hope: the "O Brother Where Art Thou" movie soundtrack and tour became popular, followed by the "Cold Mountain" soundtrack and tour a couple of years later. Yesss!!!
Unfortunately, the stations didn't touch the music - they instead stuck to the current crop of country crap that they've been playing, ignoring a large portion of the listening public. And here we are once again, having to dig through the stack of BS to find one of the tiny gems: Alison Krause, The Cox Family, maybe a couple others.
Ah well, another part of Americana lost to contemporary corporate greed, like everything else.
Such a shame.

Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Allison Krause
from the "O Brother Where Art Thou" tour 2002

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Henry Ford Museum

By now I'm sure you've read of my fondness for the Greenfield Village open air museum located in Dearborn, Michigan. If you haven't you must be new to this blog. Well, on the same grounds of the Village is the Henry Ford Museum, an indoor collection of Americana second only to the Smithsonian in scope. That's a mighty big claim, I know, but read on to see why:
When Henry Ford (the man/car magnet) began collecting all things American back in the early days of the 20th century, folks from all over were very happy to help him out by sending him all of their "junk" they had stored in their basements and garages. Items of little use, including old-time farm implements, cooking and heating stoves, yarn winders, eating utensils, furniture, watches & clocks, spinning wheels, guns, etc.
Little did they know that what they were giving away (and in some cases, selling) would one day become museum pieces - objects that told the story of the average (and not-so-average) American of the 18th and 19th centuries. Other museums at the time held paintings of the great artists, furniture of kings and queens, and items that people of great wealth once owned. But that wasn't what Mr. Ford was interested in. He wanted to show the things that made America great. He wanted the light to shine on folks like you and me - everyday people.
At one point, Ford realized he needed a place to store all of his treasures and decided to build a museum, originally called the Edison Institute, after his hero Thomas Edison.
Ford’s collection grew beyond the everyday items that he obtained: more classic automobiles that you can imagine, George Washington’s camp bed and trunk from the late 1700’s, trains and more trains, buggies and carriages, pre- WWII airplanes, an original 1940’s diner, the car that Kennedy was killed in, a writing desk belonging to Mark Twain, and another belonging to Edgar Allen Poe, a teapot made by Paul Revere, Henry Ford’s very first car known as the Quadricycle, an original MacDonald’s sign from the 1950’s, lighting through the years…the collection of Americana just goes on and on.
There is one very unique piece of American History here that goes beyond the scope of what other museums - including the Smithsonian - has: the Lincoln Rocker. 
This is the actual chair that President Lincoln was sitting in at the Ford Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865. To his right sat his wife Mary, and just beyond her were their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris. Of course, as you (hopefully) know, around 10:30 John Wilkes Booth shot our 16th president at point blank in the back of the head, and the rest of the story is history.
Except for this chair.
What most do not know is that this chair now sits in the Henry Ford Museum. According to the web site American Lincoln Online  "The rocker's importance became obvious immediately after Lincoln's death. The War Department held it as evidence during the trial of the assassination conspirators.

And from an article in the Washington Post:
In January 1867, the War Department sent it to the Department of the Interior. Interior Secretary O.H. Browning acknowledged receipt of the chair, writing, "It will afford me satisfaction to have the Chair deposited in the proper place, among other relics, in this Department for safekeeping."
Soon after, the chair - along with the stovepipe hat Lincoln wore to the theater that night - were put on display at the Patent Office building. They were exhibited for only a year or two, and in 1869 the two items were delivered to the Smithsonian. They were kept in storage, their exact whereabouts a closely held secret. 
In 1893 the chair was sent to a museum that Union veteran and Lincolniana collector Osborn Oldroydit remained in storage. Then, in 1928, Blanche Chapman Ford, the widow of Harry Clay Ford (the original owner of the chair who loaned it to the Ford Theater for Lincoln's use), wrote to the Smithsonian. Was it true, she asked, that they had the chair, and if so, "Will you kindly tell me why it is not on exhibition?" She added that if it was not of use to the museum she would like to have it. opened at 516 10th St. NW, the house in which Lincoln died. There it stayed for the next four years. It was returned to the Smithsonian (where)
Smithsonian curator Theodore Belote responded that it was the museum's policy not to show objects "directly connected with such a horrible and deplorable event." Perhaps, but Brian Daniels, a Smithsonian Archives research associate who has studied the circuitous history of the chair, thinks there was another reason: Belote, the son of Maryland slave owners, was not fond of Lincoln. He was happy to see the chair go.
In the spring of 1929, Blanche Ford's son George collected the chair. That December it was on the auction block, selling for $2,400 to Israel Sack, a Boston antiques dealer who conveyed it to Henry Ford for his new museum.  
"This is the chair that embodies a transformative moment in time for America and indeed the world," said Christian Overland , vice president of the Henry Ford museum. 
"It kind of is like the one that got away," Daniels said.

I have read that the Smithsonian as well as the Ford Theater has asked numerous times for the chair for their own respective museums. Of course, the Henry Ford Museum has always responded in the same way - a resounding "no."
Think about it: if you were the curator of such a museum, would you let this piece of Americana go? The Henry Ford Museum has also painstakingly restored the chair in 1999 and placed it in a temperature-controlled environment to ensure its longevity for generations to come.

I believe my favorite part of the museum...well...it's a tie between the carriages and buggy department and the furniture exhibit. 
The Buckboard from 1885
The Chaise from 1870

And the Concord Coach - great for travelling - from 1865
Of course, the area with the trains is truly spectacular, too:
The Dewitt Clinton from 1831

The Sam Hill from 1858

and the gigantic Allegheny from 1941

The variety of items in this museum continually astound me.For instance, they can actually say "George Washington slept here" - well, not in the museum itself, but they do have his camping bed and other supplies from 1770 belonging to our soon to be 1st President!


And then there's a wonderful piece of mid-20th century that one rarely sees any more - Lamy's Diner from the 1940's

Please see the description of this wonderfully
interesting cupboard below the picture.
(The following information came from The Henry Ford site. I found it fascinating in that it brought this beautiful piece of furniture to life):
We believe that Hannah Barnard was born in the late 17th century, probably in Hadley, Massachusetts. She was 31 (a "spinster") when she married John Marsh in 1715 and died shortly thereafter giving birth to her daughter, Abigail. We believe that this was Hannah's "marriage" or "dower" chest--a fairly expensive piece of furniture she received or had made specifically to be brought into her new household. Her press cupboard stored precious household linens which were time-consuming to make, and may have held silver or ceramics in the upper portions.
The colorful hearts, petal flowers, vines, and half-circles are characteristic of a number of "Hadley-chests" made around Hadley, Massachusetts nearly three centuries ago. Six of them include women's names painted on the front, such as this. It is unusual for a piece of furniture to be decorated with anyone's name, much less a woman's. Why was her name put on the front?
We're not sure. Perhaps, after thirty years as a Barnard, did Hannah not want to forget her family name as she entered into marriage with Mr. Marsh? Or did it mark the fact that Hannah was well aware that while women could not inherit property, they could inherit moveable furniture? Did she ask that her name be painted there? Or was she surprised and embarrassed when she received it from her family or her betrothed?
We can only speculate. What we do know is that it is one of the few pieces of furniture that we can say was made for, and used by a woman.
The Hannah Barnard press cupboard is currently on display in the Fully Furnished exhibit in Henry Ford Museum.

As I said, I never cease to be amazed at the amount of American history found here inside this awesome museum - and to think that Greenfield Village is right next door!!
I will do future postings on other wonderful historical objects that are displayed inside this world of Americana.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Would I, If I Could?

One question I get asked quite frequently is "would you live in the past if you could?"
Hmmm...good question. We can romanticize the past through tales in books or through movies - take the best of the 19th century and tell of that joyous part of life that makes the 19th century look so wonderful. By reading social history books, we can tell how long it took to travel from here to there by horse and carriage, how folks worked together as a family to grow the crops so they had plenty to eat come harvest time, made by hand whatever furniture needed to make life more comfortable, had no worries about paying the electric or cable bill...
We can also hear about the not so good part of Victorian living - sickness, rough daily occupations and working conditions, going to the dentist, mortality rates, pollution...
And, when the period book or movie is done we can 're-enter' the 21st century: cooling off in an air-conditioned car or house, maybe go for a dip in a pool, drive through a local Burger King, throw on a Green Day c d, and relax.
When one compares the past to the present, my guess would be that the greater majority of common folk would choose the present time in which to live.
I used to feel that way as well - and, I still do to a certain extent. But, the more 'time' moves on, the less comfortable I feel living in this day and age, and the greater my wish to be able to travel through time to my favorite era, that, of course, being the mid-19th century, has become.
Even with all of its roughness, I feel the Victorians had 'cornered the market' on dealing with life. They put their lives on the line daily - they accepted everything that came their way - good and bad - and gave glory to God no matter what.
I'm not like that. I try to be, but my mindset is of the 21st...well, OK, the 20th century, and we of this era in human history have become the stressful nation - a nation of want and need of material goods, not acceptance for what we already have; a society of Doubting Thomases instead of a nation of faith; a nation of blatant in-your-face screw-you-if-you-don't-like-it leftists instead of respecting our neighbor and fellow man for a belief in tradition.
In the 19th century - heck, even throughout most of the 20th century - people knew the difference between right and wrong. Today, folks instead will state, "what's wrong for one person might be right for another." They will claim there are no absolutes when it comes to such a "gray" area. That everything is pretty much 'right.'
They will also blame whatever and whoever they can for their own wrong doings (do you here me, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick?).
Disciplining your child for being bad was not considered a crime - yes, it's true, contrary to the revisionist historians (who love to place today's societal ills upon our 19th century counterparts), kids back then were more disciplined and respectful. They knew the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. They knew the importance of having and practicing religious faith in their daily lives; the importance of family; the need for hard work in order to survive. Most did not feel they were owed anything by anybody, especially the government. They persevered through thick and thin and survived.
I guess my original answer to would I go back if I could go back in time was wrong - I am going to have to say "no, I would not."
Because, being a child of our modern times, I could never measure up to those wonderful survivors of the 19th century.
God Bless Them, and God Help Us.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Incarceration Nation (according to the Detroit Free Press)

The U.S. prison population, the world's largest, has grown nearly eightfold over the past 35 years and now costs taxpayers at least $60 billion a year. An eye-popping report released last week by the Pew Center on the States found that, for the first time, more than one in every 100 American adults is in jail or prison. And that figure doesn't count the hundreds of thousands of people who are on probation and parole.
What is the goal here? Is there a smarter way to get there? What are we as a society getting in return for all this money? What is this massive and growing penal system accomplishing?

This is from today's opinion page from the Detroit Free Press newspaper. There are lots of folks discussing this 'problem' in our country. And many of those speaking about ways to curb this situation are looking every which way but the right way to cure this problem. It's not hard - you take away the morals and values that most folks have lived by for centuries and what do you wind up with? Well, just look at today's society. That's what you end up with.

Please read the following I copied from a book by Juanita Leischt, a social historian of the Civil War era:

"Many modern Americans consider themselves to be 'basically good,' and do not spend time berating themselves for being 'sinful.' Americans of the mid-19th century might have disagreed. One key characteristic of mid 19th century Americans was an adherence to strict individual ethics. Most people lived their daily lives in constant confrontation with 'good' and 'evil.' Often, they had daily and personal involvement in religious practices.

Make no mistake, there was crime and unethical behavior in mid 19th century America. The difference between this culture and that of modern Americans lies not so much in what people actually did (and still do), but in what was expected of them. Americans were expected to have a well defined and consistent sense of right and wrong. From infancy, mid 19th century Americans were bombarded with moral teaching...children were taught that right was right, and wrong was wrong, even if wrong was done for a good cause. The lesson that ethics were absolute - and did not change depending on the situation - was applied in day-to-day lives of adults (and) children.
Another attitude shared by most mid 19th century Americans was the tendency to set very long-term goals, and to live life with those goals in mind. Religions emphasized the afterlife, and many Americans lived life with a view to their eternal future..."

It is my opinion that if we stressed the difference between right and wrong to our children at a young age - and we all know what is right and what is wrong - then maybe the figure quoted by the Free Press can become lower. Instead we get parents angry at the teacher for disciplining their uncontrollable child; we get folks who won't take responsibility for their actions; we get psychologist finding a "syndrome" for the way brats act instead of realizing that it usually only takes consistent punishments - not necessarily spanking, mind you - to help teach the child right from wrong; we get divorces galore - third and fourth marriages have become commonplace; we get knocked for our Christian morals, values, and standards; we get kids placed on medication for being out of control; we get the glowing rays of the tv, computer monitor, or the video games to babysit the kids...should I go on?
And yet, people are in denial in that the few things I listed could actually cure much of society's ills.
Oh, wait - I'm not an accredited anything - what do I know? Let's listen to the same people who global warming.
Folks, unless we collectively change the way we live our daily lives, this country has only seen the beginning of 'hell on earth.'

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Average Lifespan Misinformation in History

(For an update on this posting, please click here)

OK, let's get rid of this misnomer that "the average lifespan of humans in 1863 was 39 years old," or "...in 1900 was 43 years old," or whatever other fallacy the emails or statisticians say. I mean, it sounds like if you were 39 in the 1860's you had one foot in the grave, for Pete's sake!
Well, let's clear this mess up once and for all:
In general, folks in the 18th and 19th centuries lived nearly as long as we do today. Yes, it's true. If one would take the time to read journals of the period, or census records of long ago they would find a good majority of adults living to a ripe old age.
So why is this false information being passed around as fact? Because, technically, it is true - the average life span in 1862 may have been 39 years of age. The average lifespan. Now, take into account that, up until the mid 20th century, the infant mortality rate was pretty high. Er...I mean, very high. In some areas nearly one out of every two infants died before their first birthday. And then, from one year old to five years that percentage dropped. From five to 10 it dropped again. And so on and so forth. In other words, the older you got, the chances are you would probably see life into your 60's or 70's or even your 80's, just like today. Of course, death for women during childbirth was quite high, but we, in our modern day, have been able to prevent that situation from happening almost completely.
Yes, people did die of heart attacks, consumption (TB), cancer, pneumonia, and measles. People today die of cancer, heart attacks, and pneumonia as well. But, where 100 years ago they had consumption, we have aids. We also have a higher murder rate per capita here in the 21st century in comparison (here are some stats about this particular comment from the history news network (http://hnn.us/articles/871.html) :

By the 18th Century, colonial Americans were the most heavily armed people in the world," yet murders were "rare" and "few" involved guns "despite their wide availability."

American homicide remained low until the 1840s. Relatively modern rapid-fire weapons only became common after the Civil War when hundreds of thousands of military surplus revolvers and lever action rifles were sold. Yet, far from rising in the post-Civil War era, homicide fell off sharply from the 1870s to 1900 -- despite the 1870s mass marketing of cheap "Saturday Night Specials."

Anyhow, what it boils down to is that if you ever see any of these average lifespan stats, take them with a grain of salt and put the whole thing into its perspective.