Friday, September 25, 2009

'Tis Autumn

The Autumn beauty of Mill Creek off Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan

Although the summertime has the bulk of our Civil War reenactments - which, as you may or may not know, makes this blogger extremely satisfied - I still love the Autumn time of year the best. No, not because of football. Sorry, I'm not a fan.
When you think about it, fall is the most old time/traditional time of the year. This is when city folks, who normally go to the mall, spend time in front of their TV (watching football!), or sitting at their computer, head out to the the country to the cider mills for apple and pumpkin picking, cider & donuts, haystack climbing, and crisp cool walks through country paths. I suppose this tradition stems from the harvest celebrations in days of old and has just carried on into the 21st century.

We in my family are no different; Patty and I have been doing cider-milling for over 20 years, and our children (even the adult children) look forward to it as well.
Yes, it's true that the mills over-charge (that's an understatement) and many mills have turned the fall celebrations more into Hallowe'en celebrations rather than celebrating the fall harvest. But the traditional atmosphere in some of the older family-owned-for-generations mills can still be found, away from the hubbub of the more 'popular' mills that spend their money in expensive advertisements and silly mechanical hillbilly bears singing country songs.
So, it's to the traditional mills that we head, curbing our spending greatly by sticking only to cider & donuts,

Of course, with the cooler weather we know the smell of apple pie can't be too far away. Yes, my wife is a master apple pie maker - she learned from my mother who was taught by her own mother - and Patty will bake one or two pies a week now through the Christmas Season.
We gotta do something with the two full bushels of apples we pick!
Oh yeah...homemade apple sauce, too!

Apple picking - two bushels are never enough!

And, we cannot forget the biggest fall harvest celebration this time of year has to offer, Thanksgiving. I know we think of Thanksgiving as the opening of the Christmas Season but it's still actually a Fall Harvest Celebration.

Another trip my wife and I take every year is to that tourist trap of Michigan tourist traps, Frankenmuth (,_Michigan). Yeah, we eat the chicken dinners, we go to Bronner's Christmas shop (amazing!!), and we'll even shop the tourist-y stores. But, my favorite part of this trip is, first of all, the scenic drive up I-75 with the changing leaves. The other thing I enjoy is our frequent stops off the beaten path to local antique shops. We never seem to leave without finding a treasure, whether small (a wrought-iron matchstick holder) or large (a hall tree).
What fun we have on this one day excursion all to ourselves.

Romeo has some quality antique shops, among the other smaller towns in the "thumb" of Michigan

Living in the city, we are not allowed to burn leaves, but when we travel northward into the country, the smell of burning leaves is almost as good and satisfying as the smell of a hot apple pie...almost!

My son buried in leaves

With darkness coming earlier each evening fall is also my favorite time of year for using 'natural lighting' - this is when we burn candles and oil lamps quite often. Again, it gives off that relaxed, old-time atmosphere that the way-too-bright electric lights simply cannot give. Many people find the shorter days depressing - some having that "seasonal affective disorder" - and find they need to have the brighter lights on throughout the house.
I'm just the opposite. I love cloudy, dingy fall days with the darkness of twilight time coming in the late afternoon or early evening. (And I can't stand the fact that Congress (was it Congress?) has enacted the extension for daylight savings time. In fact, I wish we would get rid of DST altogether! Let's stick with one time all year 'round).

Some of the lighting apparatus used to give a glow to our evenings during the fall season

Don't get me wrong, by February, I am more than ready for the natural longer daylight hours and warmer temps. But, come late September, give me the fall feeling of shorter days and longer, cooler nights.

I do love each season - yes, even winter - but Autumn just seems to carry more tradition with it than the others.
And I am a traditional guy!

By the way...there are a couple of fall reenactments this time of year, and, yes, they are among my favorites because of the time of year!

A scenic scene from the past at the Wolcott Mill Civil War reenactment in northern Macomb County, Michigan


Monday, September 21, 2009

Common Sense

Here I go on one of my common sense diatribes.
Back to History in the next blog - - - - (every once in a while I have to get things off my chest - this is one of those times)

Interesting conversation of late... my good friend has a foreign exchange student from Germany staying with her for a few months and is sending her to a local high school. While discussing this with college friends of my son, it was brought up that the young lady spoke fluent English, which turned the discussion into how, in Europe, students are taught to speak more than one language practically from birth. Now, a few of the college age kids noted how "dumb" and conceited Americans are in that they don't feel the need to learn a foreign language; we feel we're too good to learn another language.
I brought up the fact that if each state in our union spoke a different language - much in the way Europe is set up with their countries and languages - then we, too, would know more foreign languages. Case in point: a very large segment of Americans living on the Tex/Mex border can speak Spanish, while the greater majority of folks here in Michigan (or Kansas, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, etc.) cannot, due mainly to the fact that those of Spanish descent that are living here speak...well...English.
Let's face it, here in Michigan there is little opportunity to speak a foreign language unless you are taking a foreign language class. And even then, who, besides your classmates, will you hold a conversation with, unless you get a job as a foreign correspondent of some sort (or if you plan on doing quite a bit of world traveling)?
The residents of Europe travel frequently between their countries, much as we in the U.S. do between states. Therefore, folks across the Atlantic find it much to their advantage to learn their neighboring country's languages.
Living here in the states, however, does not give most people the opportunity to learn and use other languages. My own state of Michigan is totally surrounded by English-speaking people, some with differing dialects, but English nonetheless.
Does that make us (as one college student spouted) dumb?
I guess in today's society I expect that, to many, maybe the answer is yes, given the way the media promotes dumb Americans.
Yeah, and that drives me crazy.
Anyhow, let's put it all into perspective: I can pretty much guarantee that if the people of Ohio spoke, for instance, German, and the population in Indiana spoke Italian, and the Canadians living across the Detroit River in Windsor spoke exclusively French - much like the different speaking countries of Europe - we here in English-speaking Michigan would more than likely know each of these languages as well.
Makes sense, doesn't it?
(I wonder how many native Frenchmen can speak the language of a far more distant land than England, for instance, say, Russian or Chinese?)
Now, just to show you how so many college students are book-smart but lack common sense (or listen too much to our 'global society' anti-American media):
Why do nearly all of the Europe population learn and speak English? Well, let's face it, the greater majority of movies, TV shows, and popular music shown and played in those countries comes out of America and England. Not that they don't have their own, mind you. But, the English speaking entertainment is very popular in non-English-speaking countries. That's a fact. A humorous aside here: the Beatles, nearly 50 years ago, sang a couple of their most well-known tunes in German - I Want to Hold Your Hand and She Loves You - and yet it was the English versions that sold in far greater quantities to the Germans.
Now, I grew up with my Italian grandparents living with us and, because of that, I could understand and even speak (a little) Italian in my youth. Once my grandparents and that whole immigrant generation died out, much of the language was lost to the descendants. Why? Simple: no one to converse with.
But, my grandparents also felt that they were living in America now and because this was their newly adopted land then they should speak English. Yes, they continued speaking in Italian as well, but they had no problem conversing with srore owners, etc., in English.
And, to me, that's as it should be...when in Rome...
Do you want to learn a foreign language? Great!
But, please don't think that I am dumb or conceited because I have no desire to do the same.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

History in School Musings

I did not do very well in history class during my jr. high and high school years. In fact my grades were downright poor.
It just didn't hold my interest.
Now, if you've read what I wrote nearly a year ago (And How Long Have YOU Been Into History?) you'll remember that I have been into history virtually my entire life. But, just as Henry Ford once stated, "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."
I fully concur.
What brought this on was yesterday, the history teacher at the middle school in which I work figured that since I was this 'major history buff' that I probably skated through my history classes and received all high marks. Was she shocked to find just the opposite! Like Mr. Ford, I had no interest in wars, major political controversies, territorial extensions and the like. Back in either 8th or 9th grade I recall asking my history teacher what people ate for breakfast during colonial times (this was during the bi-centennial, so the colonial era was very popular), and he thought I was being impudent.
I wasn't. I really wanted to know.
I also wondered what folks did at night for entertainment. I mean, I watched TV...probably Happy Days or Welcome Back Kotter or something along those lines. I knew my parents, when they were in their teens did close to the same thing I did, except they listened to the radio in that pre-TV era.
But what did the average 14 year old of the 1850's or the 1770's do when the sun went down? Surely they didn't go to bed quite so early, especially in the wintertime when the days are so much shorter.
I wanted to know!
Again, the teacher wasn't sure how to take me.
Finally, after speaking with me after class one day, he understood that I was quite serious in my quest of everyday life knowledge of days gone by, and he made me a deal: learn the names and dates and all of the other political information I needed to know in order to pass the class and he would do his best to find me the social history I was looking for.
We both kinda stuck by our promise: I passed all of my tests and turned in most of my homework and he did his best to get my information for me.
Unfortunately, he could find very little. The information just wasn't out there, readily available like it is today.
And it took years of heavy duty research just to find little snippets, but I grabbed onto anything and everything I could. One of the best sources (at that time) for everyday life during the late 19th and early 20th century was a magazine called "Good Old Days" that my mother used to subscribe to.
Another source was looking at microfilm of old newspaper advertisements.
So here I am today...a school janitor...and now history teachers come to me with questions about everyday life of long ago times because they know I'll have the answers.
Because most school text books still do not teach that.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

War is Hell...or Is It?

What's wrong with this picture:

I'll give you a little hint - these guys were "shot" during a battle reenactment.
I don't be supposedly shot and still in the midst of an intense battle, they sure look pretty comfortable, do they not?

How about this photo:

Again, these infantryman are in the middle of protecting a town from invading Rebs, but the soldier 2nd from left is enjoying himself (herself?) a little too much to be taken seriously. In fact, during this particular battle (where the Rebels attempted to capture our "town" and the Yankees defended it) the soldiers were smiling and laughing throughout. One of the civilians (yes, a civilian!) who "lived in town" actually went up to these folks and told them to at least act like they're in a serious situation.
They looked at this civilian like she was nuts!
I mean, come on!

Now, I am sure many of us, either as civilians on the sidelines or as patrons visiting a reenactment, have been witness to this 'behavior' many times. I have often seen and heard many times from those on the sidelines point and laugh at this sort of unrealistic-during-a-battle behavior. It happens at virtually every battle.
I don't know about you, but it drives me crazy every time I see it.
I am certain that there are very few military reenactors who read my blogs, but if the rest of us can get the word out to the military end of our units maybe we can begin to stop this battlefield behavior so that those in the audience watching will take what we do more seriously.

By the way, lest a newer reader feels that I am just picking on the military, I have written many times over about the farbiness of so many civilians as well...including (unfortunately) some of my own faux pas (which I do my best to correct - -)
"Forgive me Father, for I have farbed."
"Go, my son, and farb no more."

OK - I'm done complaining for the day.

At the time of this writing I have 15 blog followers - - wow! All I can say is thank you!
Some of you may not agree with everything I write (especially when I get political) but I still hope you enjoy reading it nonetheless.
And really, I'm not nearly as serious as I come off in my blogs. Actually, I'm a 48 year old man going on 18 most of the time.
Makes me wonder why my wife sticks with me...I'm glad she does though.

Have a great day!
OH! By the way - - I will be having my very first article published in the October issue of Citizens Companion magazine! Look for it!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Jackson, Michigan Civil War Muster

Considered to be the largest Civil War reenactment in the midwest, the 2009 Jackson, Michigan Cascades Civil War Muster, like Christmas, has come and gone much too fast. But what a weekend it was! Of the six years I have participated in this event, the August 27, 28, and 29 reenactment was, as a good friend of mine likes to say, "The best ever!"
But it did not start off that way; the 1st day of our three days there began as a wash out. Yes, we had an all-day rain and that made for a miserable time in setting up our camps. Only in the late afternoon did the downpour subside allowing us to complete the set ups. However, due to the soaking, Cascades Park turned into the land of mud. But, like the troopers we are, we all persevered, and, luckily, the following two days was filled with sunshine, enough to at least dry up some of the mud.

Harrisonville Landing

What made this year's Jackson more special than the previous years was the wonderful idea of building false front structures to give the impression of a makeshift town. This allowed those of us that portray townsfolk for our period impressions the opportunity to act out our 1860's time-travel fantasy. We attached our tents and flys to the rear of the false fronts, therefore giving us a 'home' to slip into as time permitted. There were five or six of us that had these false fronts and I must say it made a difference in our portrayal of mid-19th century townsfolk, and was well received by the patrons as they strolled down our 'road.'

The U.S. Christian Commission cares for a wounded soldier

As a civilian living historian who only has the chance to reenact inside of actual historical buildings once or twice a year, the makeshift town of Harrisonville Landing truly raised the bar quite a bit. As many of you know, I portray a postmaster at the larger reenactments, and many of the reenacting participants write letters on period replica stationary to one another as well as to their fighting men in blue or gray. This in itself has made our reenacting community just that - a community.
Due to the kind host unit at Jackson - the 7th Michigan - ensuring that I had a false-front post office for my impression, a higher level of authenticity was achieved. The visitor could now step through my front door and see a replica mail sorter with pigeon holes atop a desk, writing utensils, and replica stationary with stamps all tucked nicely inside the wooden false front. Using false-fronts gives the opportunity for a civilian reenactor to 'live' in the era...much as the military reenactors live the battle experience. The dignitaries of the mid-19th century, such as President Lincoln, General Grant, Senator Howard, and even Jefferson Davis, seemed drawn to my post office, which made for great photo ops for the patrons. But, for me, the best part was that my wife and I were able to sit on our "front porch" and watch the 1860's world go by (see the picture at the top of this blog). All made this a reenacting thrill that one may not experience sitting in front of a tent.
And, yes, visitors were welcome to step into these 'buildings.' Just down the road was a courthouse where the 'debate that never was' took place between President Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

The "debate-that-never-was" between President Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.
That is Michigan's Senator Jacob Howard at the forefront

The courthouse was also where Sunday morning church was held. Another structure along the road presented mourning, including a widow and her family sitting near a coffin. And then there was a saloon - a most popular resort for the military well into the evening, a milliner's shop, a U.S. Christian Commission giving care to wounded soldiers, a laundress, and a dressmaker's shop.

A brass band performs in front of the courthouse

Throughout the weekend, the 5th Michigan Band performed period music in front of the courthouse as well, not only giving one the sights of a period town, but the sounds as well.
Guided town tours were given, and those of us portraying shop owners spoke to the public in a 1st person vernacular. In fact, many of us remained in that mode throughout the duration of the weekend.
And the patrons loved it! Throughout the day I heard repeatedly, "This is really neat;" "This is so cool;" and, "I've never seen anything like this before!"

A local checks to see if she has mail from her husband

Although this blog is civilian oriented, I must say the battles that took place over the three days were as intense as any I have seen, especially Saturday's Battle of Antietam Creek. But, Sunday's Battle of Sailor's Creek followed by Lee's surrender at Appomattox was history come to life. My father-in-law, who had never attended a reenactment before, drove in from Battle Creek on Sunday, expecting to see a few nuts running around with guns in funny clothes. What he saw literally made his mouth drop, and he was awestruck at the sheer size of this event, and had no idea that so many folks were involved in living history.

He will be back next year!

To take this hobby - this passion - to a higher level is something we should, as living historians, strive for. And at the 2009 Jackson Civil War Muster I believe we raised the bar several notches.
My hat is off to the hard-working folks who made it possible for history to come alive: Jeff and Vickie Verstraete, Jim Kirschensteiner, and Ellyn Painter, all from the host unit of the 7th Michigan.