Sunday, October 25, 2009

And the Reenacting Fun Continues...

My wife (right) and a very good friend before the Harvest Ball

Last Saturday, Oct. 24, my wife and I, along with nearly a hundred others, attended a Civil War era ball in Lansing, Michigan. It was held in a large hall, part of an old (but still active) church, decorated very appropriately for the season. The band - The Olde Michigan Ruffwater String Band - performed period music while band leader Glen Morningstar walked us through the steps of the contra-dances and quadrilles.
The 7th Michigan hosts this annual ball and they go all out to keep it period-accurate, and any seasoned reenactor that has attended the harvest Ball can see that they do a tremendous job.
And did we have a good time! The Virginia Reel, the Spanish Waltz...all of the favorites were played, and my wife and I danced the greater majority of them, usually with each other.

With my back to the camera, I am, with my dear Esposita in the purple dress, attempting to dance a quadrille with three other couples. We did pretty darn good!

For many of the reenactors, this is the last gathering of the season.
No more wearing of the period clothing until springtime.
I find that kind of sad...there are still fun period things one can still do during the so-called off season here in the cold northern part of the country if one chooses to do so. For us in the Detroit area we have numerous activities to keep our 'hobby' alive during the winter months. Maybe not to the extent of a large reenactment, but there is the opportunity to partake in some fine living history. For instance, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving many of us plan to participate in the Christmas at Crossroads Village event where a number of us have been asked to become townsfolk...become part of the know, walk around the open-air historical village, go in and out of the homes and shops, talk to the visitors...
I am really looking forward to this. I haven't been to Crossroads at Christmastime in at least 15 years. A great way to begin the holiday, don't you think?
Just a couple weeks after that we will be participating in Christmas at the Fort - Historic Fort Wayne that is, in downtown Detroit. I have not done this one yet but I have heard nothing but good about it. Plus, we'll be inside period-correct structures.
There is also the 21st Michigan's period-dress Christmas party, held in an 1872 schoolhouse. A traditional meal will be served and old-time fiddle music will be played - a true time-travel experience.
I hear that the Plymouth Historical Museum is hoping that the 21st Michigan visits once again next February for Lincoln's birthday.
So, as you can see, although they're a bit spread out we still have at least monthly events, giving us the chance to continue to bring the past to life throughout the year.
How about in your neck of the woods?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Wolcott Mill and the 2009 Reenacting Season

North of Detroit, in Macomb County, one of the finest reenactments takes place every year in mid-October. Known as Wolcott Mill (yes, an actual restored historic gristmill built in 1847 is on the grounds), this event is moving toward (and meeting) the goal of becoming a progressive event, and is striving to keep the farb out. It also highly encourages 1st person from the participants.

Unfortunately, this year we had an all-day rain - at times a down pour - during set up on Friday and, just like at the Jackson event in August, Wolcott became a mudfest. In fact, a couple of autos and trailers could not be moved until well into the day on Saturday, after the sun had come out and the land began to dry out.

Marching through mud at Wolcott Mill

Saturday and Sunday were sunny but very cool for this time of year, with temps only reaching the mid-40's during the day and dropping below freezing at night. Very November-like.
The evening found me participating in the lantern walk - my third year doing it - and it was a great success. I was very proud of the fact that six out of the 10 stops were 21st Michigan civilian members, the unit of which I am the civilian coordinator. How proud I am, considering how many units were at the event!

An 1863 insurance salesman - another 21st Michigan member!

But, that's what I strongly promote during our civilian meetings - to not be camp sitters but to get involved and show the visitors, through actions if possible, the everyday lives of folks from the 1860's.

21st Michigan member Doc Ramus (and his daughter) speaking about medical practices of the 19th century

I mention here and there in previous blogs about the "you-are-there" moments that some of us get every-so-often during an event. Well, this happened on this particular weekend while inside of Wolcott Mill where the church service was being held. The preacher waited patiently while the congregation was being seated in the old gristmill. It was a very cold morning and the temperature got down to 29, frosting the ground and tents up. Just before the service was about to begin I turned to look behind me and saw a young woman with her two children walk in to hopefully find a couple open seats. She was dressed as warmly as she could and, although I do not believe the intent was there, she did come off as a rather poor farm woman. Just at the moment she found seats for herself and her children, my peripheral vision faded and all that I could see was what I might have seen were it truly 1862. It was a 'moment.' No, not time-travel per se' - - just a moment. The neat thing is that my wife, for her first time, felt it as well.

Having tea with Michigan Soldiers Aid Society members

With the Wolcott Mill event now past, the 2009 reenacting season in Michigan has, for the most part, come to a close. Oh, there will be the small bits coming up: school presentations, the harvest ball, our period dress Christmas party, and the like. But, the big events are over til spring. It's sad...kinda like the day after Christmas when you know all of the fun holiday activities are over.
But, it was a very good season...quite possibly my best ever: I was able to hone my 1st person skills more than I ever have, I reenacted inside of actual period buildings as well as a make-shift post office, I was part of a film shoot, I saw the civilians of the 21st Michigan grow in their skills more than ever, and I have an article in a national magazine (Citizens' Companion). And this is up-and-beyond the regular reenactments, which were all pretty much top notch! I have also made more new friends this year than any other year.
I have lots of fond memories and some great photographs. And, I look forward, of course, to the 2010 season.

Tending a sick family member at the mid-19th century Sixberry House in Charlton Park, Hastings, Michigan

Shooting at scene for a Civil War documentary

A group image taken of a few 21st Michigan members that participated at Depot Days in South Lyon, Michigan

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Time Keeps On Slipping Into the Future...Two blogs in one!

At my job, I have a lot of time to think. You see, I'm a custodian and I work after hours so it's nice and quiet, hence the opportunity for my thoughts to wander...
So, here I am, sweeping and thinking...thinking about (what else?) history. But, I don't "replay" historical events in my mind. I make up my own scenarios (which is how I came to write my time-travel story posted here, in part, a few blogs ago).
My thoughts tend to ramble..but, even though they seem to jump around, there is always a connecting thread at any given time - -

And here's my latest...

What will future generations think of this period
in which we are now living - the early 21st century? By future generations I do not mean our children or grandchildren. Nope. I mean the people who will have absolutely no contact with anyone living on this earth right, say, 150 years or more into the future, after we and our children, and probably our grandchildren have all passed away. In a future time when our biases will no longer be felt. Will we be looked upon as quaint? Violent? Smart? Archaic?

My friend photo-shopped me into a time-machine - how funny! Too bad I really didn't have one!

No, please don't try to (and I) have our own biases and we can never know what one from the year 2160 might think of us. We can't even make an educated guess because the social norms can change 180 degrees and back...and out, and over, and sideways...
I mean, what average person would have known, back in 1960 for example, that 50 years later our social mores would have taken the spin they have - religiously, sexually, morally, ethnically, politically, etc. What average person from 1980 - a scant 29 years ago - could have had even an inkling that within 30 years we would be where we are now in home technology...PC's, DVD's, CD's, plasma TV's, cell phones...which has totally changed the social structure of our society?

That all of these things - and so much more - have changed every aspect of our social lives is common knowledge. And as much as folks 150, 100, 50, or even 25 years ago failed to predict accurately the future from their perspective, our attempts to guess how we will be perceived by future generations will also be proven to be totally for naught, because the only truthful prediction that can be made would be this: whatever we think we will be thought of by some future generation, whatever we predict that the future will be, we will be wrong.


Thoughts on old photographs: we have seen plenty, the tintypes, etc., that are printed in history books. Many of us just look at how the folks back then used to look, then turn the page.
But, are they just pictures of people that died many years ago, or are they something more? I have been collecting books of old photographs, and I find myself studying them beyond their clothing styles. As a reenactor/living historian who attempts full-immersion, I find a connection to many of the people in the old photos. And, as a genealogist that has pictures of ancestors, I feel that the people in the photos of those who have long passed deserve more than just a glancing interest.
I have been studying the images of the people in these old photos and really trying to look deeper into them, realizing they were once living, breathing, active members of society. That they had hopes and fears, good times and bad times, laughter and tears.
I am sure I am not the only one who thinks like this, but I imagine I am one of only a few. I believe that there are many - too many people today that only see *old pictures.*
That's it. Nothing more, nothing less.

For me, however, something extraordinary happened a few years ago as I began to study - seriously study - social history and learn more of the people that lived in another era. I found that the more I researched their everyday living habits, these pictures, all of a sudden, came to life for me. I saw more than just an image of some man or woman or little kid who was probably old and dead now...I saw a living, breathing human, one with thoughts, hopes, dreams, and fears - not unlike my own. These pictures began to mean something to me, far more than I could have ever imagined.
And reenacting/living history has taken that whole idea even further for me.

Look at an image from the 19th century, such as the two above. Virtually everything that the subject is wearing or holding was of great importance to them, be it a ribbon for decoration around the collar or a hat cocked to one side. To have your photograph taken was a rarity in those days, unlike today where one could easily have 150 pictures taken with their digital camera at a single family gathering. So, on the rare occasion that a Victorian did have their image taken, they, many times, included something that was very special to them.
But, I also stare at the faces...wondering what were they doing earlier in the day before the photo was taken - - did they travel to town on a buggy, or did they walk? Who were they with - friends? family? And what did they do afterwards...did they maybe get out of their Sunday Best and back into their work clothes?

What will future generations think when they see *old* photographs of us - our quaint fashions of 2009; "look at the way they wore their hair!" "I wouldn't be caught dead wearing clothing like that!"

Well, anyhow, these are the kinds of thoughts your friendly Passion for the Past blogger has while working. Maybe I'm a little off-kilter, who knows? But, that's the way I think.

Well, that's my ramblings for today. I just felt the need to get my thoughts down in my blog.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Little Things Mean A Lot

So the other day I was writing a piece for another blog I host - one dedicated to Greenfield Village ( and, while researching a few things I came across some wonderful information telling how our forefathers lived during the late summer and autumn months. Most of what was written I already knew, but there were a few tidbits of information that I didn't know

- "Fruit jams or preserves were kept in small crocks or glass jars and sealed with bees wax, spirit soaked parchment, or animal bladders that when tightly drawn over the jar opening, would dry and seal off the jar (they were reusable). Lots of fruit was dried by slicing and lying out in baskets or on wooden racks. Fresh fruit was carefully packed in barrels whole to keep in a cool spot" -

Learning about colonial canning made me very happy. Sounds silly, doesn't it?
But, it did.
Probably because it helps me to see the way our ancestors lived that much more clearly. You see, when I write about the past, I kind of live it in my mind as I write, which, to me, is almost as good as participating in a reenactment. So researching is something I simply cannot get enough of. Of course, if the opportunity arises, I will go visit a historic place to see, first hand, how the process of what I learned plays out. In this case, the home that I could visit to witness the 18th century drying and canning process in which the writer of the above quote is speaking of is the 18th century farm of Samuel Daggett, located at Greenfield Village. This is the fall harvest time of year and, although the Village doesn't, unfortunately, celebrate autumn and the harvest like it used to (click the link), the two main farms (Daggett and Firestone) and the presenters that work there still do a fine job in their presentation of 18th (Daggett) and 19th (Firestone) century autumn rituals.

Drying apples and plants at the 18th century Daggett Farmhouse

Why would I, as a reenactor that portrays a postmaster, be so concerned about the fall canning process? Well, in the autumn of the 19th century, except for a few rare instances, virtually everyone canned. And, for those few that did not can, chances are they knew people that did. So when a visitor comes to my tent and asks me a question about my post office, I do my best to answer it. But, while making the attempt to remain in 1st person, I also try to carry on a conversation as if we really were living in the 1860's, as would have been done during that time period. And, so, I could ask my "customer" how the canning of his harvest is going, then maybe speak of the old Widow Jones down the road who still cans by using animal bladders.
The second weekend in October is the last major Civil War reenactment in Michigan known as Wolcott Mill and I will be the postmaster once again. But, hopefully, I will get the opportunity to use my new-found information to teach not only about letter writing and delivery but a little bit about the everyday life of the average Victorian person as well.

Besides taking place in the fall, what else is a bit different at the Wolcott event is that I also participate in the annual lantern tour and speak on the importance of letter writing during the Civil War era. Now, trying to research postmastering practices during the mid-19th century is like pulling teeth - - there's just not that much info about it out there. Luckily for me my wife located (on a book - The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America by David M. Henkin - exactly what I was looking for to help my presentation. When I opened my Christmas present to find this book inside, my heart literally skipped a beat. Who would have thought that such a book existed? And yet, here it is! This book is an excellent source for reference and has helped me tremendously.
And because such a book exists I can now whip out a few more interesting facts to the visitor. For instance prior to 1851, the addressee paid the postmaster. But, many folks just wanted to know that their loved ones were OK and did not pay once it was known who the addresser was. The U.S. government became wise to this and offered a discount to the addresser to pre-pay before sending the letter out.

~Lincoln & Grant~
The important Dignitaries always seem to visit my Post office

For social historians wanting to know of the everyday lives of those who had gone before, this is great stuff!
And, knowing these little bits of historical information can really help give a more natural, well-rounded presentation in any living history impression. For those of us who wish to take reenacting further than the average reenactor, I cannot recommend enough the importance of researching all aspects of daily life of the time period we are attempting to portray.
And, just like reenacting, have fun while you research! That's what it's all about, isn't it?