Sunday, June 27, 2010

Real Living History at Waterloo Farms

For the last two years I have written in this blog about a living history Civil War-oriented event that consistently becomes my favorite event of the year:
(Self-Hypnosis + Authenticity + 1st person = Time-Travel
To summarize, at Waterloo Farms there is a log house, a bake house, an icehouse, a granary, and a mid-19th century farmhouse (among a few other buildings) help to show what farm life was like in Michigan 150 years ago, all located in a very rural part of Michigan. Throughout the year the Waterloo Area Historical Society that runs the museum holds various events, including pioneer days, log cabin days, and a Christmas gathering.
My favorite spot on the farm is the farmhouse, which is filled with accurate period furnishings that give the homestead a very authentic feel.
So imagine my surprise when I was told that we in the the Michigan Soldiers Aid Society (MSAS) - the other civilian reenacting group I belong to - were to set ourselves up in the house as if it were our own and present ourselves as family and friends living there during the Civil War! A dream come true! To me that is 'hardcore' - or 'progressive' in the least. For a civilian, to have a period house to reenact in doesn't get any better!

After a bit of careful rearranging of furniture, we settled ourselves in for a Saturday afternoon at the farm, enjoying each other's company. The younger set played checkers for most of the afternoon, and the ladies sewed various items. Now, understand that had this been 1863, I most likely would not have been sitting and visiting on a Saturday afternoon. There would have been too much work to do! Of course, the period dressed docent who sporadically lead the tour groups through the house made a few comments here and there about the fact that we were not working, that she was doing all the work. I reminded this young lady that I am the employer and that if she wanted to continue to receive pay then she would continue to do her daily chores as required. She and I bantered back and forth like this throughout the day, much to the felight of those present, and this was not inconsistent with the unhappy domestics who actually lived back in the 1860's. There are letters and journal entries of employers whose domestics spoke rudely to them, knowing full well that there was not much they could do, seeing that good help was hard to find. So the two of us played that situation up quite well. The tour groups thoroughly enjoyed the bantering, by the way.

Unfortunately, it was a very hot and muggy day and by early afternoon we, like good Victorians, took ourselves outside under the shade of a large tree, leaving our domestic to finish her work inside.
Such a good employer am I!

Out on the front porch, and then later in the barn, a band of Rebel musicians performed and sang period tunes by way of fiddle, bones, and banjo.
They must've been prisoners for I saw no muskets, and the Union army was camped out back, marching and drilling.

And this, in a nutshell, is why I enjoy Waterloo Farms so much. It gives us the opportunity to practice living history as it might have been, inside accurate surroundings, and even outside surrounded by all of the wonderful period buildings. It's one of those "am I really there?" events - or, rather I should say, I am really there!" - because I sometimes have to, unfortunately, pinch myself to remind me that, no, I am still stuck in the 21st century.

I would like to thank the Waterloo Area Historical Society for all of their hard work and especially for giving us the opportunity to time travel in a way that camping in a tent simply cannot match!


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Civil War Was Then - WWII Is Now

Recently I visited a World War II reenactment. Although I have been to these events here and there, I've noticed that lately this era of the early 1940's seems to be gaining greater interest amongst visitors as well as reenactors, especially the younger set - those in their twenties.
I think it's great.

To show (hopefully accurately) another important era in our country's history is so important. And for the reenactors - both soldier and civilian - who portray people from the early '40's, the information directly from those that lived it is right at their fingertips. These reenactors can actually speak to and hear first-hand just what it was like at home and across the ocean straight from the mouths of those who lived it. My mother, for instance, tells us nearly every night stories of her youth from the '30's and '40's, including where she was when she first heard about the attack at Pearl Harbor. She's also explains the details of how she and her sisters ran throughout the neighborhood to collect tin, rubber, grease, and newspapers for the "war effort." And then the 'home-y' stories of listening to her favorite radio shows, playing games such as 'kick the can,' and working at the local 5 and 10 cent store.

My mother at the end of WWII

Then there is the music she (and my father) used to listen to: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Kay Kyser, and all the great band leaders, along with their main singers such as Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Ginny Simms, Johnny Desmond, Peggy Lee, Anita O'Day, and so many others. Music that, because my parents were of the era, I heard almost as often as The Beatles when I was growing up.
Besides the memories we hear/heard from our parents and/or grandparents, we also have the original movies and newsreels readily available to help us learn of the era in even greater detail. Movies we grew up watching, such as Casablanca, Meet Me In St. Louis, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Citizen Cane, and even Dumbo, are as familiar to us 'baby boomers' as any modern movie. And, the houses so many of us lived (and still live in) were built during (or shortly before) the WWII era.
One would think that with all of this first-hand information readily available that someone like me - an amateur social historian (amateur only because I am not college accredited) - would be jumping at the chance to participate in such a time-travel opportunity.
Heck, I even live in one of those WWII houses - built in 1944! And with mid-20th century Americana collectibles easily accessible, I could quickly and accurately convert my house to look as it did when it was first built.
Although I dearly love the early 1940's era - the movies, the music, and the patriotism - I have absolutely no interest in recreating that time. I have no interest in 'becoming my parents.'
When you think about it, except for television and music, the year 1967, for instance, was not very far removed from 1944: radio, records, movies, style of cooking, the electric light, photography, the nuclear family, plastic, automobiles and all that goes with them: gas stations, traffic jams, buses...also, airplanes, refrigeration of food, bicycles, fans, even some clothing styles...I could go on and on.

All were in existence in very similar forms in both years.
I guess what I am trying to say is that the life I lived growing up in the 1960's and early 1970's was very close to the 1940's style of living in comparison to the 21st century way of life filled with Droid phones, home computers, GPS's, and cable TV. And cars, planes, CD's, DVD's, etc.
All three eras (1940's, 1967, and 2010) are modern in their own way.
And that's why I have no interest in reenacting the WWII era. It's just too close to my own early life, and I have no interest in reliving that - been there, done that!
Attempting to live in the 1860's, to me, is far more interesting and exciting. To learn how to recreate a world where none of the things mentioned above exists is a pleasurable challenge that I can't seem to get enough of. And the way of life is far enough removed that every time I read a new book about the Civil War era, or speak to one who has studied the era much more extensively than I, or even when I attend a reenactment, a whole new (old) world opens wide for me.

And I love that!
Like I said, I am very glad that we have WWII reenactors and living historians to keep that moment-in-time alive, and I enjoy visiting the WWII reenactments, but that's where my interest ends. I guess I am a true Victorian in my reenacting sensibilities, and that's where I plan to stay.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

I Believe A Change Is Gonna Come

Has anyone else noticed the change that seems to be happening in the reenacting/living history circles? The change I mean is how the living history community is striving for more authenticity and accuracy in presentations than I have ever seen.
I've noticed.
And I am very happy to see the affect it has had on those who have been adverse to this change.
A few months back I wrote of an event (An 1860's Village Celebration) that will take place this July near Flint, Michigan at a place called Crossroads Village, a small Michigan-based open-air museum that has around 30 mid-19th century structures.

Crossroads Village

The hostess of this event is striving for an immersion experience for all who participate, and thusly will come as close to a time-travel experience as can be done. (It also helps that Crossroads is as authentic a period village one can get around here!)
To make an immersion experience like this happen, participants are chosen rather than just sign up. In other words, in order to take part, each hopeful has to send in an application explaining their presentation (with photograph) and then a jury of three people will look it over and either give a yay or a nay.
Sound harsh?
Some may think so.
But, for those of us who take living history seriously, it just doesn't get any better. (unless, of course, we could actually live in the historical houses for the entire weekend....hey! I can dream, can't I?)
There has been quite a bit of talk about this event amongst the living historians in our area - all positive, I must say. Even those who were not chosen - or decided they were not accurate enough to even try to be accepted - think this is really going to be something.
Probably the neatest thing that I have witnessed due to the excitement of this particular event is having some of the living historians who generally do not put their all into this 'hobby' suddenly try to improve their authenticity; they're realizing they will be missing out on a very cool experience and know they must improve to take part next year.
But, it's not only at Crossroads that the living history bar will be raised; last year, the Jackson, Michigan event held in August created a makeshift town called Harrisonville Landing through the magic of false-fronts. This pretend town included a postmster, a town hall, a millinery shop, and a Christian Commission (among others).
And Harrisonville Landing will rise this year as well, even larger than last year.

Waterloo Farms

Then there are two other events which has allowed a few of us the use of actual 19th century homesteads: Charlton Park in Hastings, Mi, and Waterloo Farms in Waterloo, Mi.
I believe that those 'reenactors' who feel they can get by with just wearing makeshift clothing while sitting around the campfire all day looking bored will become a thing of the reenacting past (if you'll pardon the pun!). I believe that the call for accuracy and authenticity will become louder, and those that do not heed that call will be left behind.
That means eventually no longer seeing modern sunglasses, plastic cups (or plastic anything!), prom dresses, tennis shoes (yes! tennis shoes!), and other 20th and 21st century incidentals lying about, ruining others' time-travel experiences.
That means more first person (with a touch of 3rd person thrown in as to not offend anyone) and presentations (instead of camp-sitters) to make the past come alive before the visitor's eyes.
That means more research to ensure authenticity and accuracy is at the forefront in whatever we may be doing.
That means striving for correct period clothing - especially in the men's department - will take precedence.

The Michigan Soldiers Aid Society preparing packages for soldiers

At least, that is my fervent hope.
As I said before...I can dream, can't I?


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Are You A Reenactor or a Living Historian?

In many of my postings that concern my time-travel hobby, I intertwine the words 'reenactments' and 'living history.' This has not gone unnoticed by a few.
"So which is it?" I have been asked. "Living history or reenacting?"
"Do you know which is which?"
Both terms are very closely related and can easily fall under the same meaning. My definition of 'reenactment' is: to replay a historical event, such as a battle like Pickett's Charge from Gettysburg, or an important moment of the past - Generals Lee and Grant at Appomattox in April 1865, for example. 'Acting' is the root word of 'reenacting,' is it not? So acting out an important event in history, where role-playing by prominent historical figures takes place, would be reenACTING, right?
But, couldn't that be called living history as well?

U.S. Christian Commission -
Living History or Reenacting?

Of course it could, seeing as the viewer seemingly has history come alive before their very eyes. But, it's more acting out history rather than living history, isn't it?
On the other hand, when one dresses in period clothing and can show folks how one lived during times past by way of everyday life (chores, occupation, etc.), and maybe carry on in a 1st person vernacular, I would say that is more living history rather than reenacting.
When I visit a museum - or even a, ahem, reenactment, and the presenters are dressed in everyday period clothing, doing everyday period chores, but speak to me in modern tongue, that is not living history or reenacting. That's a visual way of teaching about life as once lived. But, put that same everyday person in the mindset of "I am now in 1862" with a good understanding, perception, and knowledge of the era to boot, and it's then you will see history come to history. If done correctly, this not-famous-in-history person can (and should) be able to explain to you, sometimes only be action, their life in 1862 as if it is happening at that moment.
Or dress that same person up to look like Abraham Lincoln and another person to dress like General Grant, and have them study the figures they represent - their speech patterns and mannerisms and, of course, knowledge of said historical figures - then have them speak to each other about their ideas on how to win the 'current' Civil War, and you now have a reenactment of an actual historic event.

Grant and Lincoln -
Reenacting or Living History?

Do you see the difference?
The two words/phrases, however, of reenactment and living history have been so closely related due to the famous battles being the main event that the word reenactment seems to now encompassed the whole genre.
Which is why I intertwine the two categorical phrases in my writing, because at most...ahem...reenactments that I participate in, both acts take place, many times interchangeably.
Which can be another story in itself!


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Decoration Day at Greenfield Village

The view from my campsite

All reenacting events are, at their worst, fair. Just the idea of wearing period clothing already places an event above the 'poor' category. Some events are good. Some are very good. And then some are great. I just spent three and a half days living at Greenfield Village, portraying a postmaster of the 1860's and I'll let you, the reader, decide what kind of time I had.
To begin with, this is the first year that we spent every night sleeping in our tent. That in itself was a major plus due to the fact that there was no rushing about at 6 in the morning, attempting to get ourselves ready to be at the Village by 8. That creates tension and we didn't have that this year.
That was wonderful.
Unfortunately, I do not sleep very well outside of my comfort zone - it takes me quite a while to acclimate myself to become comfortable enough to get a good night's sleep - so I chalked up around 11 and a half hours of sleep over the course of three nights.
But, I did it, and without complaining - I was just so excited to be there!!
So anyhow, I thought I'd run down, by day, my weekend living as an 1860's gentleman:

Friday May 28 -
We arrived at Greenfield Village mid-afternoon and parked alongside the Village Road until they let us in after the Village closed at 5. I love this part of the event almost as much as the event itself, for it gives many of us from different units the opportunity to visit with each other for the first time in seven or eight months. Of course, once they let us in, we rush to get our informational packets and then the "land rush" begins. Many of us that portray civilians in the 21st Michigan prefer to camp on the inside edge of the grove of mulberry trees near an early 19th century silk mill. In fact, nearly all those who participate have their favorite locations and have camped in the same spots for years, just like us.
Once the campsites have been set up, we settled ourselves to an evening of relaxation, knowing we didn't have to journey home only to come back in the wee morning hours.

Saturday May 29 -
The bright early morning sky awakened me from my solid 3 1/2 hours of sleep. This is my favorite time of day, and to see the sun rise over the roofs of 150 and 200 year old homes, as well as the hundreds of tents that belonged to the reenactors, made it that much better.
After a bit of scurrying we were all dressed properly for citizens of the 1860's and ready to greet the public. Speaking to the visitors as a period postmaster and sharing knowledge of the Civil War era is one of the nicest parts about reenacting, and I had plenty of opportunity to do that! I had the usual questions: "How much were stamps?" "When did the Pony Express take place?" "How long did it take for a letter to be delivered to its recipient?" Even (after spying my surname) "Were there Italians in America back then?" (I answered that question by naming a number of explorers of Italian descent from a few hundred years earlier!). I also offered many other bits of information to the visitors, like the importance of mail that gave information from the homefront - the soldiers loved hearing about home. Then there were the sweethearts who sent their soldier boy a tintype of themselves to remind them of what they would be coming home to. I tried to cover the depth of what life was like for those at home during that time.
As I spoke to the patrons, I jumped back and forth between 1st person and 3rd person - - a sort of 2nd person. I wanted to do and be more than just a teacher or lecturer on my chosen period occupation, but there were times when 1st person could become awkward. So, a playful 2nd person seemed to work quite well for this particular event.
Next to my tent in our little cul-de-sac was the good Chaplain, Mike Gillett, who explained his role in not only his community, but in the soldiers' camps as well. We also had a laundress, a Quaker abolitionist, an insurance salesman, a musician, and Senator Howard from the great state of Michigan, so the folks that ventured through the trees to come to our site certainly received quite a history lesson!

By afternoon, some of the ladies pulled out their projects: some were making bonnets, others worked on quilting, and others worked on their sewing needs.
For our mid-afternoon dinner, a few of us walked over to the finest restaurant that I have ever had the pleasure of dining in, the Eagle Tavern. The meal is not only delicious and correct to the era of the mid-19th century, but is also correct to the time of year as well. The atmosphere inside the tavern - especially with so many of us wearing period clothing - makes it a true time-travel experience in every sense of the word.

I shoulda photo-shopped out the EXIT sign!

From there, I took a much needed break from the post office and moved, with digital tintype in hand, over to where the battle was going to take place. I know, if you've seen one battle you've seen them all. I hear that a lot, but I vehemently disagree.

I enjoy seeing the men, who have been marching and drilling to perfect their 'school of the soldier,' put what they have learned into action. Yes, I agree that some of their 'deaths' could be a little more realistic (slowly getting down on your knees then catching your fall with your hands, and finally laying down on the ground as if you're climbing into bed - all the while gently laying down your musket - does not look at all like you had been shot by a 58 caliber minieball. Nor does laying comfortably on one elbow so you can watch the rest of the battle). But, for the most part, it's pretty exciting to watch.
Evening came and my wife and I were invited to an evening social at the 'homes' of Mrs. Root and Mrs. Smith in the location of the Michigan Soldiers Aid Society - another reenacting group I am a member of. It was here where we were treated to tea, coffee, and punch, with desserts.

Music was provided by my son, Tom and his guitar, and Mr. Andy Smith, who played the concertina. The carousel, located directly behind us, 'entertained' us as well, although we did prefer the period appropriate sounds of Tom and Andy.

Darkness came and it was back to our camp. Patty and I, along with our neighbors, sat by the fire for a while, still wearing our period clothing, as most of us feel that after the public leaves is when real living history can begin. She and I then enjoyed a night time stroll through the closed Village. There is something special about walking through Greenfield Village in the relative darkness (streetlights keep the Village from a total authentic night appearance). Probably my favorite part of this stroll was crossing the Ackley Covered Bridge. Sight, sound, touch - - - crossing the bridge brought me 'there' for a split second.
I loved it!

Sunday May 30 -
Another beautiful morning to awaken to, this time after a 4 hour sleep. That extra time over the previous night really did make a difference.
Since I wear nothing but period clothing - inside and out - while at events, folks in the area had the...ahem...good fortune to see me in my period undershirt while I stumbled my way to the necessary to wash up (no, the drawers were definitely covered by my pants!). Funny thing...I received numerous inquiries from folks on where they, too, could purchase such a shirt! As I have said before, when I am reenacting, I do not want that 1979 penny on my person!
Once dressed, many of us walked to the Martha-Mary Chapel, where a Baptist minister gave a wonderful (albeit LOUD) sermon. I always enjoy good preaching - I just wish he didn't yell so much.
After the service a few of us stopped in front of the Eagle Tavern (known as the Union Tavern during the Civil War) to have our image taken.

Then it was back to the visitors, and the day continued on not unlike the previous. We had been blessed with sunny, hot weather - I say "blessed" because I find that much better than the alternative: cold and rainy.
Sunday evening during Decoration Day at Greenfield Village can only mean one thing: a Civil War Ball. The ladies all dressed themselves up beautifully, my wife wearing the gown she made for our 25th wedding anniversary last month. She was definitely my "belle of the ball."

Lovett Hall, where the ball is held, is an actual ballroom built by Mr. Henry Ford himself specifically for period dancing. It is beautifully ornate in its decor, and I consider it a privilege to be allowed to use it for its intended purpose.
What a fine time we had, especially when we danced the Virginia Reel - one of my absolute favorites. But, there were also waltzes, the fan dance, and others of the period. It was a great pleasure to dance with my daughter as well.
After the ball had ended, it was back to our tent where Patty removed her gown and, in true reenacting fashion, put on her day dress (she does not have an evening wear dress yet). We had hoped to take another stroll but, unfortunately, she was very tired from another full day of activities and decided to relax by the fire. Mr. Gillett and I decided to walk and had a nice talk. We ended up meeting with other friends out for a walk and the few of us ended up speaking for over an hour; it wasn't until after 2 a.m. before we returned!

Monday May 31 -
The final day of our time-travel excursion.
On this Memorial Day, I dressed in my Sunday best and closed the post office. This was going to be my day to walk around the Village while it was opened to the public. A nice surprise was having my niece show up. She had never been to a reenactment (sans our wedding vow renewal) and was amazed at the shear magnitude of the reenacting community. I have found the same thought with others who have never been to a reenactment. They sometimes do not comprehend the idea that there are literally thousands of us that participate in this form of time-travel, and she was in awe of this.

We posed for a family photo

My son, Rob, had decided, due to his very sore feat, to sit today's battle out, and spent time convalescing in civilian camp. Well, he didn't sit too much for many visitors were very interested in his musket and accouterments, so he spent much of his time speaking to the guests and even dressing a few of the little ones up in his uniform!

As I wrote a year ago, the Memorial Day holiday is celebrated at Greenfield Village as it should be, with a beautiful tribute. I shall present here what I wrote a year ago:

"(T)hrough all of our fun, we do not forget our reason for being there on this Memorial Day Weekend, and, just as women did soon after the Civil War ended, the ladies of the different units laid wreaths and flowers upon the graves of those who had fallen. Since there are no actual graves (anymore) at the Village, they lay wreaths at the garden in front of the church. Then, men and women who served in the actual military are called out to the Village Green so honor can be paid to them. Veterans from WWII, Korea, VietNam, and the numerous wars after walk out to the center. Very solemn and very touching, a dry eye could not be found. Much better, say, than a parade down main street with clowns, politicians waving from convertibles, and kids decorating their bikes.
This is truly one reenactment that pays the homage and respect in the way that it should be."

For the first time, Patty witnessed, with many tears shed, this very solemn presentation. She loved it.

Shortly after the ceremony we had a terrific thunderstorm whip through, nearly blowing tents and flies from their locations. We all battened down the hatches and held our own as the thunder, lightening, rain, and high winds threatened to ruin what had been, up until that point, a near perfect event. Lucky for us, it was a fast moving storm so we were able to get back into our 'zone.' Many visitors had left, but quite a few remained and when one group found the re way to our area we gave them a standing ovation for sticking it out. I then told them that we try to be as accurate as we can so we wanted to show them period-correct rain.

The rest of the afternoon went well, the sun coming out once again. I made my way around, saying goodbye til the next event to many of my friends. By the time the sounding whistle for the park to close and for us to pack up was heard, another storm threatened, so we scurried to get our tents down and our things packed. Most of us were able to do so, but a few happened to get stuck in another downpour. We helped who we could and then *poof* just like that we were in our carriage turned van and on our way home, reveling in the glorious weekend we had just experienced.

My favorite part of the event? Believe it or not, it came after we had returned home. My wife and I were reminiscing of our wonderful time when she said that it was one of her very best reenactments ever. This from a woman who swore to never do another three day event after Jackson last year.

The event at Greenfield Village, even with the farby Model T's riding around, is always top notch, and most of us strive to look and act as authentic and accurate as we possibly can. It is an honor to be a part of an internationally known museum for a few days and show thousands upon thousands of people what we do and know best: living history of the Civil War era.