Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My Home Away From...er...Wait! My HOME!!

The "Gathering Room" (or Ladies Parlor) of the Eagle Tavern

We all need our 'happy places' don't we? That place we can visit when life stresses us out. To some, their happy place is a book, a long country drive, a cabin up north, or even a favorite movie.
Mine, as many of you already know, is the open-air museum Greenfield Village. But, unfortunately, I can't always travel the half hour car ride through car-congested downtown Detroit to get there. The Village is also closed from January through mid-April, which is really a shame.
However, during the open season of spring, summer, and autumn, stepping inside the homes in the Village really gives me a sense of (I hope I don't sound too corny or new-age-y here) inner peace. When I enter the parlor of the Adams House, I feel like I'm home. When I enter any room in the Firestone Farmhouse, again, I feel like that's where I belong.

The Sitting Room of the Firestone Farm

So, what can one who lives in a 1944 bungalow in a place far removed from the 19th century do to rectify the situation during the off season of the historical village, or when one just can't take it anymore??
Well, you do what any normally crazy person would do - - - you create your own!
Well, kinda sorta...

The back (or 'family') parlor in the Adams House

In the late '90's we remortgaged our home to add a rather large room on the back. The design was roughly based on a room from the Eagle Tavern at the Village: the Gathering Room (or Ladies Parlor). We knew what we wanted and what it was for and our vision was taking the first step toward reality. You see, over the years, Patty and I have collected a number of antiques (and a couple of replicas) to add to the authenticity of whatever home (or apartment) we may live in. Nothing rare or highly collectible, just your everyday items found in the homes of the mid-to-late 19th century; a sofa, sette', spinning wheel, oil lamps, whatnot shelf, etc.
And we were building a room that we hoped would become 'home' to these pieces.
Now, I realize that this room is not 100% period accurate. I simply cannot afford that. But, it's the best I can do until I can actually move into a real period house in a real period neighborhood ( do you hear me Romeo? Romeo, Michigan that is!).

Just two of the hundreds of 19th century homes in Romeo, Michigan

So, to create my own Greenfield Village room (as friends refer to it) I cooked up a batch of my favorite scenes in the homes of the Village: we created the main 'crust' - the gathering room (or ladies parlor) at the Eagle Tavern, as I stated above, next we threw in a touch of Firestone Farm, mixed that with the parlors of the Adams house, and finished it off with a smidgen of Daggett Farmhouse.

The Daggett Farmhouse main room with walking (or great) wheel

The outcome? Our back room!

One side of our "Greenfield Village room" (as our friends call it)

The other side

The opposite corner

My solace...my happy place...*sigh*...


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Citizens Companion

Have you seen the latest issue of Citizens Companion, the Civil War civilian reenacting magazine? I am extremely pleased and honored that a photograph that I took made the cover! The picture is of Karen Gillett reaching for her preacher husband's hand as the train he is on at Crossroads Historic Village in Flint, Michigan prepares to leave, taking him away to lands unknown to care for the fighting Union men.
My camera just happened to be ready and I snapped away probably about a half dozen shots, and this one, by far, turned out to be the best.
Right after this was taken, Sandy Root quickly brought Karen away from the train - another shot that I luckily was prepared for - and then the train left the station, our boys in blue off to fight another battle.
Connie Payne, the editor of Citizens Companion, asked me if I would write something about the 1st ever Crossroads event for the magazine, which I gladly did! I also wrote an article about the Charlton Park reenactment as well, and that one is also featured in the same issue (Living History and Reenacting at Charlton Park). As if that weren't enough, the inside back cover include many other photos that I took. What an honor!
Then, the final topper was to see one of the two Civil War units I belong to (the MSAS - Michigan Soldiers Aid Society - a top-notch civilian group that is second to none for quality living history) also featured prominently in Connie's editorial!
I have been reading Citizens Companion since my first year of reenacting and I have learned so much from it. Almost from the first issue I saw it's been my favorite. And now to be featured in it in this way...I can't explain just how thrilled I am!
I do plan to continue writing articles for the magazine - I hope I can keep up with its standards!
And, in case you have never heard of the magazine, it is a wonderful source of social history information and period correct clothing, as well as a guide to improving your living history/reenacting presentation. Here is their web site, by the way:
Citizens Companion


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Passion for the Past (pt. 3)

I have a question for you - what makes a historian a historian? I ask this because when I read some of the customer reviews on Amazon.com on history books that I may be interested in purchasing, many of these reviewers will say, for instance (and this is a direct copy-and-pasted comment): "There should be warning labels on histories like this one that are not written by actual historians."
So, I repeat, what makes a historian a historian?
For most of you reading this, you know my...ahem...past (pun intended); you know that my mother had said that I "came out of the womb into history," you know that not a day goes by where I'm not found either reading, watching, researching, or visiting history, you will know that nearly every weekend from May through December I am 'living' history with one of my reenacting groups.
I am a custodian for a public school system, and because of this, I have had the opportunity to work in every single building in our district at one time or another over the last 15 or so years. Since I am quite the talker, I have also had the opportunity to meet most of the educators in each of these buildings as well. As you may have already assumed, because our conversations tend to lean toward history, I have garnered a reputation for my passion and knowledge of American history, going as far back as the 'age of discovery' (Europeans coming to America) all the way up through the WWII era, with my specialty concentrating mainly on the mid-19th century period. I have received e-mails from numerous teachers from each level of education, whether elementary, middle, or high school - and even a previous superintendent - asking me for historical information and/or opinion. This happens quite frequently, and I enjoy "teaching the teacher". I have also been a part of school presentations, as well as presenting history in other locations such as museums, colleges, senior centers, festivals, etc.
But, I am not considered a 'historian' because I don't have that piece of paper that states that I graduated college with a masters degree in history. I am not considered a 'historian' because I didn't pay an outrageous sum of money taking silly filler classes just to get a piece of paper that says I 'know' history. I have gone nose to nose with so-called history majors, and they do know well what they were taught in college by their history professors, and they were taught exactly what these professors wanted them to know, opinions intact. And I have literally clobbered these college students due to their lack of actual historical social knowledge. I have had, for instance, an old acquaintance make ridiculous comments to me concerning history, claiming to be a student of history, yet states "The foundation laid by our leaders in the 17th and 18th are of course crucial but much of the social/economic realities of that time are not even remotely relevant to today."
And yet, it's these folks that the media, when filming a historical documentary, will look up to, will go to, will quote, and will acknowledge when it comes to history.
I am not claiming to be the ultimate historian, a know-it-all, or historical genius by any means. I do know my stuff, however, especially when it comes to social history.
And, quite frequently I am finding I know more than (or at least will be on par with) so-called 'accredited historians.'
You know, those with that very expensive piece of paper.
Besides my history book collection (numbering in the hundreds - I lost count!), I have lots of help in my research. You see, there are many out their in internet blogger land who have a wealth of historical knowledge that can also go nose to nose with the best of the college grads. I have learned so much from these fellow bloggers (and they have also replied in the same to me!), as well as from my non-history-accredited museum docent friends, and between all of us we have garnered an awesome amount of historical facts and information, especially about everyday life of our ancestors and how the government's political decisions affected their lives then and how it affects us today.
Oh, I do realize that everything needs to be double-checked, especially if it's on the 'net, and that is what I do. I must say, though, that the historical bloggers I follow are usually spot on!
I guess what it boils down to is, just because one has a piece of paper that states they are accredited in history doesn't necessarily make them more of an authority than one who actually has studied the subject more intently, and probably for many years longer.
Now, if only the media would realize that.


Friday, September 3, 2010

A Season of Fulfillment and a Time of Rejoicing - Harvest Time

 (For an update on this harvest time posting, please click HERE)

We've had a majorly hot and muggy summer this year - and it ain't over yet! I am certain there are more sticky days on the way - possibly even hitting 90+ degrees a few more times.
And, because of this, I am more than ready for autumn. Our modern calendar states that fall begins September 23 this year, although the Celtic calendar of old says that we are already into fall. Either way, we can all agree that the season of fulfillment and a time of rejoicing - harvest time - has begun.
Maybe I'm rushing it a bit, but this last quarter of the year is my favorite time. I will miss the reenactments - I absolutely will miss them! - but, more and more, I am having the opportunity to continue to travel back to the 1860's as events increase later into the year. I have two events in September and three in October, one in November, and two Christmas Civil War events in December! That's not so bad, eh?
Anyhow, because I am excited about this fall time of year I thought I would take this opportunity to offer here, in part, what I wrote last year about how autumn is presented at Greenfield Village. It's a wonderful history lesson.
I hope you enjoy it:

Summertime may be an exciting time at Greenfield Village, but I believe that it's in the Autumn time of year that the Village truly shines, for that's when the traditions we hold so dear come to the forefront.

Let's begin the tour with the sights: witness smoke pouring out of the chimneys of the farms and homes as you stroll under the trees with leaves of red, orange, yellow, and even brown and green - colors that one may not find in their own neighborhoods that seem to add that fall flavor as you stroll through the streets of the past.

Most of the structures throughout the Village are open during the fall season, however, once again the main presentations concentrate on the two farms, Firestone (19th century), and Daggett (18th century), as they prepare for the winter months ahead. And, believe me when I say that the presenters at these two farms do it right!
We'll begin with Daggett - - - -

To give a bit of background here, I shall quote from Senior Manager of Creative Programs Jim Johnson, as I feel I cannot explain any better than what Mr. Johnson has written (this comes from The Henry Ford blog http://blog.thehenryford.org/)
(all photos, by the way, were taken by me except the 2nd to last, which was taken by Fred Priebe):

The Daggetts would have stored away a variety of root vegetables in stone-lined pits that would have prevented hard freezing for turnips, potatoes, beets and other similar vegetables. The earth is a great insulator, especially a small hillside. These outside “root cellars,” dug deep enough and lined with stone, provided the protection needed. The stone lining not only insulates, but keeps the items stored away cleaner. The wooden cover/door with added straw insulation made access throughout the winter possible. A heavy layer of snow would further help to keep the storage area from freezing. This would normally be in addition to the cellar of the house, also used for food storage.
Cabbages would have been pulled roots and all and also stored in similar ways. Pumpkins and other winter squash would have been kept in house cellars or possibly garrets (attics), to prevent freezing, allowing them to be used well into the winter months. Several other root vegetables like parsnips and salsify would have just been kept in the frozen ground of the garden and dug out as needed.
By this time of year, beans and peas would have been dried and stored away in sacks in cool dry locations. Dried peas and beans used in soups, stews, and baked bean dishes were simply left to fully mature on their vines or stalks in the field. Once completely dry, they were pulled by the roots and loaded into a cart or wagon and hauled back to the barn. In some cases, the partially dried plants were attached to long poles set-up in the field, once fully dried, the “bean” poles were hauled back to the barn to await further processing. This allowed a nice compact way to store them.
Much like threshing grain, beans and peas were laid out on a flat surface, usually on a tarp, and hit with a wooden flail (two lengths of wood connected by a leather lace). The wooden flail would break apart the pods and loosen up the dried beans or peas. Once loose from pods, the beans and peas were carefully scooped up and then cleaned by a process called winnowing. Using the breeze, the bean and peas were flipped up and down in a large shallow basket. The dust and lighter debris would blow away leaving the beans or peas behind. Once clean, they would be stored away in barrels or clean sacks.Dried green beans were re-constituted and added to soups or stews in the winter and early spring when nothing green was available.
With careful planning, all these sorts of vegetables would carry over the family’s needs until the new summer produce became available again. It’s no wonder that the first early greens from the garden were so looked forward to after a winter of starchy root vegetables. As you visit the Daggett farm throughout the fall, you will see the staff harvesting and storing away a variety of garden produce.
Drying plants for winter use hang over the kitchen fireplace
Fruit, especially apples, was another important food item carefully preserved for the winter. The Daggetts had very limited technology when it came to “canning” as we know it today. 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.

Upon my own visitation to the Daggett farm I have also witnessed the spinning of wool into yarn as well as the usage of roots and berries for the colorful dyeing process.
The large walking (or great) wheel was used in the spinning process, and it's here where one can watch as the un-carded wool is carded by use of carding paddles before actually being spun into yarn. As this process is done, the presenter explains every step.
Outside in the yard a large vat of water is boiled over a fire pit. This is part of the process of having spun wool dyed to a variety of colors. The women of the family would hunt through fields and woods for flowers, leaves, and bark to dye their wool, crushing walnut shells for brown, goldenrod blossoms for yellow, and roots of the madder plant for red.

Plants, roots, and nuts crushed to make dye

The ingredients were boiled in water until the liquid becomes the desired shade, then skeins of yarn were simmered in the vat of dye.

The Walking (or Great) Wheel at Daggett farm

The finished product, ready to be made into socks, hat, scarf, or some other cold weather item

Inside the house, in the great hall of the Daggett house, sits a loom, an exact replica of one built in the 18th century. The very talented presenters often demonstrate the process of using this fly-shuttle loom where around a foot of fabric an hour can be produced.

A hundred years later, at the Firestone Farm, the fall harvest is in full swing as well. Once again, I will present here the words of Senior Manager of Creative Programs Jim Johnson, as he has written it best:
The Firestones would have used many similar techniques (as the Daggetts) to insure their vegetable needs for the winter. Pits and root cellars still played an important role. Sauerkraut from cabbage was an important fall job at the Firestone Farm. A well-made crock of kraut could last the family well into the spring. Simply a combination of salt and shredded cabbage, sauerkraut was a winter staple for many German-American families.

Storage for the winter months in the cellar of Firestone Farm
By the 1850s, the “fruit” canning jar with sealable lids had been perfected and by the period of the 1880s, the Firestones would have made full use of this technology and would have put up a dazzling array of pickles, jellies, jams, sauces, etc.
The Firestone orchard is filled with a number of 19th-century and earlier apple varieties, and visitors will be able to see a wide selection of red, green, brown, yellow, and speckled apples on the trees. Names like Rambo, Baldwin, Belmont, Roxbury Russet, and Hubbardston Nonesuch can be found there. They all have different characteristics, flavors, and ultimately were used in different ways, either for sale, or for the family’s own use. Those not carefully packed away will be made into apple butter, apple sauce, pies, dowdies, dumplings, fritters, and cider. Both the Firestone and Daggett kitchens will overflow with apples in the fall.
Apple Butter making at Firestone farm
Both the Firestones and Daggetts made cider. The sweet cider we all seek out in the fall was actually only available for a short time when the apples were plentiful. Cider actually refers to the fermented slightly alcoholic drink stored in barrels for use throughout the winter. Cider vinegar, and apple jack brandy was also made from the juice of the crushed apples. The Firestone staff demonstrates the use of a small “home” cider press. We do know that Samuel Daggett pressed cider with a larger animal powered machine, and sold cider to the surrounding community.
Other fruits that were commonly grown and used in a variety of ways were pears (fermented pear juice is known as “perry”), peaches, cherries, quince, and grapes. Wine making from grapes was commonly done, especially among German communities. Though not actually a fruit, hops are grown in the Daggett garden, and brewing of small beer was also a fall activity.
The harvest of the field crops at Firestone Farm has been underway since July as the wheat ripened. The fall is when the field corn was harvested and by the end of September or early October, the corn at Firestone Farm will be standing in neat shocks. Firestone Farm pre-dates the era of the silo, when corn stalks were chopped up and made into a slightly fermented feed known as silage. So instead, corn stalks were chopped and fed as fodder.
Gathering the stalks into shocks had an important purpose. The inside stalks, sheltered from the elements, and retained their nutritional value for quite some time and the actual shock made a handy manageable portion for the farmer to haul from the field for his cattle. The corn was either picked before shocking, or at the time the shock was pulled from the field. Corn then had to be husked, and then thrown into the corn crib for further drying. Firestone barn has an enormous corn crib running the entire side of the barn shed. Once dry it could be shelled, then either fed as shelled corn, or ground into feed or meal. The variety we grow at Firestone Farm is called “Reid’s Yellow Dent” and was primarily grown as a feed corn. Hard “flint” corns were best for meal, and the softer “gourd seed” type of corn was also used for animal feed, or for making hominy and grits. Corn harvest related work will take place throughout the ladder part of September at Firestone Farm.
Inside the house, the cozy warmth of the fireplace roars as the women of the farm prepare the dinnertime (afternoon) meal, and I can tell you first hand just how wonderful the smells of the Firestone farm kitchen can be!

Elsewhere in the Village a farmer's market is set up where one can purchase local grains and baking mixes, produce, honey, apples, and much more. Also, new this year (2010), they are going to be presenting a new autunm program called Fall Flavor Weekends where, in their own words: The focus is food for three ”tasty” weekends in Greenfield Village Celebrate the glories of American food with us. For three weekends, food will be everywhere you look in Greenfield Village; daily cooking demonstrations, an authentic farmers market, harvest dinners, wine and beer tastings, Look around and you’ll find dozens of opportunities to share in Michigan’s abundant and varied harvest.
Presenters in our historic homes will be hard at work preparing recipes lifted from the pages of history.
  • At Firestone Farm, men press cider from heirloom apples as ladies cook buttermilk bread, custard pies and apple butter.
  • At Mattox House, Scuppernong grapes are prepped for wine making, grape jelly is put up and okra gumbo is simmering.
  • At Daggett Farmhouse, beer is brewing and the table is laden with a harvest feast of a pupton of apples, grateful pudding and boiled cod.
  • Edison Homestead’s fall menu including squash soup and sweet sugar beet comes from Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cookbook.
  • The ladies at the Ford Home cook up Concord grape jelly and sweet apple pudding dishes from Della Lutes’ Home Grown.
  • At Susquehanna Plantation, the open hearth is fired up for Baltimore oyster pie and stuffed squash.
  • Check out the bubble and squeak and pork and apple pie at Adams House.

This is a great improvement over what the Village has presented over the last few years where next to nothing occured this time of year (sans Daggett and Firestone farms). It used to be that one could find a number of different activities throughout the village, including corn shucking, threshing, the process of winnowing, as well as live old-time music, hayrides, and hot cider & doughnuts. A real old-time shindig!
So what Greenfield Village is presenting this year is a step in the right direction.
Maybe, if this presentation is a success, we will one day soon see a full fall-harvest weekend, with a combination of all of the many different fall activities together. How cool would that be?

In the 1990's Greenfield Village had musicians performing old-time music during the Fall Harvest Weekend.

Teaching, in a fun and interesting way, the importance of the autumn/harvest time of year and showing how our ancestors actually celebrated the fall months should become a priority as far as I am concerned. I make it a point, by the way, to use what I have learned when I am participating in a Civil War living history presentation at the fall events. For example, 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. Which means, while at a fall event, I could ask my "customers" how the canning of their harvest is coming along, and maybe speak of the old Widow Jones down the road who still seals her cans by using animal bladders.
People love it!
I certainly hope this little blog helped you get into the seasonal mood of this wonderful time of year.
Til next time...