Tuesday, March 29, 2011

De-farbing Your Campsite

As the Civilian Coordinator of the 21st Michigan Civil War reenacting unit, I call period dress meetings every spring and fall. Besides learning quite a bit about reenacting and social history, it's a great excuse to get into our period clothing after the long, cold winter.
This year is no different.
Earlier in March we had our spring gathering, although instead of having it at my home as we normally do, we had it at a nearby local historical structure - an 1872 schoolhouse. The meetings are popular and are growing larger, it seems, every year, and have outgrown my house. This year we had 30 members show - not too bad, eh?
As I have recounted in previous postings, we discuss our presentations as well as our authenticity standards. We also work on accuracy in clothing and accessories. And this year was no different. In fact, if you read a posting from earlier this year (More On Reenacting - Taking It Seriously) you will have a very good idea what I spoke on during my portion of the meeting.
Also at this year's meeting, for the first time, we had a guest speaker, Mrs. Sandy Root. Sandy reenacts with a different unit (the Michigan Soldiers Aid Society, of which I am also a part), and is a living historian extraordinaire. Do to her extensive knowledge of all things mid-19th century, I look to her as my mentor, and because of what I have learned from her over the years my impression has improved immensely.
So, to me it was a no-brainer to ask her to speak at our meeting. The presentation she gave centered around the defarbitization of your campsite and what to bring and what not to bring to a reenactment.
It was an excellent speech - one where even the most senior member of a reenacting unit could learn from. And, since most of the farby items brought to reenactments usually pertain to food items, this is what Mrs. Root concentrated on.
Although another blogger has already posted much of what I will have here (the young blogger is also in our unit), I, too, would like to present, for those who practice living history, Mrs. Root's notes (with additions and comments by yours truly). It is by no means complete - that could take a book - but it's filled with wonderful ideas:

Mrs. Root speaks to the membership of the 21st Michigan

How To Improve Your Campsite

A. Challenge yourself by trying to bring as few modern items as possible. Can you do without your laptop for a weekend? If you have a pocket watch, do you even need to bring your wristwatch?
B. Find ways to cover up or store your modern items in a period way
C. Take it a step at a time - pick one thing to improve on each year

Food and Kitchen Items
1. Storing what you need:

a) Wooden boxes - make sure that the boxes are easy to handle when full (easy and light enough for one person to carry)
b) Baskets - Make liners of cloth to help keep things from falling through
c) Tins - What you purchase from your local store can work: cookie, coffee, and other tins. They can be painted black and/or stenciled for storing breads and other baked goods
d) Cloth bags - make them in sizes that work: to cover your bread, for instance
e) Brown paper or freezer paper tied with string
f) Glass jars - no modern mason jars...they came later. By the way, to seal your glass jar you can dip fabric in beeswax which should become waterproof. Wooden tops and corks are fine, but cover them with the beeswax cloth and tie with a string.

2. Food Items

a) Make your food ahead of time and freeze it. This can include soups, stews, cooked chicken, roast, ham, and baked goods. Hard-boiled eggs are good to have prepared ahead of time for breakfast.
b) Bring simple food - things you can eat hot or cold, for instance, chicken. And, unless you like to cook a hot breakfast, fruit and muffins
c) Pre-wash potatoes, carrots, and other items to save time and for convenience

3. Plan Ahead - Make a Menu

a) Think about how many meals will you purchase at an event. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or breakfast, dinner, and supper, to be period correct!). Seriously - in many cases there are food vendors at reenactments. Do you by food from these vendors? I know at the Greenfield Village event we always eat at least one meal at the Eagle Tavern.

4. Drinks ---- No soda or pop

1) Problems:
a) They do not quench your thirst
b) They attract ants
c) You have to dispose of the empty cans or bottles

2) Solutions:
a) Lemonade
b) Ice Tea or Sassafras Tea
c) Powdered Gatorade
d) Cider
e) water

(I have to admit, here, that I do enjoy drinking root beer (pseudo-sarsaparilla!) in between my drinking water. I do make sure my glass is washed out well before putting it away)

Problem We Can Run Into
1. Ziploc bags - They can leak but can be used for some foodstuffs. They can also be used inside of cotton bags.
2. Tupperware - They take up a lot of space in the cooler but are good for storing eggs with lots of paper towel packing.
3. Food getting wet in the cooler - Store items such as butter in period glass with rubber rings. vacuum sealers work wonderful for pre-made meals. Also, limit how much raw meat you bring.
4. "We pack heavy so we don't run out of food!" - In all honesty, how many times have you starved at a reenactment? For children, bring two of their favorite snacks and pack them period correct. Kids are usually too busy playing to eat anyway!

No farb here!

Day Trips to an Event
Pack a picnic basket with snacks that do not need refrigeration. Dried apples, raisins, peanuts, jars of pickles/jams/jellies, biscuits and/or bread, cheese, and even ham or sausage.

I hope this has helped any of you that enjoy doing living history and reenacting. Nothing can destroy that "moment" for you and for others than to have farby items all about.
And - for Pete's sake! - please stay in your period clothing the entire time you are at an event, unless you are seeting up or tearing down. Nothing is worse for other reenactors than to see the 9 to 5 crowd slip into their sweat pants and shirts just because the public has gone. Go back to your motel room - or to your home - if you want to get modern. The rest of us feel that once the public leaves, the real reenacting begins! Don't ruin it for everyone else!
Okay, I'm off my soap box now. Have a wonderful time-travel/mind-travel season!!

Many, many thanks to Mrs. Sandy Root for so much of the above information, and for her guidance in making our excursions to the past a truly authentic experience!.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Civil War Candlelight Tour

Earlier this week my wife and I, along with our two youngest, went to a meeting at the Troy Historical Museum and Village. This open-air historical village includes (from their brochure): 10 historic structures in a charming two-acre village located in the heart of Troy, Michigan. Visitors can explore the lifestyles of the pioneers who established homes and farms in rural Troy during the 1800s'.

There were quite a few fellow living historians at this meeting as well. It was a "run-through meet-and-greet" meeting, for we will all be a part of the Civil War Candlelight Tour taking place on April 30. This is very exciting, for not only will this be one of the first reenactments of the 'season,' but we will be able to do our presentations while inside period homes. If you recall from previous postings of mine, portraying one from the past while in an authentic period structure is as exciting as Christmas morning to me!
Some of the historic structures inside the gates are a log cabin from 1840, a schoolhouse from 1877, a house from 1832, a wagon shop from 1872, a church from 1900...it's really a wonderful collection of Troy's past
And we get to bring it to life!
Patty and I will be portraying a family living in the cabin, and she will demonstrate spinning on the spinning wheel, while I, as the postmaster, will speak of the importance of the mail to and from our boys in blue. Other living historians will include a grieving widow, a chaplain, a visit to the general store, a laundress, the Christian Commission, a blacksmith, a Michigan politician (Senator Jacob Howard), and even an insurance salesman.

The excitement we all felt after the meeting had ended was invigorating. We were all so pumped - the director had chosen folks who have a true passion for history, so the visitors who will come to see us will get a pretty darn accurate picture of the past!
And, to top it off, we were told to keep ourselves in a 1st person mode, stepping out of character only to answer questions that will require a 3rd person answer.
When I entered the reenacting 'hobby' years ago I had no idea how involved I would get; I never thought that it would engulf me in the way that it does. And when an opportunity arises for me to ditch the 21st century - even for the tumultuous times of the early 1860's - I grab it with both hands. Of course, it wouldn't be nearly what it is if it weren't for the wonderful people who partake in this excursion with me! fortuitous event occurs that
I consider myself blessed to be a part of a hobby (I still hate that word for what it is we do!) that allows me to "mind" travel as often as I do - sometimes even in my own home!

And, it's great to see the local museums utilizing reenactors and living historians in this way. As I have said many times before, having the opportunity to use period homes is as close to mind-travel/time-travel as one can get.

(all photos in this posting were taken at the Troy Historical Museum and Village)
The best part is this is only the beginning. Many more opportunities to travel 150 years in the past are waiting on the horizon.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Spring Cleaning

Ahhh...spring is here; the sun is out, the snow has melted, temperatures are rising, the hyacinths and daffodils are poking through...
Okay, so it may not look or feel too spring-like at this particular moment, for a winter storm is nigh, but it is springtime nonetheless and, just as in a previous posting a few weeks ago ("March Brings Cheer for Another Year" - Farmer's Guide 1800 ), there is plenty to do to prepare for it.
Here in March, the house is very dirty; the ashes and soot from constant fires for cooking and warmth - combined with the soot from candles and oil lamps - is on nearly every surface, the mud of fall and winter covering the soles of shoes are now ground into the floors and rugs, firewood chips and slivers lie throughout, especially in corners...the kitchen and family parlor (or sitting room) have been the center of activity for months, and the remnants of spinning, sewing, whittling, and other wintertime activities are in desperate need to be cleared away.
Spring has always been the time for a ritual turning out and thorough cleaning of the entire house, from cellar to attic. Each room in turn is emptied and scrubbed and freshened with new whitewash, the furniture rubbed and polished, the windows washed, the ashes removed from the fireplace, and the hearth swept and scoured. The rugs are taken up and shook, the feather beds put away for the summer and replaced with straw mattresses, wall hanging are removed and the dust scrubbed from the frames, and fresh blinds replace the filthy ones that have taken on the winter's grime.
The work involved in all of this is tremendous, but it has to be done.

Some of the winter vegetables have begun to rot, and the apples are getting soft. Mushy potatoes will be made into starch, and the winter's accumulation of fat needs to be made into soap before it turns rancid.
White garments and linens need a proper wash. The difficulties of drying clothing thoroughly in freezing weather has resulted in badly yellowed sheets, shirts, and undergarments. Linens that had been hung to dry before the fire have holes from flying sparks and need to be mended. Woolen clothing worn for weeks on unwashed bodies really smell. Flannel undergarments have begun to itch instead of providing comfort.
And how is your spring cleaning going?

(* Much of what you read here came from the excellent book "Our Own Snug Fireside")


Friday, March 18, 2011


Spencer 1995 - 2011

2011 has really been a rough year for us so far.
And it's only March!
There's been ill health - we've all take our turn at being sick, and the viruses seem to linger longer than usual.
Car problems - oh boy! have we had the car problems: an accident nearly totaled my wife's car, my van has been in the shop more than out of the shop, and a ball-joint bar snapped on my mother's car.
My job situation seems to be getting more precarious with a new Michigan governor who seems to believe laying off millions of union employees (through the fine art of privatization) will somehow strengthen the economy of our state.
The political climate in our country is more divided than I have ever witnessed.
Then there is the awful devastation of Japan and the scary situation in the middle east.
And, finally, this past Monday we had to put our dog, Spencer, to sleep. That was so very hard. We literally went into mourning for the entire day. I know some may think that odd, but we had our devoted pet for over 13 years.
Is it any wonder I am ready to escape into the world of living history?
I know what you're thinking - "Ken, you are leaving the 21st century with all of its ills to go to the mid-19th century which has many ills all of its own!"
I know that. The difference is, I can control what happens while practicing living history. For instance, when my sons get "killed" on the battlefield, they 'magically' come back to life after the battle ends. And we always have plenty of food no matter what time of year it is!
The fact of the matter is that I really enjoy it when my family and I wear the 1860's clothing, and I love being a part of a group of like-minded historians where wonderful discussions take place. It's also a great feeling knowing when I speak to visitors I am showing them history in such a way that a history book cannot.
And, self-improvement in all manners of this hobby, to me, is a necessity, and I find that with each new bit of information that I learn and am able to share, the more excited I get about it!
In the coming two months myself and a few other members of our group will be speaking to the children of numerous schools. Imagine that! Me, a lowly janitor, being sought by members of the educational system to teach history to their classrooms! And the kids respond very well to our teaching method. I love being a sort of specialist in my field.
The season is approaching...and I can't wait to get away!

Friday, March 11, 2011

I'm Having a Writer's Block - So, Here Are A Few Pictures From My Visit To the Museum

I have been working on numerous postings but I am having loads of trouble completing them. I don't know what it is - I begin to write then all of a sudden I get writer's block and I stall.
Eh - - such is life, right? I'll get at least one or two of them done soon...promise!

In the meantime, in keeping with the historical nature of this blog, I thought I'd post some photos of my recent trips to the Henry Ford Museum. Mr. Henry Ford began collecting objects at the beginning of the 20th century - everyday objects from his youth. What began as a hobby turned into an obsession. Where most people of his caliber would collect - the great art work of the world for example - Ford wanted little or nothing to do with that sort of thing. And aren't we the lucky benefactors of his social history collection!
It didn't take very long before he realized that he needed space to house all of his treasures. But, warehouses didn't give him the opportunity to enjoy his findings. Without getting deep into the story, he eventually built what is now the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. Yes, they are two separate entities in one very large complex. (For more on Greenfield Village, please click here).
He built the facade of the museum as an exact replica of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

In fact, here's a photo of the original building:

and here's the replica in Dearborn, Michigan:

Pretty amazing, huh? Ford had it built exactly as the original, and he spared no expense in doing so.

There are literally millions of objects inside this building. The following photographs only show a minute portion of the collection held here. Actually, most are photos of furniture, which I am getting into more and more lately.
A picture is worth a thousand words, right? So here's an encyclopedia!
I hope you enjoy them.
.This is the chair - yes, THEE chair - that Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot by Booth at the Ford Theater in April of 1865
.Writing Arm Windsor Chair 1770 - 1790
.Hannah Barnard Court Cupboard 1715
.Fall-Front Desk on Frame 1745 - 1785
.Portable Writing Desk 1787
.Inside of the Currier Shoe Shop - 1880's. This building used to be inside of Greenfield Village. For some reason it now sits - intact - inside the indoor museum
.Both the center table (1810 - 1830) and the side chair (1845 - 1855) once belonged to the Lincolns, as in Abraham and Mary
.Cradle 1765 - 1790

How the Henry Ford Museum came to own the pieces once owned by Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens in the next photographs documents the rich legacy the collections hold. Clemens’ daughter Clara was married to Ossip Gabrilowitsch, conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. A Russian emigre, he was stricken with stomach cancer and treated at Henry Ford Hospital. Gabrilowitsch’s stay was long and difficult; his care was costly. Henry Ford forgave the bill and in gratitude, Clara gave Ford these family pieces in 1936, and they came into the museum. The portrait is oil on canvas by Edoardo Gelli and was painted in Florence, Italy in 1904. The table was used by Clemens in his later years.The story of how
Mark Twain's (Samuel Clemens) drop leaf table (1830 - 1860) and portrait (1904) by Edoardo Gelli. 

The Henry Ford Museum recently won, at auction, a letter from Twain/Clemens to the Governor of Missouri in 1904. The gist of the letter was Missouri-native Twain/Clemens responding to being asked if he would participate in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, organized to commemorate the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Regretfully Clemens, who was living in Florence, Italy at the time, declined the invitation because of his wife’s poor health. The friendly letter bears some of Mark Twain’s trademark humor. And, more significantly had a direct reference to the portrait in our collection. “Although I can not be at the fair, I am going to be there anyway, by a portrait of professor Gelli. You will find it excellent. Good judges say it is better than the original. They say it has all the merits of the original and keeps still besides.”

A coffee pot made by Paul Revere 1755 - 1765
.Window Seat 1805 - 1820
.Portable Writing Desk belonging to Edgar Allan Poe ca1840
.Center Table belonging to Mary Todd Lincoln - early 1860's
.Drop Leaf Dining Table 1750 - 1775
.The underside of the above Drop Leaf Dining Table 1750 - 1775. Notice the craftsmanship and the well-worn wood from the slide bar that holds the leaf up
.Chest of Drawers 1680 - 1700
.A chest from 1794

The Henry Ford Museum, along with Greenfield Village, are well-worth the trip to Dearborn.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

"March Brings Cheer for Another Year" - Farmer's Guide 1800

Here it is, the first few days of March. I don't know about where you live, but up here in Michigan we still have plenty of snow on the ground and cold enough temperatures to keep it there!
However, if you happen to find yourself suddenly living on a farm, say, one hundred and fifty years ago (or more), instead of sitting around on your butt (like me) wishing for the warm springtime air to arrive, you would find yourself diving into the springtime preparations for the upcoming year.
The following was taken directly from two books I own - "The Seasons of America Past" by Eric Sloane, and "A Pioneer Sampler - The Daily Life of a Pioneer family in 1840" by Barbara Greenwood. Both books give very similar and detailed information about the seasonal nature of living in times past.
I hope you enjoy it.

February's last days were like today's New Year Season. Accounts and diaries were closed and inventories were made. There was talk of spring and the new farm year. At one time, all farm calendars and diaries, almanacs and agricultural manuals began more appropriately with March.
"The new year is at our door," says a diary entry of the period, "spring is with us in March when we are yet sitting by the fireside..."
The American farmer, who drank cider daily at his table instead of water or milk, was never-less a sober man. But mead and 'hardened cider brandy' were always in order, no matter what the after effects, during the March preparations for the coming seasons of labor.
In appraising the future of a farm, fences were reckoned a prime necessity. Almanac after almanac starts the month of March with "Look to your fences." March was the ideal season for storing up firewood and splitting fence-rails. March winds dry out the winter-cut logs in the woods, making them easier to haul in. "The differences in saving between green and dry wood," says the 1821 farmer's Almanac, "will pay the expense of sledding, besides the extra trouble of kindling fires." Fences now are of little importance, but a century or two ago, when split-rail fencing around a farm was often worth more than the land itself, things were different. In 1850, the fencing for a three hundred acre farm cost about five thousand dollars at the current price level.
Although March was the month for hauling in and cutting up wood, the actual felling of trees for fence material was often done during the second running of sap, in August. By way of a wooden mallet, rails were always split by hammering on them with wedges, never by striking them with an ax. The use of wooden hammers is now almost a lost art, but the workshop of a century and a half ago had a great variety of them.
Timber cut at the proper season, or dried in the proper season, and split at the proper season, is so easily cleaved with a wooden hammer and wedge that the work offers profound satisfaction and is peculiarly fascinating. Abraham Lincoln knew this relaxing pleasure, saying that some of his "best thinking was done when working hardest at splitting rails."

The March chore of laying up new fuel wood also heralded the end of winter, the season of the hearth. Besides heating and cooking equipment, there were always a few pieces of wood present, being seasoned by the winter fire. Special wood for ax handles and other farm tools was laboriously dried at the fireplace, and even lightly charred for strength. Special pieces were often left near the fireplace for as long as a year, to render them properly seasoned.

No American season was more definite than sugaring time. The right time is usually between early March and early April when the sap is flowing properly. The nights are still cold enough to freeze sharply and the days warm enough to thaw freely. The thermometer must not rise above forty degrees by day, nor sink below 24 degrees at night. It is this magic see-sawing between winter and spring that decides the sugaring season.
To collect the sap, holes were bored in the maple tree, followed by the hammering in of a wooden tube called a spile. Under the spile a wooden bucket, made by the local cooper, was placed to catch the clear watery sap. Each day the buckets of sap were emptied into one large barrel, which was hauled back to the boiling area.

Painting by Eric Sloane

There, three iron kettles made by the local blacksmith hung over fires. In the first kettle, the watery tasteless sap was vigorously boiled over a roaring fire. The water would gradually evaporate, leaving behind a thicker, sweeter liquid. This was ladled into the second kettle where it was gently boiled to thicken more. Constant stirring kept it from burning. This thick, sweet syrup could then be poured into crocks to be used on porridge or cakes. Or, it could be ladled into the third kettle. Then, over a smaller fire, it would be carefully stirred until it turned into sugar. The sugar was packed into wooden boxes and tubs to be used in the coming year.
Sugaring was hard work, but the American farmer made such a cheerful season of it that the whole family looked forward to sugaring, making it more play than work.

Many of us who live in the 21st century know so little of the everyday life of our not-too-distant ancestors. I know of a few friends who still carry on these traditions, much in the same way as was done over a century ago.
It's to these 21st century artisans that carry on the traditions of long ago that this posting (and this entire blog) is dedicated to.