Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Cemetery Walks - A Unique Way To Present Local History

Imagine walking through a cemetery and seeing people - real live-looking people - standing near a tombstone. That's not so weird, is it?
But, as you walk up to them you notice that they are dressed differently...kind of like the way people used to dress in the old days; there are men in frock coats, women in hoop skirts, others looking like they're from the 1940's while others still look like they're from the 1890's.
That's not so normal...

"Good day!" one says to you, "what a fine day to be in the cemetery. I do not receive many visitors here!"
Okay, something strange is occurring.
The 'person' continues speaking.
"People walk past me quite often without giving me nary a thought - they see my name and the dates of my birth and death carved into my gravestone and walk right on by, so it's good to have an actual visitor who is interested in my life!"
Now this is very weird!
But fear not - - - you have not stepped into the twilight zone, but, instead, you've stumbled into a cemetery walk - yes, I said cemetery walk - and the stranger is not the dead coming back to life; he is only pretending to be!

What? You've never heard of one?
A cemetery walk is where people "become" the person buried 'neath the tombstone and tell of their life story. It's a biographical history lesson of the every day people who once were part of the local townsfolk decades, or in many cases, centuries earlier. 
This type of history lesson is a unique and, maybe to some, unconventional way of teaching about local history. But, at least here in the metro-Detroit area, they are becoming more and more popular, especially around the time of Hallowe'en.
For instance, this year at the old Riverside Cemetery in Plymouth, Michigan I portrayed Orson Polley, a man who was a blacksmith that was born in 1827 and died in 1903. His personal tombstone only says

1827 - 1903

But, with me portraying him as if I were the man come back to life, I was able to fill in the gap, or should I say dash, between those two dates. A sort of quick biography. 
There were, I believe, eight 'deceased characters' at Riverside this year portraying the citizens of Plymouth who were no longer with us. 

Besides Plymouth, I've also taken part in walks in the suburban metro-Detroit cities of Eastpointe and Clinton Township over the years. Perhaps my favorite took place back in 2010 when my daughter, who was 9 years old at the time, accompanied me in presenting a father and daughter of a hundred years previous.
Here's my real-life daughter and I
 portraying a deceased
father and daughter
back in 2010
It was at the Clinton Grove Cemetery located in Clinton Township. One of five stops along the tour, we portrayed father and daughter Adolph and Mildred Gutschow and, because most have never seen or heard of a child portraying a deceased child at a cemetery walk before, we were quite the hit! People were very touched to watch and listen to my daughter as Mildred stand by 'her' tombstone and become the young girl who died in 1910 at the age of 11 of a stomach ailment.  
I then would state to the tour groups that I hoped that no one in my presence had ever had to bare such a loss and tried to explain to them (not from experience, thank God) just how heartbreaking it was for a parent to lose a child. After one of our 17 (!) presentations had ended, one elderly woman came up to me, grabbed my hand, and shakily said, "I just wanted to tell you that I have lost a child and you are so right that it's the hardest thing for a parent to go through. You and your daughter did a wonderful job showing that. You helped to give me closure. Thank you." 
It nearly brought me to tears.
But, it wasn't all sad...we tried to have a little lightness as well, like when 'Mildred' spoke of her annoying brothers, or when one time early on my daughter forgot one of her lines. After a brief moment in thought, she - as Mildred - told the group, “Hey! I’ve been lying in this cemetery for a long time! I'm allowed to forget!” 
The people roared!
Now, as you can probably guess, aside from taking place in a cemetery, there is nothing spooky about our presentations (unless you do as we did and had a little scary fun with the camera, as you will soon see); as living representations of the deceased we actually attempt to give respect to the dead during our presentations and not pull out the blood, rot, and gore associated with it.
It also helps people overcome their fears of cemeteries...unless you walk alone in them in the dark - - oooo!
Kristen, forever in mourning

And, yes, I did just that. You see, after the last tour group came through on the most recent walk I participated in - I was third out of the eight stops so there were five more "spirits" the people were to visit after me - I decided to put my accessories (my table, chair, and candle lantern) in my van. The van was parked quite a ways away...down the center cemetery road and a bit around the corner. And it was dark - no streetlights at all. I had already blown out the candle in my lantern so the heated glass would be cooled down by the time I put it in the van, so it really was a pretty murky 'stroll.'

A little creepy...
Walking in the dark...by myself...in the cemetery...was very creepy.
Seriously creepy. 
I could only see the dim outlines of the tombstones. And, with this being late October, I heard all kinds of sounds such as leaves falling and rustling in the wind, twigs also falling, and probably critters scurrying about. Normally, sounds such as this I wouldn't pay any attention to, but I did this night.
No, I didn't experience anything strange, but, *for some reason* every graveyard scene from every scary movie I've ever watched came to my mind at the same time.
Yeah...definitely creepy, whether you believe in ghosts or not...I'm sure the most ardent skeptic would have had at least a few hairs on the back of his or her neck raised in that same situation.

Presenting history has changed over the years, but in this case change can be a good thing. As long as it's done in a respectful and truthful manner, I welcome it, for it's how we can enlighten those who may find the subject boring.
I also feel that cemetery walks in particular can help alleviate the fear that many people may have of graveyards.
Except, maybe, at night. By yourself.
"Out of the graveyard comes a ghost..."
(By the way, many thanks to fellow 'spirits' Mike Gillett and Kristen Mrozek for allowing me to use their pictures. Because of inclement weather I chose not to bring my camera along. It's a rarity for me, I know, but we did have a pretty gushing downpour of rain with strong winds right in the middle of the whole thing, so I suppose it wasn't such a bad decision after all.
Thanks again Mike and Kris!)
Say "hi" to Kristen


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Harvest Ball 2013

Every October the good people that belong to the 7th Michigan, and especially Linda Williams, throw a wonderful shindig - the Harvest Ball.
It's held in Lansing, Michigan in a church that was built over a hundred years ago, and though it's been modernized with electricity, the lights are dim enough to give *almost* an oil lamp feel.
The Olde Michigan Ruffwater String Band lead by Glen Morningstar, the finest jigs and reels band in the land, keeps the fifty or so couples dancing the evening away with the popular dances such as the Virginia Reel and the Spanish Waltz.
Besides taking place in the autumn season of the year, what makes this ball so nice is that all that takes place is the ball - there's no reenactment attached so you're not hot and sweaty and too tired to enjoy yourself.
On the way out to Lansing, any number of us will make our annual stop at the local Cracker Barrel restaurant to enjoy good food and a fun pseudo-period atmosphere. Oh yeah, we are wearing our 1860's finest - our Sunday Best - and the patrons of the restaurant are always curious.
At the ball itself, Mrs. Williams has requested there not be any cameras present to keep an authentic 19th century feel, but after the ball ends out they come!

And that's what I'd like to show you for this week's posting - - - the photographs taken at this year's Harvest Ball. I aged them and attempted to take out the glaring farb such as the 'exit' sign, etc., (though some farb I had little choice but to leave in).
I hope you enjoy them:

This image, and the two that follow, was taken in the back yard of our traveling companions, the Gilletts.

Outside the Cracker Barrel restaurant.

Beginning with this picture, the rest of the sepia-toned photos were taken at the ball.

 - - - - - - - - - - -

Now, I know you want to see these photos in color, so I included them here. I did not remove any farbiness from these pictures as I did in those above. There are also a few extra's that I threw in. Kinda sorta of like a 'director's cut.'
Hope you like 'em:

Again, this and the next four pictures were taken in the yard of our traveling companions, the Gilletts

Still at the Cracker Barrel

At the Ball

Some good friends "after the ball."

And there you have my photo album of the 2013 Harvest Ball. We certainly had a  - - BALL - - and look forward to it every year.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Reenactment at Wolcott Mill 2013

Do you know how members of the 21st Michigan are treated if they attend an event in modern clothing? They get apples and grapes angrily thrown at them and then they get chased by a knife-wielding grandma!

 ~(All photos but 2 are from this year's event)~

It's been kind of a strange year in the world of reenacting for me. Kind of like Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."
Well, not really "worst."
I think it's because I lost my job in June, and that really put a damper on the whole season for me.
But I've been trying to keep a positive attitude.
Understand, the events I've attended themselves have been great, especially Charlton Park and Port Sanilac, and we've done some pretty amazing 1st person/immersion impressions - more than in previous years, and that's really taken it all to a new level. Of course, to bring the world of the mid-19th century to life takes special people, and I am glad that I am amongst very special living historians - the best of the best, as far as I'm concerned.

A Wolcott photo from a previous year - we had no sun this year as you see here. Reenacting kids really know how to keep themselves occupied without all of the electronic modern amusements rotting their brains.

Our final major event of the 'official' reenacting season is Wolcott Mill, located up in rural northern Macomb County (north of Detroit). This event is wonderful for a number of reasons, with the first and foremost being the time of year: autumn, my very favorite season. And because the temperatures (and weather temperament!) is usually on the cool side, the "fair weather" reenactors generally stay home while the diehards attend in full vigor.

A nice autumn setting

Secondly: though we are in tents (intense?), we still create a town atmosphere that effectively gives the visitor that time-travel experience.
Third - I really, really enjoy the evening lantern tours given here. Since I usually take part in them I don't get to see too many of the other scenarios; I'm usually involved in my postmaster presentation, and have been for a number of years. But for the second year in a row, me and another member of the 21st Michigan gave the touring groups a seven or eight minute etiquette lesson. Just a quick overview of male-female interaction with a bit of comedy thrown in to keep it fun. And the 'tourists' seem to enjoy it.
And finally, the land of which this all takes place has an actual 1847 gristmill that is, with its mill pond and stream, surrounded by the colorful autumn leaves prominent here in October.

Another *sunny* Wolcott Mill photo from last year.

This is a simply beautiful setting.
Unfortunately, the weather this year was a bit unusual in that we had an unexpected warm-front come though days before and, during the weekend of our reenactment the cold front pushed its way through, bringing with it plenty of rain and even the threat of severe weather. Nothing severe materialized for us but the threat from the weatherman was real enough that they cancelled Sunday's activities and sent everyone packing by noon.
Well, at least we had Saturday, right? And, I suppose we were lucky that nothing severe actually did rear its ugly head.
So, safe and sound (and dry) at home, I went through my Saturday photos and chose some of the best ones for you.
I hope you enjoy them.

Realism is always heightened whenever horses are at an event

Young ladies of the 21st Michigan: my daughter (on the left) and Andrea.

The 21st's own Ginnie Wade - she and her family did a fine scenario of showing when Miss Wade was shot and killed on the morning of July 3, 1863.

There is something about reenacting that brings friends together to visit in a way one doesn't see very often in modern times. There's a connection that is difficult to put into words.

Nothing like being near a warm fire on a cool fall day, and 21st member Sofia has done a fine job honing her outdoor cooking skills.

This lovely young newlywed, Mrs. Lynch, enjoyed spending time with her in-laws and with friends...

...including these two friends: one from the north and one from the south!

Mrs. Paul enjoys a moment of solitude.

Chicken roasting on an open fire...ahhh...fall...
For some reason, this just captured my attention, so I captured the scene. 
Here we have a few of the civilian members of the 21st Michigan, as well as one of our good friends, and even one of our soldiers. This is how the future sees us.

This is how we see ourselves

And this is how we really are!

During the course of the day on Saturday, the Rebel army came marching through civilian camp, stealing bread and whatever else they needed. Due to the coming rains, this is the only military photo I took. But keep scrolling down...

 At Wolcott Mill, I normally take time on Sunday to capture the likenesses of the military men in camp and on the battlefield. However, due to the cancellation at noon on that second day this year, I couldn't get such images. Lucky for me, some friends did and allowed me to share their photos with you here:

Men of the 21st Michigan and other units form up (Photo by Lowell White)

They were ready to fight the Confederate army that were just over a hill. (Photo by Lowell White)

Off they went, to meet them on their own ground. (Photo by Lowell White)

The cavalry held the Rebs off until the infantry could arrive. (Photo by Lowell White)

The fighting was intense - - - - - (Photo by Lenore Jordan)

The Rebs had the upper hand and sent the Yankees skeedaddling, only to fight another day. But that day didn't come, for the weather became too fierce...(Photo by Lowell White)

And there you have it.
No matter the weather, we all still had a great time showing history in many forms.
It's sad knowing that this is the last big reenactment until next May for those of us here in Michigan. But, we still have the 1863 Christmas season on the horizon, and that always brings a smile to my face.
See you next time - - thanks for visiting.