Friday, October 26, 2018

The Spirits of Harvest Past: Reenacting an 1860s Autumn

The three main months of autumn - September, October, and November - are when harvest time generally takes place, at least here in Michigan. In times gone by, autumn was a period of hard work. Preparation for the upcoming winter and the harvesting of the crops that our ancestors cared for over the spring and summer were, perhaps, the most important and arduous jobs of the year.
And yet, I've not seen any reenactors present this all-so-important season - - except my Civil War group, the 21st Michigan.
Apparitions of the past become the present... 
It was in 2013, at the now defunct Wolcott Mill Civil War event, that the spark of presenting a full-blown fall harvest flickered in my mind. The idea had actually been rolling around my brain for some time, probably for at least five years previous, and I wondered, "Why hasn't anyone taken advantage of this time of year in their reenacting presentations?"
And I then asked myself, "Why hadn't I acted upon it before now?" I mean, I actually had spoken a bit about the harvest at previous Wolcott events, and I would ask modern visitors how their crop fared and how their canning and drying was coming along.
But I only touched upon the subject...just to get my feet wet.
No matter the reasons why celebrating the harvest hadn't been done before, it was during 2013's Wolcott event when I finally decided to do something about showing this so important time of year, for I felt the time was right, and I grabbed the bull by the horns and forged ahead throughout the following year to make it happen. Delving into research, visiting historic Greenfield Village for their fall harvest weekends, and simply immersing myself in the season, I soon realized that we could create the ultimate autumn experience at our reenactment, more than visiting a cider mill even. And the civilian portion of the Civil War group I belong to - the 21st Michigan - did, in 2014, and has been actively presenting the fall harvest ever since.
Now, with the Wolcott Mill reenactment no longer happening, we changed locations. We moved to, of all places, smack-dab in the middle of Downtown Detroit.
Yes, that Downtown Detroit, at historic Fort Wayne, an actual fort built in the 1840s, from which men dating back to the Civil War through Vietnam were sent off to war.
Detroit's Historic Fort Wayne celebrates the harvest.
Are you ready to go back?
So, let's journey back to a time when people lived exclusively by the seasons. To a time where labor meant a bit more than working 9 to 5. To a time when there was no sick days, vacation days, or unemployment wages...

Here is our little "harvest camp" - four tents aren't nearly enough to accurately show all that took place on the home front in October of 1863, but we certainly gave our visitors a fair idea.

And, though most folks would not have placed fall decor' on their porches, we do only to help give the fall feeling that only natural decorations can give. Pumpkins & gourds were food and shocks were important for animals during the winter, and neither would have been wasted in such a manner.
Okay...maybe a few folks might have, but it was not the norm. 
In fact, when I was a kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the only "fall decorations" seen in my neighborhood were carved pumpkins on the porches just before Hallowe'en or colored leaves hanging in the windows of the houses. The whole autumn decorating thing is mainly from the 1990s through today.
Here is the side of my tent fly looking toward my neighbors.
You can see a scythe there. I presented as a farmer, and
though most are not pictured here, I brought some farm tools
with me: scythe, sickle, hand thresher, and hay rake, and
explained what each was used for. 
I also normally bring heirloom apple varieties, such as the Rambo, Belmont, Maidens Blush, Roxbury Russet, Snow, and other kinds to teach a bit about the importance of the apple in North America. But the prices for such varieties were much higher this year than last year so I chose to go with another important fall job instead:
Candle making.
Though many (or most) city folk would use their oil lamps for lighting, which gave off a much brighter light, many on the farm would continue to use candles, for it was much cheaper than buying lamp oil. In fact, between gathering beeswax throughout the summer and fall and using the fat from their kill during hunting expeditions to make tallow candles, farmers could pretty much get away with having free lighting, for the most part. 

But it took manpower, womanpower, and childpower to make enough candles to last for the year. My display shows how many dips it takes to make a good burning beeswax candle.
Larissa worked on preparing a treat enjoyed in the fall: sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is finely cut raw cabbage that has been fermented by various what we now know to be lactic acid bacteria. It has a long shelf life and a distinctive sour flavor, both of which result from the lactic acid formed when the bacteria ferment the sugars in the cabbage leaves.
Cutting the cabbage for sauerkraut. The name itself
means "sour herb or cabbage."

Also, stringing up various vegetables to preserve
through the process of drying. Apples, peaches, pears,
gourds, and vegetables could all be dried to consume
at a later date.
Plants - herbs and the like - could also be dried for use
in foods or for medicinal purposes.
Larissa also spoke about the process of 'pickling.' Today when someone mentions "pickle," we think of the pickled cucumbers so well loved on burgers or eaten right out of the jar. But in "our time" of the 1860s, pickling was a process to preserve food, including vegetables, eggs, and beets.
Here we are on our farm - - - from our clothing to our actions to our information, we do our best to dig deep in our research and try to be as accurate as we can. It helps that Larissa has been working on a historic farm for twenty years!

But we were not the only game in town!
Our next door neighbors, who are actually from Ohio, were cooking up a storm.

And part of their contribution to our thresherman's dinner was corn, to be shelled by hand right off the cob.

A group of youngsters known as the "Young Marines"
(described to me as Boy Scouts on steroids) helped out
in the shelling of the corn.
But what I was looking forward to eating most was...

Mrs. Woodruff spent a good part of her day preparing it, from peeling the apples to chopping them to putting them in the pot to be cooked.

The big round pot on the left, that's where
the applesauce was!

Every-so-often Mrs. Woodruff would give the apples a stir.

Noodles were also made by hand.
It all turned out to be very delicious!

The Woodruffs not only come with their three children, but they bring their chickens along as well, which are always a big hit with the visitors, especially in Downtown Detroit.
The chicken coup tent.

So what do we have over at the Cary tent?

An old-fashioned cider press!
And loads of apples!
Our group, the 21st Michigan, purchased the cider press a number of years ago, and in my opinion it was one of our best purchases. Our job as reenactors is to show life in the past as once lived, and this press is worth its weight in gold in doing that purpose.
The reenacting kids always enjoy turning
the crank to the grinder...
...which mulches up the apples...
...and sends them to the bucket below.

And then the screw is turned to press the shredded apples until all of the juice is squeezed out.

As the kids turn the screw, you can see the apple
cider dripping out onto the pan below.

The pan is tilted slightly so the cider can drip into the pan.

Of which is then poured into jars.
With all of the apples used, we always have plenty
of cider for everyone who takes part.

And then we had our neighbors to the opposite end: the Goodens.

Mrs. Gooden made a wonderful pumpkin pie!!
David and Lynda, though not 21st Michigan members, joined us in this old-time fall adventure. It was wonderful to have them come along!

Z.D. Attie made applehead dolls.
Now, what, you may ask, is an applehead doll?
THIS is an applehead doll.

And the more the apple ages, the more the
face becomes an old crony! Very cool.

Cooking over an open fire is not very different from open-hearth cooking, and the talent folks who cook this way have always amazes me.
Now on to our thresherman's dinner...or it could be our harvest dinner - -
Normally we have this meal in the late afternoon or early evening, just about sunset into twilight time. With the room lit by candles, the ambiance is an immersion experience like little else.
This year, however, we changed it up a bit and had it on Sunday afternoon to accommodate a few people who said they wouldn't be able to make it on Saturday evening.
Even on this bright and sunny Sunday, they still didn't show up.
So next year it'll be back to the Saturday evening as it should be.
But, we still had a grand time!
The Goodens and their friends.

I see two Jennifers, three generations from one family, and an amazing wet plate photographer in this picture.
Oh, and some good food, too.

Here we have the Woodruff family and Mrs. Attie enjoying the harvest meal.

Here's my table (though I'm taking the picture) with my two sons, the Kushners, and someone who is really happy about eating!

Ah...there it is:
Do you see the applesauce? How about the shelled corn?
Beans, potatoes, and corn beef.
Yeah...we know how to throw a harvest dinner!

And afterward we had games such as cribbage.

There were also a couple of fiddlers playing period tunes.

Some of the ladies did the spinning dance.
Never heard of it?
Then you need to hang around them!

My son Robbie is not nearly as dejected as he looks here.
In fact, he was quite happy - how often does one get to sleep inside a fort built in the 1840s?

Sweet little Tabitha.
She is the first grandchild for 21st Michigan
president Jim Cary and his wife Candy.
This was Tabitha's first reenactment!

I think most reenactors will agree that our time to visit each other is one of the most special reasons to reenact. To have so many like-minded people gathering together for a common friendly goal is almost unheard of in most other places.

Ian & Carrie:
Carrie is due with their first child in November.
Ian smokes a pipe.
Carrie does not seem too pleased.

Now we'll get into some fun poses we sneak in when the visitors are not around:
It was 'dress your chicken up as a witch' day.
Not really, but Mary Anne definitely dressed her
chick up as a witch!

Larissa loves her coffee...especially on a cold fall morning.

My son, Robbie, also loves his coffee.
I'm not sure who loves their coffee more!

Jumping into the future, Larissaa saw herself and her
true love in a movie poster.

Jim learned not to fall asleep at the table with Larissa around.
Or when Ken has his camera.

"I have a pipe, therefore I am right."
Jennifer wins all the arguments when
she has her pipe.
I told you we were in the middle of Downtown Detroit for this reenactment. Here are a few quick shots I took while driving down Fort Street.
That's the Ambassador Bridge to Canada you see there, which crosses the Detroit River into Windsor, Ontario.
The US and Canada are at the very beginning of constructing a second bridge not too far from this one, which will be known as the Gordie Howe Bridge, named after one of the greatest of all Detroit Red Wings hockey players. The completion date is supposed to be in 2024.

Big city turn me loose and set me free~
Yeah...I'm a suburbanite with a touch of country boy, but I do enjoy seeing the skyscrapers looming up seemingly out of nowhere every once in a while.

You see that street sign, Bagley Street?
That's the street that Henry Ford once lived on. No big deal, right?
Except that when he was living on this street back in 1896 - not far at all from this corner...only about a mile or so - he built his first car, the Quadricycle, in the shed behind his house.
Detroit needs to celebrate this street more. Unfortunately, his house and shed at 58 Bagley Avenue is long gone, replaced by the Michigan Theater which is now a parking garage.
(click HERE to read more about Henry Ford, his first car, and the place where he lived on Bagley Avenue)

Having the opportunity, no matter how small, to take part in a historical harvest is something I look forward to every year. When I dress in my period clothing and take part in a living history harvest reenactment, I'm there, in the past, with the spirit of the farmers within me. I only hope I do them the honor they deserve.
As I have said many, many times before, reenacting a battle is only a part of the picture. And it's those of us in the civilian contingencies who complete it...make it whole. And doing something like what you see here helps to add life to the past for visitors and for the reenactors themselves.
Next year I am hoping to expand on it even more...
The spirit of harvest past indeed.

Until next time, see you in time.

To read (and see) a more in-depth posting on the fall harvest of both Victorian and Colonial times, please click HERE
To read about a year in the life on a colonial farm, please click HERE

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