Thursday, May 28, 2009

Civil War Remembrance Weekend - Takes Place Every Memorial Weekend

Every Memorial Day weekend the folks at Greenfield Village pull out all the stops to pay homage to our American heroes who fought (and are still fighting) in the armed forces. They do this by reenacting the battles and the homefront of the war from which Memorial Day actually has its roots, the Civil War.

To give a brief history of Memorial Day:
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women's groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, "Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping" by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication "To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead." (There is also evidence that these ladies also decorated the graves of the northern dead as well). While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it's difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860's tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868. It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all. Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
(Taken from the web site "Memorial Day History" -

Greenfield Village continues the tradition of decorating the graves of our fallen soldiers by the laying of wreaths by women, dressed in Civil War era mourning attire, at the Garden of the Leavened Heart in front of the Martha-Mary Chapel.

And this is, perhaps, the most touching part of the entire three day weekend for the visitors. It is solely a tribute to our Nation's veterans, and those in attendance who served in the armed forces are asked to walk out onto the Village Green to be acknowledged as a group. It is truly a heart-felt scene - much more so than, say, a local parade with clowns, decorated bikes, fire engines, and local politicians. This is strictly for all American military veterans - past and present.
Simply awesome.

Soldier's Camp

But, this is only part of the tribute. The whole Village plays a role in the holiday, and is turned into an 1860's town come alive by way of over 500 Civil War era reenactors, both military and civilian, camped out on the streets around the historic buildings situated there. On the east side of the Village Green, members of the cavalry, artillery, and infantry of both the north and south can be found in their respective camps, marching, drilling, and teaching the public about the life of a CW soldier. One can peak inside of a soldier's dog tent, learn the details about the muskets, hear the commands of an army from the mid-19th century, learn about eating hard tack, and, of course, watch a battle between the two sides.

Just before the battle mother...

There are times when the military will present different scenarios of camp life, sometimes showing the disciplining of a "drunken" soldier, for instance. Also, camp entertainment, with fiddles, guitars, and bones, can be heard at various locations.

Training "new recruits"

Young patrons to the Village can "sign up" for the military at the Phoenixville Post Office and then learn how to march & drill and the manual of arms.
As for the actual reenactors in their authentic uniforms, it is truly an impressive sight to see the line of blue and/or gray along the street, ready for battle.

Women on the home front had to earn money while their men were off fighting. Here, a laundress and her helper earn pennies washing and mending clothing.

On the other side of the Village is the civilian encampment, where the visitor can see first hand how folks of the 1860's lived on the homefront. Now, it must be explained here that people at 'home' during this war did not live in tents, nor were there hundreds of camp followers all camped together. What is being shown is the way life was if these reenactors were able to use a house. Because the houses inside Greenfield Village are museums all in themselves, the living historians are, understandably not able to use the structures, so the visitor must imagine the tents as wood-framed homes.
It is in the civilian camp where the visitor will find cooking over an open fire, the women writing letters to their boys fighting in a far-off land, parlor games to keep the families left behind entertained, and the many differing occupations of the time.
One will also find the Christian Commission, Soldiers Aid Societies, and a Temperance Society. In other words, a typical group of people living in a 19th century village.

Patrons are always welcome to step up to the camps

The patrons visiting Greenfield Village are always welcome to step up to the camps to observe and ask questions.

Aside from the reenactors, Greenfield Village provides entertainment by various musicians such as Camp Chase Fife & Drum and the Dodworth Saxhorn Band.

Camp Chase Fife & Drum

A period fashion show always draws a large audience, and the "Off to Prison Camp" at the Smiths Creek Depot gives an accurate presentation of life on the home front, with the women preparing packages for their men while the soldiers bring prisoners of war through the depot..

Preparing packages and letters for their men off fighting

A mourning presentation at Adams Family Home shows how folks dealt with death during the Victorian era, and the Susquehanna Plantation gives visitors an idea of what it was like when a regiment took over a plantation home in the south.
There is so much to see and do on this weekend that the number of visitors to this event continue to rise, and I do not believe there is a bigger weekend for Greenfield Village.
With the 150 anniversary of the Civil War at hand, this Remembrance Weekend can only grow in size and scope.

The Battle Begins...



Thursday, May 7, 2009

Behind the Scenes at Greenfield Village

Until I began frequenting the Benson-Ford Research Center, located on the grounds of The Henry Ford (where one can search for historical records and photographs of everything Greenfield Village), I had not given a second thought as to what went into the displays and presentations at the open-air museum.
Much of what you are about to read in this chapter comes directly from the training manuals given to the presenters.

Period-dressed presenters eating dinner at the Daggett Farm

First off is the Mission Statement of The Henry Ford: "The Henry Ford provides unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America's traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation. Our purpose is to inspire people to learn from these traditions to help shape a better future."

Authentic. This is the key word. Nothing is placed randomly inside the structures at the Village. The curators carefully consider every object before allowing it to become part of the site. It's this type of vigilance that maintains the appropriate period appearance for each and every building. Every object tells part of the story. Nothing is there by accident, and nothing is there that doesn't support the overall story.

Everything is strategically placed inside the parlor at Firestone Farm.

Of course, there are some things beyond the control of even the most ardent historian: airplanes flying overhead, the bright lights of the local motel and other modern buildings just outside the gates of the Village, the emergency siren system on the first Saturday of every month...
But, none of these contemporary backdrops detracts from the overall experience. One is surrounded by period buildings, vehicles, and presenters, and, because of the overall scenario, the signs of the modern world become non-existent.

A colonial girl inside the Giddings House

The presenters here play a major part in the whole feeling of Greenfield Village. Through the wearing of period clothing they themselves give ambiance just by their outward appearance. For instance, stepping into the Daggett Farmhouse - an 18th century saltbox originally from Connecticut - and seeing a presenter in accurate period clothing spinning on the period walking wheel gives a desired effect to the visitor of possibly stepping through a portal through time, whereas a modern dress curator would not have nearly the same effect whatsoever.

Likewise at Firestone Farm, where period dressed presenters abound in greater numbers than any other structure inside the Village. Seeing modern people make supper from scratch means little to most folks, but, put those same presenters in period clothing doing the exact same task, well, now everyone is interested. And, there are numerous homes in the Village that apply this stepping into the past procedure including the Edison Homestead, the Ford Home, and, at times, the McGuffey Birthplace, Scotch Settlement School, and Susquehanna Plantation.

The women of the Adams House work together to make their dinner

The workers who portray our "ancestors" have a set of rules they must follow. For instance, they must report to work fully dressed in the period clothing that is supplied to them by the Clothing and Textile production staff. Hair must be in place for the era they are portraying. No make up, lip gloss, or nail polish of any kind is to be worn. Jewelry, aside from an emergency bracelet or a wedding ring, must be period appropriate and approved by the clothing staff. This means no earrings for the males and no wristwatches of any kind. Even undergarments are provided for the period dressed presenter: "Undergarments such as bustles and/or petticoats that have been assigned to you provide certain period silhouettes and must be worn."
Although the presenter may not portray an actual named or historical character from the past while working in the homes, their appearance, actions, and manner of speaking attempt to evoke the past. The presenters are trained in thought and detail to give the visitor the impression that they have stepped into the past.

The kitchen was the busiest room in virtually every 19th century home, including the one in which Henry Ford was born.

They are taught to think about their lives as an 18th or 19th century person. However, except for the servers and hosts at the The Eagle Tavern, you will not find presenters practicing 1st person - speaking and acting as if they are from the past and not acknowledging the present - as is done in other open-air museums such as Plimouth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg.

The only building that presenters speak in 1st person inside of Greenfield Village is the Eagle Tavern

Greenfield Village applies what I like to call 2nd person: the presenter is dressed in period clothing, doing period work, and carries themselves in a period manner but speaks to the public using modern language and terms, explaining the 'what,' 'how,' and 'why' of the chore at hand. This allows the visitor to learn of everyday life long-past in a fun and fascinating manner and gives the opportunity for questions.
By the way, it's at homes such as Firestone and Daggett that one can see how life was lived by each season of the year: plowing and planting in the spring (Springtime at Greenfield Village), summer chores, fall harvests, and preparing for winter. Each day of the week also follows the daily chores of times past: Monday wash day, Wednesday baking day, Sunday a more relaxed day to do needlepoint, &c.

Monday is wash day at Firestone Farm

At the J.R. Jones General Store, by the way, the presenters will ask the visitors what they are looking to purchase. Of course, nothing is actually for sale, but the docent will explain many of the items in hopes of "making a sale."

Although the actual antique items in the general store cannot really be sold, the proprietor will make the attempt

As for the rest of the homes that do not have period dress docents they will either have volunteers in the modern blue vests giving the tours, or a self-guided tour of the home with the rooms plexi-glassed off.
A few exceptions that the powers that be have made are the scenarios put on by professional actors portraying famous people in history. This has been done at the Wright Bros. and at Menlo Park.

The Wright brothers with their sister put on a historical play to visitors explaining their adventures at Kitty Hawk in 1903. This is one of only a few presentation done in this manner.

It's always surprised me that they do not use a period dress docent at the Sarah Jordan Boarding House - I believe that could add quite a bit to the atmosphere, especially if they use a 1st to 2nd person female presenter.

Because of the large variety of buildings, because of Greenfield Village's promise of authenticity, and because of the mission to teach accurately the daily life of those from America's past, one can visit the Village frequently throughout the year and never fail to learn something new.