Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Playing Their Role in History

Jun 13, 2011 10:37PM ● By Anonymous

Most of the time they appear to be typical modern citizens: contemporaries you pass on the street, meet at a social function, work with, or perhaps even call family. But they’re different. They carry within them spirits from times gone by. They are living history.

In the modern world David Barber works as a salesperson in the construction industry. He remembers discovering. he had the spirit. “I did a fund-raising march to save Civil War battlefields,” Barber says. “We marched seven miles in full gear then joined the line of battle, joined the fight. That was the moment I realized how grueling these soldiers’ experience was. The thirst and heavy rifle and dusty roads gave me a full appreciation of these men; I felt a great admiration.”

Scotti Preston is an administrator and living history interpreter for the Historic Annapolis Foundation. She feels the spirit in that moment when someone “walks into a room and an interpreter brings that room to life, standing in the spot a person stood generations ago. It’s powerful,” she says.

Living History Enthusiasts, Reenactors, and Interpreters

Living history, or heritage interpretation, means different things to different people. But the goal is typically to communicate cultural and natural heritage to the public through firsthand involvement in a specific historic era or event—to “bring history to life.”

This is not a new, or narrow, practice. The Romans reenacted famous battles and Victorian society staged medieval jousting tournaments. Today participants commemorate many different eras with various levels of authenticity. There are a number of people worldwide who engage in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance reenactments. The world wars have their own enthusiasts as does the Napoleonic age. In the United States there are permanent sites, such as Colonial Williamsburg and Massachusetts’s Plimoth Plantation, and annual reenactments of such historic battles as Gettysburg and Custer’s Last Stand. Victorian, colonial, and Civil War ballroom dances are popular events, old-time baseball games are played from coast to coast, and even the United Kingdom has a Wild West Fair. Due to our area’s rich history in the colonial, frontiersman, andWar Between the Stateseras, these are the periods most popular for local interpreters. Enthusiasts participate in these events to varying degrees. Though it is a close-knit community, there are some subtle differences in nomenclature and individual methods. Interpreters seem to take a more theatrical and academic approach, while reenactors are often self-taught individuals with a passion for history who display disparate levels of accuracy. While all typically strive for higher levels of authenticity,some groups hold high standards in these regards while others are more flexible.

In his 1957 book, Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tildenwriter, National Park Service icon and ‘Father of Heritage Interpretation,’ defined six principles of historical interpretation that can be boiled down to these:

1. Interpret to the experience of the visitor.
2. Interpretation is revelation based on information.
3. Interpretation is art. Art is in some degree teachable.
4. The chief aim is provocation.
5. Interpretation should aim to present the whole.
6. Don’t dumb it down.

Regardless of how they categorize themselves and how closely they follow Tilden’s edicts, there’s one constant: Those who answer the call of the spirits come from many walks of life.

Georgia K. Chaney Ladd, a fourth grade teacher and a mother, considers herself a “classroom historical interpreter.” A 16th-generation Marylander, Ladd always loved history and family genealogy. Once on a school tour of Annapolis she asked the colonial guide whether there was a tour featuring other eras. Nothing was available. She researched Maryland’s Southern sympathies during the Civil War, and, after a process of writing and revising, organized a Civil War walking tour of the state capital.

Michael Fitzpatrick,a geologist, published writer, and proud member of 20th Maine Company E of the Union troops, along with Dave Barber of the Confederate Army’s Company C, helps Ladd with the tour. Fitzpatrick was introduced to the avocation a decade ago when he was looking for activities to share with his children. One day at an event a reenactor invited the family to join in a baseball game. They had fun and made some new friends, and at one point his oldest daughter said, “Why don’t we do this, Dad?”

C. W. “Speedy” Hogarth calls himself “a purist.” Working with the Historic Annapolis Foundation, this retired soil engineer helps operate the frontiersman living history program out of the Barracks on Pinkney Street. It’s there you can find Hogarth teaching visitors what it was like for the men who carved out a life where few Europeans had trod. in America’s great wilderness.]It’s a hands-on exhibit and Hogarth is obviously familiar with the ways of the fur trader from our country’s past. He’s followed a long path to his current “living it” status. In 1959 he started participating in North-South musket skirmishes and gave flintlock rifles a shot. “Then I got hooked up with the National Muzzle Loading Association—mountain men, long hunters—when I found that I I knew what my calling was,” he says. “In the early ’70s, there wasn’t much information available about clothes, tools, weaponry. We fumbled along, made mistakes, and corrected them.” Hogarth is a founding member of the Patuxents, a local living history group that has been active for almost three decades. And, like many enthusiasts, he enjoys attending rendezvous camps—the very popular social gatherings of his fellow fur traders, mountain men, trappers, and explorers and their families. About these social ties he says, “I’ve got friends from Walla Walla, Washington, to Maine. We never talk about jobs or the real world. That’s taboo. There are people I’ve known for years and I have no idea what they do for a living.”

Kent County native Andrew McCown has participated in Chestertown’s annual Memorial Day Tea Party Festival since the first one, in 1968. An educator at Echo Hill Outdoor School, McCown now directs the reenactment of the Eastern Shoremen’s rebellious act in the region’s preeminent event of its kind. His duties include assembling the actors and tweaking the script. The actors first gather in front of the landmark White Swan Tavern and march down to the waterfront, where they board a schooner to toss both tea and Tories overboard. “It’s a rush,” McCown says, “to be involved in the spirit of rebellion that led to the birth of American democracy.”

Types of Performance

The reenactor’s schedule usually runs from May to June and September to October, though preparation requires a lot of time over the course of a year. Fitzpatrick says his group “starts in January with Round Roller, where just our unit gets together to make rounds, blank cartridges, for use throughout the year. We plan a tour schedule, look at which parks have invited us to appear, and set our schedule.

“We go to different events, like the Greatcoat Convention, Harper’s Ferry, Antietam, Gettysburg, where in an anniversary year, 10 or 20 thousand people show up. We lay out a camp, demonstrate maneuvers and weapons. In October we host our ghost tour fundraiser, a Halloween-themed tour we do at Point Lookout.”

Epic Civil War films such as Gods and Generals could not be made without reenactors. They provide their own horses, cannons, and equipment. They stay on set for months. Many reenactors don’t portray a specific individual, rather aiming to capture the generic impression of a soldier from that time. Fitzpatrick feels role-playing inhibits conversation between presenter and spectator. “If you’re asked an interpretive question, you’d have to step out of character to answer,” he says.

Others approach the call from a different perspective. Scotti Preston comes from a theater background and considers herself a storyteller. After years acting, singing, directing, and producing overseas, she found herself back in her hometown, where she started down the path to living history by portraying an enslaved woman at the Charles Carroll House. At the time the exhibit was controversial, and organizers worried visitors would respond negatively. On the contrary, Preston says: “People were moved, they came back in droves.” She plays numerous roles, including her own grandmother. “She was a well-known local teacher who taught well into her 90s. Her grandmother’s grandmother was a slave. I did a presentation of her at St. John’s College. So many people who knew my grandmother came up afterwards and said, ‘Oh, my God, you were her.’” Preston currently portrays Cook at the Paca House.

Ladd has two primary roles: the brassy Southern supporter and the more burdened Confederate widow. When deciding how developed she wanted to make her characters she said to herself, “If I’m going to do this. I’m going to do this authentic.”

The Educational Component

Hogarth says, “It’s important we get back to learning our history. Lots of kids have been given no concept of time frame. They can’t tell you if the French-Indian War came before World War II.”

And exposure to living history does teach. Fitzpatrick says, “There are two doctors in our unit. One has a surgical kit and ambulance and all kinds of equipment. He has an encyclopedic medical knowledge, knows about everything from the history of surgery, to the Red Cross, to development of medicines—all kinds of subjects. My daughter liked hanging out with him. She’d just sit there and listen to everything he said. One day he stepped away for a while and some people came up. My daughter started talking and had his whole patter down. She was really picking up all this history through osmosis.

“Everyone in my group has a passion for history,” Fitzpatrick continues. “If one person doesn’t know the answer to a question there’s someone who does, whether it’s about military history, personalities of the time, politics, recreation, home front, medicine. We pride ourselves on high standards of authenticity. That comes from extensive source reading. Well-read accuracy comes down to source.”

Preston says, “We build off the work of magnificent historians. Historians give us fodder.”

The goal, according to McCown, is to get people, especially youngsters, “to make the connection that history has value.”

As for the interpreters themselves, living the part provides an understanding of every aspect of their chosen area of study, the whole picture, right down to their bloomers. Ladd makes her own costumes, and she doesn’t go halfway. To get in character she dons those bloomers, as well as stockings, chamois, corset, corset cover, hoop skirts, petticoats, and time-appropriate shoes. Everything’s authentic and none of it is particularly comfortable according to our modern ideals—even in perfect weather.

Fitzpatrick says many Civil War reenactors start out more amateurishly attired and the more experienced members of a group guide them toward authenticity. This road of enlightenment often leads to an area like Gettysburg, where there are a small number of uniform manufacturers operating at the highest levels of handmade expertise, using extensive personal research of original archival information on such particulars as material, patterns, and regulations. Fitzpatrick says that, depending on the authenticity and quality of the materials, “the prices range from a little to a lot.” 

There’s also a cottage industry of people who make weapons and firearms to the specifications of the original manufacturers.

Answering the Call

Living historians are passionate about their mission. Ladd says it’s a call she’s answering to “give the past a voice” and that it’s all about “watching people in those aha moments when it clicks for them, watching history speaking for itself.”

She says when she steps into her character she leaves “all the 21st-century problems at the door and it’s 1863 for me. Let’s not judge through 21st-century eyes. Let’s get to where we can see through their eyes. Let’s speak for all our Maryland ancestors. We have a duty to tell their story, to make people think in a different way.”

Preston’s enthusiasm for her calling, the spirit in her, is inspiring. She says, “Living history sticks with you longer through oral interpretation. Living history communicates through voice instead of written word. It’s bold, in your face. I get giddy knowing I can combine my skill sets to get history out there to both those who know nothing and those who know more than I do. I want to give people renewed respect for the streets they’re walking. I want them to see something related to themselves in the art.” 

Hogarth says, if you feel the spirit stirring inside you, “Pick a time period that interests you. Go to a historic site and talk to people. We’re looking for help here at the Barracks. You don’t need a lot of knowledge, we have that. What we need is a new generation of volunteers to keep the effort going. Contact the foundation; tell them you want to help.” Let your spirit loose.

The nonprofit Historic Annapolis Foundation works to preserve the distinctive character of Maryland’s capital city. It manages such historic properties as the St. Clair Wright Center, William Paca House and Garden, Shiplap House, Museum Store, Waterfront Warehouse, and the Barracks. The foundation offers tours, lectures, and education through various means, including living history. You can find its Web site at