Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Way-Back Machine Has Been Switched On

This week we have been readying ourselves for perhaps our biggest and, for many, the most favorite Civil War reenactment of the year: The Civil War Remembrance, taking place this weekend at Greenfield Village. It is a three day event, beginning Saturday morning and ending Monday evening, although for many of us, setting up Friday evening has a past/present mixed atmosphere all its own.

Union Camp at the Village of Greenfield

This event not only takes place in a historic village, but it's the first big reenactment of the season, the one where we can see our old friends, meet new ones, and show off our latest reenacting acquisitions. For instance, my wife recently finished making her new half-mourning dress and bonnet. Due to so many other activities and family situations, it took her a bit longer than expected, but she did it, and I couldn't be more proud. Why half mourning? Because full mourning has a very strict etiquette that is a bit too much for her to do and would not work well here, especially with our youngest children running around (too get the whole story of why she will be doing a mourning impression please read my blog from late last year Mourning ). Besides, one of the homes inside Greenfield Village (Adams Family Home ) will have a full-mourning presentation for the entire weekend.

My wife also made our 8 year old daughter new under-pinnings and our 13 year old son a new pair of period-appropriate pants as well - he's growing like a weed and needed a pair drastically.
For myself, she's hoping to complete my waistcoat this summer. And I ordered a new shirt and undershirt from the Corner Clothiers of Gettysburg ( the finest period-correct men's clothing store anywhere! (As of this writing, it seems that their site has been hi-jacked - hopefully it will be back up soon.) My stuff has been shipped and should arrive Friday. I hope it comes before we leave!

We made a list of food we're going to bring - it can become a bit difficult here due to the fact that my 13 year old is autistic and has a very limited selection of food he will eat without a fight. So, we're going to try to incorporate period-appropriate snacks that we know he likes (peanuts, fruits, etc.) with a few more contemporary items and then ween him down to the more correct-for-the-1860's snacks. I am hoping that he, upon seeing that we have cut way down on the modern items, will realize he hasn't much of a choice but to eat what we brought.
I believe the hardest part for me is trying to get my wife to get away from bringing too many 21st century items. We argue before nearly each major event because of this situation. I really would like us to try to bring strictly period correct items and work more toward the progressive stage in living history. It is so much more difficult, however, with our 13 year old - she feels our son cannot handle it very easily without the modern items. At least we're working together on it this year - we have made the attempt to work it out ahead of time - get the arguing out of the way a few days earlier so we can enjoy every part of the experience. We'll see how that works. I make small inroads every new season...that's a plus.

Folks waiting to have their images taken

So, the carriage will be packed first thing Friday, our horses will be fed til their full, and we will get our youngest children out of the schoolhouse an hour early for our journey to the Village of Greenfield.
Those of you in the Detroit area (and even those of you from a long distance), won't you come and visit us at Greenfield Village this Memorial Weekend? I can practically guarantee that it will most-definitely be worth your while. If you do decide to come, just ask for the Post Master - the reenactor Post Master - when you arrive. I'd love to meet you!
By the way, I will have pictures of this event next week.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

An Interview With "President Lincoln"

Through my travels in the reenacting/living history community I have met some wonderful people, and Fred & Bonnie Priebe are probably two of the more fascinating that I have had the pleasure to befriend. The two portray President and Mrs. Lincoln and, I would venture to believe, probably at times spend more time as the Lincoln's than as the Priebe's!
This past February I wrote an article for the newsletter of the Civil War unit I belong to, the 21st Michigan Co. H, about Mr. Lincoln in celebration of his 200th birthday.
I'd like to present it here:

President & Mrs. Lincoln aka Fred & Bonnie Priebe

On February 12, the 16th president of the United States turned 200 years old. It’s so hard to believe! I mean, I just saw him at Christmastime, looking his youthful self and enjoying the festivities of the season.
Wait! It was Abraham Lincoln I saw, looking his youthful self and enjoying the festivities of the season, wasn’t it? Well…yes and no. He certainly looked like Lincoln, and his wife was the spitting image of Mary Todd Lincoln, but…it was our favorite re-enactor Lincoln, Mr. Fred Priebe and his lovely wife, Bonnie!
When one meets Fred and Bonnie as the Lincolns, they feel as if they have truly come as close as one possibly can in our day and age to meeting the president and his wife. The Priebe’s get into a 1st person mode as soon as their period garments are on and will rarely step out of character.
They become the Lincoln's.
But I wanted to know, how did all of this begin for the couple?
Well, back in the days when our country still actually celebrated Lincoln’s birthday, as well as George Washington’s birthday, as separate holidays (and not President’s Day, as we do today), young Fred Priebe, who was in grammar school at the time, was always drawn to Abraham Lincoln, and when the class would make silhouettes of the two presidents, Fred always made one of his hero. As he grew older, his fondness of the 16th president grew with him, and he began to collect books about him and would continue studying the man. It was also during his youth that Fred remembers watching an old television program called “The Americans,” which was based on the Civil War. This helped to pique his interest in the war, but he really didn’t study it extensively until many years later.
Let’s jump up to the fall of 1995. Fred, already a veteran employee at Greenfield Village, was working at the The Eagle Tavern, a period restaurant that serves up genuine meals from the past. This was during the September ‘Old Car Festival’ (of all events), and he was “working the porch,” as he called it, and a visitor who noticed him began a conversation and told him that, with his beard he looked like Abraham Lincoln and should portray the 16th president as a reenactor. Fred told this woman that she “was nuts!” She responded with asking Fred to check out the other Lincoln impersonations out there, which he did.
“They were terrible!” he told me. “I knew as much as they did at the time!” And he knew he could do a better job then they were doing. You see, Fred began working at Greenfield Village in 1987 – his very first summer there he was portraying Samuel Daggett at the Daggett Farmhouse, and he did a speech to the visitors about the Articles of Confederation, the first governing constitution of the United States. This enabled Fred to learn how to role play, and he continued this type of role-playing at the Lincoln Courthouse and then back to the Eagle Tavern. It was this experience that helped him step into 1st person as a character in history. It taught him to ad lib and, with help from his teaching profession, gave him the skills needed to speak to people of all kinds. This was all a great experience that helped him to eventually do his Lincoln impression of which he does so well today.

President Lincoln gives a speech at Eastpointe's Erin-Halfway Days Festival.
~Note the two Union guards~

The woman who ‘discovered’ him was Trish Moss, a long-time reenactor from the 7th Michigan who is better known today as Mrs. Blair, Civil War era Michigan Governor Blair’s wife. Trish invited Fred and Bonnie to her home where she guided Fred in his venture to portray President Lincoln. It was at this visit that Bonnie, who had little interest in this sort of thing before hand, tried on a period dress for the first time and liked it. On their drive home, it was discussed and decided that Bonnie would portray Mary Todd Lincoln, and the two became a team.
Their first event as the Lincolns was in the spring of ’96 – they only did two events that year. But, it grew from there and now he is busy nearly every day of the year, portraying his hero, with Bonnie joining him on many of these excursions.
I asked Fred what his consistent favorite event as Lincoln is and he replied with, “A River of Time in Bay City, Michigan ( It is a unique time line, from the fur traders through the Vietnam era and everything in between. There is lots of educational activities and I get to recite the Gettysburg Address daily.”
“The setting for this event is beautiful,” he added. “It’s in a riverside park and there is a cook that prepares period correct meals from scratch – just like they used to - on an old wood stove in an 1870’s kitchen.”
His worst event ever was when he was asked to come as Lincoln to a Victorian Festival in one of Detroit's suburbs and, upon arriving, was told to walk up and down the street making speeches into a microphone and carrying a small hand-held speaker, all the while wearing a sandwich board that advertised his sponsor! I think this would be a worst event ever for anyone! Of course, he refused to do such a thing, considering it not only a dishonor to himself, but to President Lincoln as well. They realized how ridiculous this was and found a small stage where he could perform and give honor to the one he emulates.
Fred has had many experiences portraying our 16th president, and I asked him about the unusual questions he has received from audience members. Hands down, the most asked question from children is “Is your beard real?” followed by “Did it hurt when you got shot?”
For adults, the most asked question, or rather, statement, he receives is “I thought you were taller.” Fred’s response? “When the war began, I was 6’4”, but the burden of it shrunk me some!”

An audience enjoys hearing Lincoln recite the "Gettysburg Address"

And, because his beard is real, he is asked quite often, "Did you know you look like Abraham Lincoln?" when he is his 'modern self.'
I have been to many events with the Priebe's and have witnessed both in action. My favorite, I might add, was at a debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. This reenactment took place during the Democrat primary season in the early spring of 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Obama were running neck and neck for the Democratic nomination. A member of the audience posed a question during the question & answer period after the debate had ended: "What do you think of having a woman or a black man running for president?" To which Priebe, as Mr. Lincoln - and without missing a beat - replied, "Not in my lifetime!"
The audience roared with laughter!

Fred will continue his portrayal as President Lincoln as long as he can do it and still look the part. He and his wife participate in debates, reenactments, living history timelines, festivals, school functions and assemblies, and wherever else they can respectfully teach the public - young and old - about who so many consider to be our greatest president.

Kids at Woodland Elementary School in Eastpointe, Michigan, were truly in awe, some believing they had met the real President Lincoln!

Fred and Bonnie enjoy it immensely and it shows. We, in the Michigan reenacting/living history community, are lucky to have them.
Mr. Priebe leaves us with these parting words:
“Strive to do what is right and stay away from what is evil, and then you will be a good citizen and a good model for your children. And, as the real Mr. Lincoln said when he was given a bible from a group of appreciative African Americans: ‘Everything you know about living can be found in this book. It is the greatest gift God gave to man.’ ”
Thank you very much Fred for this interview. I look forward to future events with you and Bonnie.

If you would like to have the Priebe's attend your event, they can be reached through their web site:

(By the way, I have written about Mr. Priebe in a past blog: The Last Mourner for Lincoln)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Uh Oh - More Preaching from Ken!

I have found that my 21st century self is quite a bit different than my counter-self of the 19th century. But, I am beginning to see that my two worlds are beginning to mesh.
For example - - -
While "in" the 19th century, I call my friends by their surnames (i.e. Mrs. Cook, Mr. Morgan, Mrs. Schmidt, etc.), and, in following proper etiquette, I will try to address the unmarried young ladies as Miss Weakland (the eldest daughter in her family) or Miss Emily (the second eldest daughter of her family - her older sister, if she reenacted, would be Miss Veneri).
Here in the modern world, however, it's Jeanne, Steve, Jennifer, Ashley and Emily.
But, I must say, my wife and I find ourselves, while in the modern world, referring to our friends as 'Mrs. Cook' or 'Miss Emily' more and more.

In the 19th century, if...ahem... 'mother nature' calls, I may say (privately, of course) "I have to use the necessary." The term 'outhouse' was a more turn of the 20th century term and a bathroom as we know it today was non-existent.
But, in the 21st century I usually say something like, "I gotta hit the bathroom!"
However, I have found myself in the habit of saying 'necessary' while in this modern era and people seem to know what I mean.

In the 19th century, saying "Good Morning," "Good Afternoon," "Good Day," etc. when greeting others goes without saying, as the term "Hello" was rarely used as a greeting until after the invention of the telephone. And "Hi" is most definitely a turn of the 20th century invention.
Now, I find myself in the 21st century greeting folks in the same manner, although I usually say "Good Morning" no matter what time of day it is. Just because to me it's always morning.
Don't try to figure it out - it's just the way I am.

I have found that I have gotten out of the habit of swearing - I don't use foul language NEARLY as much as I used to, due, in no small part, to my reenacting the Civil War era. Of course, my 19th century counter-part never swears, even though cuss words were around. As a middle-class family man, it would have been far beneath me to use such language.
In the 21st century, it's a bad habit that, thankfully, I am breaking. I don't care how acceptable it is.

Modesty: I cannot believe the change I have made in myself about the clothing women wear today. Whereas I used to look at the ladies dressed skimpy as often as I could, I have found that after six years of reenacting - spending much time in the mid-19th century - my 21st century self does not like the lack of clothing the females tend to wear in our modern times. Walking around in public wearing bikini tops, short-shorts, and all tattooed up has become, believe it or not, a turn off for me. The young ladies (and the not so young ladies) look very sluttish in my eyes in the way they dress and carry themselves.
Am I prudish? I don't think so...

In the 19th century, men were men - women were women - no androgyny, that's for sure.

I personally enjoy seeing females dressed more like women - is that sexist? If it is, so be it. At least the sexes looked the part, if you can understand what I mean. Nothing 'turns me on' more (to use the 1960's slang) than seeing my wife dressed in her period clothing. She just looks so...feminine! And, my wife has told me repeatedly she prefers seeing me in my 19th century clothing as well.
People in general just looked so much better in the 1860's.
As for my style of dress in the 21st century, let's just say I look much better 19th century.
By the way, my daughter is not allowed to play with the whore-ish Bratz dolls. Even though they are just toys, I feel they add to today's problems.

There was a respect in the 19th century - and even through most of the 20th century - that is no longer prevalent. There was a ma'am and sir attitude that children do not have these days. Even in my own youth there was a true respect for others and their properties. This is only going back to the 1960's and 1970's.
What happened? Why is today's society so awful?
Well, I know what some may say to me, so let me answer before they make their predictable statement:
No, I don't necessarily mean that we should all live a 19th century life. But, many of the values of the 19th century are truly missing today. The "my values are not your values" attitude that reigns here in the 21st century is bringing our society down. Values are values. Morals are morals. Anyone that wants to argue that point is only fooling themselves. A strong statement, but, I'm sorry, it's true. I get sick and tired of today's ridiculous notion that we can all survive with differing values and morals. We can't - that has already been proven over the last 25 years. Our country, because of the "variety" of values and morals, is no longer united. It's dying, and I don't believe it's because of the financial crisis. I feel that unless we pull together and have a common respect, moral, and value system, it will die.
So who's values and morals do we follow? Well, I personally have always believed in tradition...
OK - I'm off my pedestal now.
Thanks for letting me air my feelings.


Thursday, May 7, 2009

Clearing My Head Before I Go To Work

I went to the Greenfield Village open air museum again today, where I met up with my friend, Guy. We both are members and enjoy walking the Village just to clear our heads, talk a little, and, of course, learn about our American past. As many times as I have been to Greenfield Village, I never cease to learn something new at each visit. This morning's journey found me concentrating on dairy houses and kitchen gardens. Most homes in the 19th century had both.
I cannot express enough the importance of these two necessities to daily life in the 19th century. To give a very basic overview: the dairy barn of course, was where milk would be made into cheese, butter, cream, etc., and was a much busier shed than many may realize, especially when one considers the cows needed to be milked twice a day.

Susquehanna House Dairy Barn

And the vegetables that would sustain a family from the kitchen garden were a necessity that we in this modern day and age, with our stores and fruit markets within minutes from our homes selling fresh fruits and vegetables 12 months a year, cannot fathom. Imagine going months without fresh vegetables... what was grown in these kitchen gardens sustained the family throughout the year, whether they ate the vegetables fresh during the summer and fall, or dried (in the wintertime and spring).
Many folks here in the 21st century have reverted back to kitchen gardens - we have an ever-growing one ourselves that my eldest son maintains.
Some even are lucky enough to live on a farm - not a modern mechanical farm, but a family farm where they grow what they need to eat, milk their cows for the milk products, and, at times, even use oil lamps for their lighting.

Candle Dipping in the Yard of William McGuffey

No, they're not Amish, just very traditional people that are living the way I believe we were all meant to live.
And I am truly envious of these modern traditionalists.
Which brings me back to Greenfield Village: this is why I go so often - - - I can step into the past, enjoy farm life, traditional crafts, horses and carriages, historical houses, and great company virtually any day I'd like (I have a member pass so I can go as often as I'd like).
And it's less than a half hour drive from my house!

A scene right out of the past!

I may not have that 24/7 traditional life YET...but I have what I consider the next best thing.
And, I have found that, aside from reenacting, my "extra" visits to the past are the perfect way to spend the morning before I have to go to that four letter word place known as WORK!