1825 – An “Out of Time” Event

I’ve had a busy few weeks away from my computer!  My daughter and I enjoyed a girls only trip to Disney World.  My Nikon camera has needed some TLC for a while so I rented a Sony a7iii for the trip which convinced me to make the jump to mirrorless and buy it outright at the end of our vacation. That means I had a good, working camera to take a few quick snaps at an historical event the week we got home.  

Locust Grove Costumed Interpreters enjoying the view during a recent event hosting actress and author Sarah Vowell. Photo Credit Heather R. Hiner

Locust Grove hosted author and actress, Sarah Vowell for a discussion on her book Lafayette and the Somewhat United States along with a dinner to commemorate Lafayette’s 1825 visit to Louisville as part of his national tour.  Unfortunately, I was too busy in the historic home to see Sarah Vowell, but I heard much laughter drifting over from her talk, had a lovely view of the outdoor candlelit dinner, and I always love a chance to hang out with some of my favorite costumed interpreters. As I said earlier, it also gave me a chance to try out my new camera in the often tricky light of the often dark historic home.

We seem to average at least one event a year where the interpreters have a chance to step out of our normal timeframe of 1816.  It’s often a fun opportunity to step into a new role or new clothes from time to time and it can also help everything stay fresh and enjoyable for everyone.  It’s also one of the very rare times when the normally strict costuming guidelines might be relaxed a little.

Hannah made both the beautiful 1825 gown she is wearing as well as the 1825 coat for her husband, Brandon. Photo Credit Heather R. Hiner

Interpreters playing primary roles at these “out of time” events usually make, purchase, or borrow a new outfit that would fall in line with the normal costume standards of the program, only for the new year being portrayed.  If the special event only requires a very small number of interpreters or if the year is drastically out of our norm, then the program may revolve around a reduced cast dressed appropriately for the new time period.

Our lovely theatrical director in an 1825 gown she finished for the event. Photo Credit Heather R. Hiner

However, there are times when a larger cast is needed to make the event a success and this is when the guidelines may be a little softer than usual.  For the most part, the costumed interpreter program at Locust Grove is a volunteer effort. Not only do interpreters volunteer their time for meetings, rehearsals, and events, in most cases, they also provide their own historically accurate clothing.  Some sew their own outfits and others pay to have clothes made according the costuming standards of the program. For some, it can be a fun chance to make something new while other cast members may not want to pay for materials or labor to have an outfit made that they may only wear once, which is understandable.

Heather and first time interpreter, Kristie in lightly modified 1816 gowns for the event. Photo Credit Heather R. Hiner

In cases where the one time event is somewhat close to 1816 and it also requires a larger cast, we relax the standards in an effort  to keep it affordable for our volunteer interpreters. What usually happens is the most important roles are costumed to the new time period as much as possible.  Supporting cast members wear their approved 1816 clothing modified as much as they can be with the understanding that it’s not going to be perfect. So for a woman going from 1816 to 1825, she might add an extra petticoat and lower the sash on her gown.  It’s not going to produce an accurate 1825 look, but it is usually enough to blend in while most eyes are on the appropriately dressed members of the cast who may be in the spotlight more than everyone else.

Interpreters representing members of the Bullitt family in 1825. Sisters Eloise, Mary Ann, (mother) Diana, and Ann Bullitt. I have a soft spot for the Bullitt ladies so I am always happy when they make an appearance. Photo Credit Heather R. Hiner.

In a perfect world, we would have the funding to dress everyone down to historically accurate buttons at every event as our interpreters work quite hard to be as accurate as possible.  However, this compromise does work on the rare occasions we need it to.

Feel free to follow The Past in Focus on Facebook for updates or my Instagram for my portrait work along with some of the photos from my recent Disney trip and additional images of Hannah and Brandon that I will be sharing over the next few weeks!

 

The Staircase

My daughter portraying Miss Mary Bullitt in 2016 at Historic Locust Grove.

There is something incredibly rewarding about taking multiple things you are passionate about and combining them.  While I had been a photographer for a while before my family started volunteering at Historic Locust Grove, it was there where everything meshed together and my love of historically inspired portraiture was born. For me, there’s a bit of magic in using modern technology and careful research to create an image that brings the past to life and makes it feel more real. Toss in one of my children as the subject, and you get an image that tugs at my heartstrings and remains one of my favorite portraits that I have ever taken.

One of the best things about this portrait is that it was a pure moment of serendipity.  For the most part, I don’t go “behind the ropes” when there are costumed interpreter events in the historic house.  I don’t want to ruin the atmosphere the interpreters work so hard to create by standing in the middle of them with a digital camera.  

I had made a rare exception and slipped into the back of the farm office to get some images of the interpreters interacting with guests during the 2016 Christmastide event. I had gotten a few shots I wasn’t fully happy with when I heard someone coming down the staircase at the back of the room.  That back staircase is a bit steep so it’s really only used by interpreters during events to help keep the traffic flow less congested on the main staircase that’s used by guests.

There also happens to be a nice sized window at the bottom curve of the steps that makes for a pretty pocket of light against the gorgeous verdigris door on the landing. So when I heard footsteps, I quickly turned 90 degrees and changed my settings in the hopes of getting something interesting.  I was thrilled when it turned out to be my daughter that appeared in that pretty pool of light.

I love everything in this picture. I love the delicious natural light. While I admit I may be biased, I genuinely think that’s prettiest verdigris I have ever seen.  I couldn’t have captured a sweeter expression on her face even if I had actually staged the shot. I adore the block printed fabric of her dress. I love the little details and the frozen moment in time. I even love it down to my husband’s dancing slippers tucked away on one of the steps.

 

Wait, You Do This For Free?!

My son giving a house tour to a guest. Photo credit: Jason Hiner

As a docent and a “time ambassador” (more about that in a later post), I go out of my way to let visitors know that the vast majority of the people they interact with when they visit Historic Locust Grove are volunteers.  When my family first started volunteering there about eight years ago, there were four full time staff members and a handful of part time staff. As I am writing this, there are now six full time staff members. Add in the part time and seasonal staff and the total number of people working there is still less than 20.  This small, but mighty group of people obviously play important roles and we are all thankful for what they do day in and day out make the site what it is.

Still, I often let guests know that most of us are out there donating our time.  Now, I’m not angling for a pat on the back when I share that particular tidbit. The simple truth is, that like many historic sites, Locust Grove could not function without a healthy volunteer corps. I want guests to know that so much is accomplished simply because a group of people that love history in general and the site in particular help make it happen. As Locust Grove’s program director, Brian Cushing, has said, “the site exists because the community wants it to.”  

My children helping Locust Grove Program Director, Brian Cushing, plant corn in the garden.

One of the great things about volunteering is that there’s something for everyone.  A small sampling of the ways people help out at the Grove includes gardening, working with school field trips, baking, cleaning, working in the gift shop, demonstrating historic trades, directing traffic, and working concessions. Those are just a portion of the roles people fill.  Within my own family, we have sewed, researched, taught historic games, docented, created student programing, been on trash patrol, helped with the admissions gate, taken photos, and participated as costumed interpreters, among other things. And we have some pretty fun adventures I am looking forward to sharing.

Since researchers tend to love some concrete facts and numbers, I have a few to share with you. According to Mary Beth Williams, the curator of Collections & Education, 131 volunteers recorded a total of 11,822 volunteer hours in 2017. This is the part where I direct you to the word “recorded.”  The truth is that sometimes, people forget to record their hours which means the real number is actually higher.

But let’s run with the official number for a minute.  It varies by state, but Kentucky values volunteer work at $21.38 an hour.  If you do the math, that comes to an in-kind contribution with a value of $252,754.  Those hours really add up!

My daughter demonstrating the historic trade of butter making.

It’s not just the monetary value that’s important, either.  Being able to show volunteer and community support can help a site secure grants and other outside funding that help make programing possible.  The more volunteers and hours logged, the easier it is to secure funding. And that finding can be critical. I’m going to let you in a little secret about why that’s so important.  Most historic sites don’t get government funding. Many run on a very tight budget and depend on donations to keep the doors open. For some sites, a grant could make or break their ability to offer certain kinds of programing to the public.

Keeping all of this in mind, I can’t encourage people enough to consider volunteering for an organization that is near and dear to their hearts.  Obviously, historic sites are my soft spot, but it can be your local science center, a museum, the zoo, an arts program, or a myriad other worthy causes.  It’s a chance to use your unique skills to make an impact on an organization that’s important to you and get as much, if not more, than what you give.

 

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The Responsibility of Someone Else’s Story

When trying to decide on what to share first, I kept going back to something I posted on my personal Facebook page a few months ago.  In the spirit of not filling my friend’s feeds with a great wall of text, I tried to pare my thoughts down as much as possible and it was still a lot for a medium that isn’t necessarily set up for sharing thoughts that are more appropriate for a blog.  As more and more of my research projects have led to a desire to share what I have found along with my thoughts on the process of unearthing facts from the past and how they translate to life today, I have finally decided to give them a more proper home here.  And since this was the post that got the ball rolling, I feel it is only appropriate to expand upon and share that original Facebook post here.

While I plan to post on a wide array of subjects, this particular project, researching the enslaved people that belonged to Croghan family of Historic Locust Grove, may be the most important research I have ever done and as such will appear quite a bit here.  I am very proud to be a volunteer at a site where bringing these stories to the forefront is a priority.

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Today, I begin to organize and expand on the research on the enslaved people of Locust Grove that I have have been doing off and on for the past two years. I find myself in a different mindset than I usually am when I tackle research. Normally, I’m energized and very focused when I settle into a research project. There’s a sense of satisfaction when I turn up something new and expand on someone’s story. I get very excited when I discover something that allows us to relate to and empathize with someone from the past. I still feel those things, but this time, there are other feelings, too.

Stone from the remains of a slave cabin at Historic Locust Grove.

I feel a greater need to turn over every stone and pebble, to find the tiniest of facts. There are so few that no matter how small, they are all significant. I find my heart heavier at times as I try to grapple with understanding lives lived that I can never fully comprehend because their experiences were so different from mine. There’s a desire to fill in the gaps and give agency and voice to these people who had so little of it in their lifetimes and who were often silenced or ignored by history. There’s anger at how the details of their lives were recorded by others and frustration on the scarcity of information available. And there’s hope, hope that I can somehow do justice to their memories, to their struggles and triumphs, and to the lives they lived.

There’s also a weight to the process.  It weighs on me.  How do I properly share someone else’s story?  Can I do justice to them? There’s concern if my self taught research skills are enough to fully convey someone’s existence that was so very different from my own.  In the end, I always circle back to the idea that something done in the spirit of love and service to another is worthwhile in spite of the fact that I am still learning the best ways to research and share.  It also drives me to keep learning how to convey these stories in a better way.

Remains of a tree growing on the foundation of a slave cabin at Historic Locust Grove.

And there’s also a beautiful solemnity to the process. This past spring, I photographed the ruins of the foundation of the slave cabin in the woods at Historic Locust Grove so they have a visual record of it’s current condition. As I was trying to figure out which pictures I needed to take, I also found myself reflecting on who might have lived there. Who from my list of names made this their home? Was this Charlotte’s house, or maybe this is where Criss lived? Or could this be the abode of Hannah, Isaac, Alfred, or someone whose name was never recorded? Who cooked meals here, raised their children, rested after a long day’s labor? We don’t know and it’s possible we never will.

But we do know this: There’s no slave cemetery at Locust Grove. We have some theories and guesses about the final resting places of these people, but ultimately, we just don’t know for sure. That, of course, is it’s own kind of indignity when you look at the family graveyard so carefully preserved. Was the “child of Beaty”, who died from bilious fever in the fall of 1832, buried in an unmarked grave outside the boundary of the family cemetery as was often the case, or was this unnamed child laid to rest somewhere else on the property?  It’s a mystery that may never be solved.

But I do know this: enslaved people lived their lives and worked to carve out their own space on the site of that cabin foundation. They existed in that space and the simple act of naming their names, of standing where they stood and remembering them is a spiritual act of remembrance.

Remains of the foundation of a slave cabin at Historic Locust Grove.

As I moved around the space, trying to find the angles to properly record the building’s remains, I couldn’t help but feel the presence of those who lived there over 200 years ago.  Standing by myself, among the scattered stones in the quiet woods, I was struck that it was a very sacred space.  And so I left my own stone, my own token of remembrance, just like I do when I visit a grave. There may not be a slave cemetery, but this space was more their’s than most on the property and it just felt right to honor their passing there, where they had lived.

How I felt as I recorded the site has become an overriding reminder of why I do this and it does add to the weight of it all. How do I do right by these people who were marginalized during their lifetimes and forgotten after their deaths? Ultimately, I know I can never fully give them the justice they deserve and that the best I can do is to gather what we have and hopefully find a few new details to fill in the narratives of their lives. And so I organize, and search, and dig, and hope I do well by them.  I share their names and their stories and honor their memories in doing so.