A REALLY Old-Fashioned Weekend

Norm and I are “Living Historians,” which means that we demonstrate life in the past.  Our time period of choice is the 1870s.  This means that when we are demonstrating our skills, we are dressed in clothing of the 1870s and use tools that were used back then.

When we go away for a weekend or longer for special events or educational events, we live in that time period, for the most part.

We recently returned from Pepin, Wisconsin, which is the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Now Laura, as many people know, was the author of the “Little House” books, a story of her life and her family as she grew up in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota.  She was born in 1867 and lived until she was almost 90, dying in 1957.  Her books have served as research material for me in my learning my character and learning about my chosen time period.  If she mentioned it, it happened.  If she didn’t mention it, more research was needed to see if what I wanted to do was “period correct.”

When we go to Pepin, we join others in a “village” in the town park.  All of us camp in canvas tents; we have a kitchen where several ladies do all the cooking for the village.  We have woodworkers, potters, basket weavers, blacksmiths, broom makers, tinsmiths, flint-napper, fiber artists and candle makers.  Norm carves spoons and I demonstrate fiber work – spinning, weaving, knitting, embroidery, etc.  It is my passion to pass on the skills of the past to others; I have gotten several women and girls interested and go on to do the fiber work themselves.  I love it when a young girl will sit for an hour at a time with me, talking about fiber and going home with stars in her eyes.  Perhaps she will be the next master weaver/spinner/knitter.

We also spend almost a week in Albert Lea, Minnesota, at a Historical/Educational Rendezvous. “Big Island Rendezvous” has at least a thousand children come through each day, so it is one of the largest events in the area.

While at Big Island, I need to cook, as we are living there for the entire time.  So we have a brazier for me to cook on as it is difficult for me to bend over a fire pit to cook.  A brasier is a metal box (mine is rectangular) with a grill (or two) over it. This box is on a stand put at the right height for the cook and allows her (or him) to have a fire for cooking without having to bend over a fire pit on the ground.  This was probably the first barbeque grill!  When traveling, the coals are dumped out, the legs are put into the box and it has handles for lifting – it’s not too heavy, as it is made of sheet metal – and it is put in the wagon or hung under it in a sling for transporting.  (Ours, of course, sits in the trailer, next to the inside heat stove).

So, now to our camp.  When families moved, like the Ingalls did – often – they had choices.  The Ingalls family usually camped out beside their wagon; others carried tents and camped for days, weeks or months at a time.  This is the way we portray our camp.

Let me invite you into my lodge (tent) to see the “modern” conveniences that I have there.  The tent poles are painted a Prussian blue to match the blue in the reproduction material that I use for curtains for our privacy area.  This area holds a commode and a box on a table for our “ablutions.”  I have a mirror hanging by an “s” hook made of metal by my blacksmith friend.  The commode is a reproduction of an 1800s one that a dear friend has;  another friend made this for me.  A commode is a wooden box of sorts that holds the chamber pot and has a cover so that one can sit on it as a chair.  A nod to the modern – I have two plastic bags in the pot so that I can empty the pot by just tying the bags and dumping them in a dumpster or garbage can (is that too much information for you?).  This way I have access day and night, which is wonderful on cold, rainy days.  The box on the table holds all of our modern needs …toothbrushes, hairbrushes, etc.  It is closed to hide the modern.  I have a washbowl and pitcher for water, soap and a small candle on the top of the box.

In the main part of the lodge is our double bed with flannel sheets, wool blankets and a pretty quilt to keep us warm.  There is also a nice warm “4-dog” stove.  That means it will keep the lodge warm on very cold nights – the old trappers would put dogs on the bed to keep them warm, hence a night with 4 dogs on the bed was a very cold night!  The stove has a nice flat top so that we can cook on it if it is too cold/wet to be outside.  (One week it rained at least 2″ a day so we spent as much time inside as possible, cooking and eating there).

All of our plastic storage boxes either fit under the bed or are stacked to make shelves, but are covered with material to hide them.  My “suitcase” is a picnic basket that looks like it would belong and Norm’s “suitcase” is a small wooden box.  Our dog, Peanut, has her kennel and it is covered with a blanket, as well.

Speaking of heat on a cold night, I know why the people wore night caps.  The only way to keep warmth on your head at night is to wear a night cap or cover your head with the blankets, which is not comfortable (at least to me).

On the floor is my carpet.  One does not want to have grass or dirt on the floor because of dampness; I have period-looking upholstery fabric (a friend works for a furniture factory and gets the ends of the rolls) on the floor and a painted blue plywood “floor” under the stove to protect my carpet.  Hanging from the top of the tent is a chandelier – a gift from my dear blacksmith friend … it holds 4 glass cups for the candles and can be raised or lowered by a light cotton rope that is attached to one of the center poles.  (My lodge would indeed be very sparse if it weren’t for all my good friends – Norm would be stressed to try to supply me with all my “needs.”) It gives great light but if I want to read, I need a lantern on a table near the bed or chair.

Outside my lodge is my “fly” – or “awning” in modern terms.  I consider this my “front porch.” It is large enough for both Norm, and I to sit to demonstrate and be protected from rain or sun.  I have an allergy to bee-stings so cannot be barefoot on bare ground.  Because of this, we have carpet under the fly as well as inside.  When we camp for more than two days, we have the kitchen under the fly – a lovely sideboard table with the kitchen box (painted to match the poles) on it with the washbowl next to it.  This is my working space for preparing the food, which is period-correct, of course.  The brazier is close to the fly and has an extra bit of canvas over it during the rain.  All cooking is done in cast iron pots and dutch ovens.  I have a favorite cobbler that is made when we have guests for supper.  All dishes are ironstone and the silverware is old; some of the silverware belonged to my grandmother!

Our ice box is hand-made by Norm, on a stand to avoid bending.  It is a wooden box with thick pieces of high-density foam for insulation.  Norm put a hole in the bottom with a rubber cork.  We can take the cork out and let the ice melt into a pan under the ice-box.  We purchase bags of ice from the local grocery store to keep our food cool.  I am careful to not open the ice box when there are guests around so they don’t see the modern foam.

I have buckets around the corner of the lodge with water for drinking, cooking and washing.  Norm hauls the water from the main hydrant in a corner of the camping area when I need more.  There is a Britta water filter covered with canvas for allowing us to have clean, pure water as we are not always sure if the water is safe for drinking.

Our clothing is, of course, period correct.  Norm and I wear clothing of the 1870s.  Peanut, a miniature dachshund, has a cotton harness and a finger-woven leash.

We have folding tables that are reproductions of camp tables and folding chairs that “could have” been there back then.  Of course there is a pretty table cloth for the dining table.  I have my rocking chair, which is a true antique.  Several woodworking friends identified it as being made during the Civil War era.  I love this chair, not only for the comfort but because I purchased it when our oldest daughter was born.

All campers/demonstrators/vendors at Rendezvous and History events attempt to be totally period-correct in the eye of the guests that visit our lodges.  Inside and outside of the lodge, anything that is modern is hidden.  We dress, eat, sleep and live as closely as we can to what is true. Research with pictures, diaries and letters helps us to know what people in the past did when moving across country.  If people only stopped for a night, they didn’t have a complicated set-up, but if they stopped to gather with others, the people would have had the more comfortable, “modern” settings to live with.

This is a great way to leave the modern world (sort of).  We can never totally avoid the modern world, but with a little bit of luck we can imagine ourselves back then.  With blending old and new, we can have the best of two worlds.

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