Kids experience hands-on history

November 1, 2013

Benjamin can write his name but little else. He can barely read. On his Virginia farm, “we have to spend the entire day doing work, work, work,” he says. “In the middle of the day we get a meal, then we work until it gets dark. And then we eat supper from our leftovers.”

Benjamin, who is about 12 (he’s not sure), isn’t complaining. He loves his life. He wouldn’t trade with you, even if he could. “It’s really awesome,” he says, stepping out of character for a moment.

“Awesome” is a word said a lot by kids who are historical reenactors. They love dressing up in costumes and acting like kids from another time and place. “Benjamin” is actually 10-year-old Christopher Zane of Arlington. Some weekends and afternoons, you might find him working at Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean.

To act his part, Christopher had to learn a lot about life in the 1770s, when “Benjamin” lived. He needs to be prepared for questions from visitors. “Do you have WiFi?” is one popular question — to which a kid reenactor might respond: “WiFi? Is that a vegetable?”

KidsPost invites you to travel back in time with some young reenactors from three different centuries. Let’s see what their lives are like.

Maryland, 1661

On the Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation in St. Mary’s County, children help with weeding, sewing and cooking. The Sprays did not exist in the mid-17th century, but they are based on an actual family that lived in Southern Maryland then.

Twins Carter and Samuel Harris, 13, are reenactors who take on the roles of two of the Spray children. A few days each week, the boys travel from their home in nearby Lexington Park to the plantation in Historic St. Mary’s City, which was founded by British colonists in 1634. A special year-long program at the historic sitehelps the twins, who are home-schooled, learn about Maryland history.

Carter enjoys working in the wood yard, where many items the family needs, including simple furniture and stakes for supporting tobacco plants, are made. Samuel likes harvesting tobacco because “you get to use a large knife . . . called a billhook.”

The twins have learned a lot about growing tobacco, a huge moneymaker for Colonial planters. They can tie the sticky leaves into “hands” and hang them in the barn. They even know how to “worm” the plants. “You have to check every single leaf,” Carter says. “And if you find a worm, you crush it in your fingers.”

The boys delight in telling how, in the 17th century, a boy who missed a worm might be forced to bite its head off. A meaner master might beat the lad!

Emily Stringer, 13, also of Lexington Park, walks the fields barefoot because shoes cost a lot. That’s one of the historical facts she has learned. Here’s another: People don’t bathe much, so around her neck she wears a “sweet bag” filled with herbs and flowers to cover the odor.

Ava Ciabattoni can’t wait until next summer when she’ll be 9, old enough to help at the plantation. “I really like history,” says Ava, who lives in nearby Mechanicsville. “And I love doing old-fashioned things.” She already has her dress and bonnet ready.

Virginia, 1771

Sydney Marenburg, 11, dons four or five layers of clothing even on the hottest days at Claude Moore Colonial Farm, near her home in McLean. She wants visitors to get a real picture of what life was like for a poor farm girl in the 18th century.

“Not everybody lived like Thomas Jefferson,” she notes.

Sydney’s character, Sally, sure doesn’t. Sally doesn’t go to school, ride a horse or eat fancy meals. She spends her days fetching water, hoeing and doing other farm chores. “I don’t like to clean out the goose coop,” Sydney says, twitching her nose. “It’s sort of smelly. But I do like to water the garden, especially on summer days when you get really hot.”

Sydney has been a junior interpreter at the farm for two years. Recently, a brother was added to her pretend farm family. The brother, named Benjamin, is played by Christopher. “I sort of like to bother him,” she says. He shrugs: “There’s nothing I can do.” Apparently, how sisters and brothers get along hasn’t changed much in 240 years.

Sydney says reenactors must be prepared for anything. One day a piglet got loose, and she and others ran to catch it, but they couldn’t. The farmer said he would find it later.

Morwen Summers likes to pull the dirt out of wool (called “carding”) before it’s dyed and spun into yarn. She also makes felt by wrapping wool around a rock and rubbing it for a long time in soapy water. The result is a ball of felt that can be a toy or a sponge.

Morwen has been reenacting since she was 7 weeks old! Her mother was the “farm wife” at Claude Moore and brought Morwen to work. The baby slept in the farmhouse while Mom did chores. Most visitors thought tiny Morwen was just a doll.

Morwen, who is 9 now and lives on a small farm in Amissville, Virginia, says she wouldn’t swap with a farm girl in the 18th century, but “it is fun pretending to do it.”

Civil War, 1861-1865

Joel Dávila’s friends don’t understand his passion. “Joel, no one cares about the Civil War,” they say. His response? “I wanted to get someone to care.” So, he signed up for a summer camp and a “living history” event about the war.

It started when his grandparents took him to the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run.

“To be honest, I kinda liked the uniforms,” says the 12-year-old from Bristow. “So I set out to look like them.”

When he gets together with other reenactors from the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, he wears a Federal blue coat, light-blue pants and a kepi (cap), and he carries a wooden sword. On his sleeves are a corporal’s stripes.

Andrew Mazik, 11, is learning to be a drummer, a job that boys his age actually had in the war. For now, the Dale City boy helps at weekend encampments by gathering firewood and cleaning up after meals.

“The Civil War is my favorite time in our history,” Andrew says. His dad reenacts, too, and “it’s cool to be out there with him.”

Jacob Dietz’s skill with both horses and music led to his reenacting a bugler with a Southern cavalry unit.

“The bugler was the timepiece of the army,” keeping order in the ranks, says Jacob, 14. At reenactments, the Gloucester, Virginia, teen rides his own horse or borrows one because “a cavalry bugler would always be mounted, at the head of the troops with the commanding officer.” He can play 20 to 30 bugle calls.

Jacob also does Revolutionary War reenactments. “I like to see how people lived back then.”

Joel agrees: “I want to bring history back to life. I want people to see how cool this is.”

Want to be a reenactor?

Here are some tips to get you started, from John Harvey, site supervisor at Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation:

●Find a period of history you like. In other words, read a lot.

●Find a museum or group that focuses on that period.

●Be open to learning new things.

●Commit. If you say you’re going to be there, be there!

●Be willing to do the work asked of you. “It won’t work if you get bored, you get tired, you get hot,” Harvey says. “This is fun, but it’s also hard.”

To learn more about summer Civil War Camp in Brentsville, call 703-792-4754. For a list of upcoming battle reenactments, visit www.virginia.org/battlereenactments. (Always ask a parent before going online.)

Claude Moore Colonial Farm has several programs for kids. The Junior Interpreter (reenactor) Program is for ages 10 to 17. For more information, visit www.1771.org/?page_id=815.

The St. Mary’s youth interpreter program is open to home-schooled kids ages 9 to 17. For information on that and other volunteer work, go to www.stmaryscity.org.

— Marylou Tousignant

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