Monday, May 24, 2010

Forget modern conveniences: These women enjoy life on the 19th century trail

On an already hot day, Beverly Simpson (below, left) and Terre Lawson went about the business of building up enough coals to cook two chickens. One of the birds dangled from a string.

The mules, John and Sassy, were coming back to camp, ready to take a long drink, be freed of their harnesses and rest a spell. Sassy wasted no time, rolling in the dust after Beverly’s husband, Mark, and son, Travis, had removed the gear from the wagon-toting pair.

The ladies were dressed from head to toe in 19th-century clothing. No room anywhere to let in a cool breeze. And there were more chores ahead at the Civil War Battle of Resaca (Ga.) re-enactment weekend earlier this month.

So, I asked with a hint of skepticism, why do you do this?

“It’s fun,” Simpson said simply.

They are living historians, participating in events that mark the period from 1730 to about 1869.

About half of her events are Civil War-related says Lawson, 55, a tax accountant living in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Simpson, a hairdresser from Lawrenceburg, Ky., and Lawson particularly enjoy events that last up to a week. Some of those are immersion events, where they truly go back in time. Those are geared toward the hobbyists themselves, and the public is rarely invited.

Both women claimed the period costume is more comfortable than modern clothing. They moved with ease through their small camp that sat alongside a pond. Puppies served as companions for both humans and the mules.

“It takes about the third day to hit the groove” at a weeklong event, said Lawson.

By then participants feel removed from cell phones and computers. Nowadays, they say, people don’t know their neighbors. At these kind of events, you depend on those around you.

“When you are there a week you have to work with them. The self-centeredness goes away” said Lawson, who dyes cloth and works with wool at many events.

Lawson’s extended family is from northeast Georgia. One relative has done blacksmithing. She has been involved in these kinds of events for decades.

“It’s a fun place to raise children.” Children know their manners and are expected to keep up with chores. “It takes a whole community to make life work,” said Lawson, who cited the experience of a 12-year-old girl who butchered a hog.

Simpson and Lawson often take live chickens when they are on the trail. Few of them make the return trip.

Lawson (right) is one of the organizers of an upcoming immersion event along the Tennessee and Kentucky border.

“In the Van: Trailing Kirby Smith” will remember the movement of the Confederate general’s troops toward the Battle of Perryville (Ky.) in 1862.

Lawson expects 40-50 participants for the Aug. 1-7 trail. Most will walk behind wagons pulled by mules, horses and ox. Some road will need to be cut and the hobbyists will have to get wagons up some steep grades.

“We anticipate extreme pioneering,” she said.

Depending on the event, the living historians may portray contractors driving wagons for the armies or civilians fleeing from battle or neighbors.

Smith’s trek to Kentucky had its challenges.

“It was a very onerous trek for the troops,” said Lawson, whose grown daughter is a historian. “They got by with corn and green apples.”

On Oct. 21-24, Lawson will be at Civil War Days at Westville, Ga. The village “will be transformed into a Civil War town as hundreds of re-enactors portray life in a Georgia town,” according to its Web site. Lawson likes to show the public how to dye cloth. She will attend a Nov. 3-7 living history event at Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson State Historic Site near Wetumpka, Ala.

She has to be careful with the fumes and other byproducts that result from the mordants (metallic compounds) used to bind fiber and dye.

“Period dye was an exercise in chemistry,” she says.

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