As the days grow shorter and the first frost blooms, our thoughts at Locust Grove turn towards Christmastide, our annual holiday open house that celebrates the joy of the season with the warmth of friends, family, and the warmth of historical fireplaces. Our merry band of intrepid interpreters are preparing busily for this year’s event on December 4 and 5, and I can’t wait for you all to see what is in store! Many of our interpreters have been in the Costumed Interpreters Corps for years, and several have graciously agreed to share their memories and stories with our blog readers. Today, Sharron Hilbrecht recalls the changes to our interpretation program and her favorite parts of bringing history to life. Take it away, Sharron!
I finally knew I had made it one afternoon about 5 years after I started re-enacting at Locust Grove. I had a room full of school children who had come to visit during the anniversary of the Voyage of Discovery. I was in the Grand Parlor sharing the story of Fanny Fitzhugh and how she and her family felt when William came home from the West.
“We cried!” I said. “We were so relieved! We didn’t know if he was dead or alive, and when we found out he was alive, well, you should have seen us whooping and hollering! We couldn’t wait to see him walk through the door.”
“How long was he gone?” one student asked.
“Three long years,” I replied.
“How did you know he was safe?” asked another.
“We got word from a messenger,” I said. “We weren’t sure when he would arrive back in Louisville, but we were just excited that he was alive!”
More questions followed. The whole time, a young boy watched me intently. He raised his hand for a question.
“Um…When did you say you were born?” he asked tentatively.
“I was born in 1773,” I replied.
I could see the math wheels turning in his head…2006 minus 1773…His eyes grew wide. “Wow,” he whispered in awe, “you look really good for your age!”
I started reenacting in 2000, missing only two years during that time; one for the birth of my daughter and another year when my schedule prevented me from participating. I’ve played Diana Gwathmey Bulitt, Sarah Hite Pearce, and most recently Frances Clark O’Fallon Thruston Fitzhugh, who is by far the most interesting one of the three. I’ve devoted countless hours to research, learning about the Clark and Croghan families and all the extended relatives who belong to them, and just recently discovered a letter written by Fanny to her son, Benjamin, about her other son, John. I’ve refined my sewing skills, and over 16 years, I’ve gone from a borrowed green corduroy gown to a Regency-esque dress of muslin covered with polyester sheer curtain fabric to a period correct ball gown of silk complete with a matching turban and feathers. All in all, I’ve made 10 dresses over the years, some more successful than others, but all to the best of my knowledge at the time. I currently have enough fabric in my stash for 3 more dresses, but don’t tell my husband!
I’ve appeared as Fanny at local schools learning about Kentucky history. I’ve been on hand at weddings, both real and pretend, fundraisers, market fairs and antiques markets. I’ve been around for Fourths of July and welcomed home the Corps of Discovery. I’ve had all three of my children participate with me as members of the Clark and Croghan families, and I’ve watched them learn the love of history by living it. I’ve connected over the years with my fellow reenactors, and they have become an extended family to me and my children. I have developed a passion for Locust Grove and the people who lived there that far surpasses anything I ever thought I’d feel when Dan Klinck asked me in 1998 if I’d be interested in helping plan the 250th birthday celebration of George Rogers Clark. It was there that I met Martin Schmidt and Jennifer Jansen, who both encouraged me to join the reenacting family. I am so glad I did!
Reenacting has changed a great deal over the last 16 years. People have moved on. Some of our family have died: Maggie the Cook, Peggy Chenoweth, our beloved William Croghan. Some have grown up and gone to college: the first Charles and Nicholas (actual twins!), Ann and Eliza, most recently Michael and Kaitlyn Adkisson and Julia Bache, as well as so many others who are too numerous to mention. Each departure leaves a hole in our family that is hard to fill, and I grieve their loss, for they are truly part of our family.
Our clothing standards have improved, as mentioned above. When my son first started, his tailcoat came from the costume stash upstairs, which had come from a Sam Meyers fire sale. Today, we use period correct fabrics and patterns, and I will say, we look pretty amazing! A far cry from Sam Meyers!
It’s been hard to change as we up the standards of interpretation. I liked how we did things and the way we made room for all the important family members, even if they were probably living in St. Louis at the time. We tend to think of history as cut and dry: This is what happened, and that’s the way it was. I was comfortable with what I knew and I was good at it and it was easy. I didn’t want to admit that what we know to be true may not actually be so. An uncovered letter here or a missed footnote in a research paper there can change the facts and put a new spin on reality.
But we are better now. We have learned that to teach history, we have to continually examine the past, to look for clues to prove what we think is right is actually right. History is messy. It’s inconvenient. It’s ever-changing, and that’s hard for people to reconcile with what they learned in school.
Yes, a lot has changed in 16 years, but we are still family. We are still having fun. And we still look good, even at 242.