This week has been blessed with an offering of fascinating, moving speakers. All of whom reminded the listeners of the gifts and sacrifices these individuals had given a nation.
Monday evening the Elijah Iles House Volunteer Appreciation Dinner wrapped up with a performance by Ms. Kathryn Harris as Harriet Tubman. Ms. Harris was enthralling, and educational, as she gave a overview of Harriet Tubman's life. I had known that Mrs. Tubman was a remarkable woman, but I had not realized to what extent. It was hard to conceive of several 3 months to 6 month journeys, mostly on foot, as she led her "passengers" from Maryland to either Pennsylvania or Canada. Or that she was the only woman to lead a Union ambush, and free several hundred slaves. Or that she went on to work for the Federal government, and later ran a "old folks home" - all without the ability to read or write. And that she lived till her 90's.
Then, last night, I attended the Sangamon County Historical Society's (SCHS) Pre-Veteran Day Salute, which was held out at U of I - Springfield's Brooken Auditorium.
I came in a little late, but was able to hear most of Mr. Mark DePue, Director of the Oral History program at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, interview of Mr. Kenneth "Tuck" Belton (WWII veteran), and all of Mr. Bernie Goulet's (Korean War) interview.
As I listened to these two men it was obvious that the experiences in these two wars had not dimmed in their memories. For the listeners it was like hearing of a dire movie come to life - hard to imagine anyone living through such circumstances.
How could you not be moved as you listened to these two men?
Such as when Mr. Belton, who fought with the Resistance in Holland, recounted having to stand by and watch 10 Dutch men being gunned down on the street. The only thing keeping him from reacting was the touch of a young woman's hand - warning him to hold back.
To imagine what it would be like to have to portray a deaf/mute, and refrain from any response when the enemy tested you with a loud sound.
Or when he told how he had to hide in a patch of woods in January. He said that a furry dog came by - that he wished that dog could be with him now - as the dog saved his life. He bundled the dog into his coat, and the two slept beneath those trees, in the snow, that night.
It would have to been a hard heart not to feel the grief as Mr. Goulet told of the company cooks crying when they realized their men would not come back.
Or when the officer who was Mr. Goulet's mentor, was gunned down only a few feet ahead of him.
Later there was a little reception, and I took the opportunity to thank Mr. Belton for his service. I wish I could have spoken with Mr. Goulet too, but he was busy.
And it was hard not to cry - not just at their stories - but at the fact I knew that these men were soon to be woven into the tapestry of history. Bright threads that is true, but soon all we would have is their stories.
I had the privilege of performing for the Lincoln's Tomb, "Spirits of the Civil War" last Saturday.
While the day was hot it was lovely, particularly under a shady tree not far from Lincoln's Tomb. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to hear Tom Emery's talk "Eddy: Lincoln's Forgotten Son," on Edward Baker Lincoln, but I was able to enjoy Mr. Andrew Bowman's and Mr. Khabir Shareef's performances. Mr. Bowman protrayed his grandfather, Color Sgt. Andrew Jackson Smith, who received a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001. And Mr. Shareef protrayed Maj. Martin Delaney, who was one of the few African American officers in the Civil War.
These gentlemen are with the Storyteller's Drum, and their performances are well worth seeing.
My own performance was last, and I will admit I wished I had used the offer of a mic. My sinuses were playing havoc with my voice towards the end of the show. But, as they say, a "learning experience."
My show revolved around the experiences of immigrants coming to Sangamon County.
What I decided to focus on was the influence that travel logs, memoirs, and in particular, personal letters played in influencing the decision to immigrate. While my sources were limited to books that had been reprinted, A True Picture of A Immigrant, and Eight Months In Illinois, both being for English immigrants, I was able to give some insight into what most immigrants faced. The books, and Eliza Flowers' letters to her nephew, offered good windows into the challenges and hazards faced - from the time they went to port - to arrival in Illinois.
One story I would like to pursue further was of Mary Nagle, later wife of John Burkhardt, who sailed from Bavaria in 1841, aboard the Oceania. The ship wrecked off the coast of Jamaica, and Mary didn't arrive in St. Louis until 1842, when she learned her father had died. I found reference to her in the Unigraph edition of The History of Sangamon County.
There was a fine attendance for all performers, despite the heat, and I was sorry when it was all over. But am definitely looking forward to the full evening of history, "The Fiery Trial: Civil War Stories by Candlelight."
On this 2013 Independence Day I began reflecting back to a chapter I had read in Duncan Emrich's Folklore of the American Land about a mountain main named Jim Bridger.
This was a man who in his long career was one of the first to see the geysers of Yellowstone, and the Great Salt Lake. He came back from his various expeditions with tales of wonders - the Obsidian Cliffs and the Mammoth Hot Springs (with its bubbling mud, and water so hot you could cook in it).
While he never learned to read and write he could speak several languages, and could map with such detail that his maps were highly valued. He offered vivid and accurate descriptions of what he saw, but soon discovered that the wonders he saw were too wonderful for people to believe him.
Colonel R. T. Van Horn, editor of the Kansas City Journal, had, in 1856, a chance to scoop everyone with a story about Bridger's Yellowstone experiences. However, supposed acquaintances of Bridger's told Horn that he'd be laughed out of town if he printed any of Bridger's "lies."
Many years later Horn did apologize to Jim Bridger.
Because of the prevailing disbelief Jim Bridger decided if people wouldn't believe him then he would create stories that were even taller. His tall tales are still remembered today, but even in his greatest whoppers he embedded some truth.
All of this led me to ask a question - where in our country does Wonder exist today?
In Jim Bridger's day the land offered many awesome sights. Some staggering. Others mysterious. All demanding that the nation's sense of wonder be stretched. Now, we can see the most distant places in the world on our computers - often in real time; most of the world's grand beauty lays at our fingertips. And I have to wonder how that effects visitors to those lands - is the impact less because they have already viewed the place online?
Movies and computer-generated images can not only bring places and times to a large screen, and offer a nearer semblance to "being there." The technology also offers a way to offer other-worldly images too. Wilderness, space, history, and fantasy are all there for a visual feast.
Granted, if we are appreciative of Nature, we can focus on the smaller wonders of nature. The daily beauty that is offered, and I am not belittling it. Daily wonder is a precious emotion.
Yet I still have to ask, where is there any great, awe inspiring Wonder left to be found? Is there still hidden, to be found, true stories of nature so new, and so beyond belief, that they seem fiction?
Finally I have sometime to sit down and consider a few conversations I have had recently.
Back in mid-May I attended LLCC's "Welcome Visitors," which was the lead off to Community Learning's intensive Interpreter training week. (http://www.llcc.edu/commed/CommunityLearning/tabid/989/Default.aspx) The evening was very interesting, and the speakers discussed the role in customer service at historical sites. I wish I could have participated in the whole week of classes, but that weekend was already booked.
This was followed by Clayville's Spring Festival (http://www.clayville.org), and conversations with many of the volunteers about what all had needed to be done to prepare for the festival.
I had had a little sample of the preparation, since I had been out that week to help dust, and I have to salute all of those who had been at it continually.
All of this is on top of keeping the site open weekly, and for private functions, such as weddings.
Later, thinking over the week, I considered how fragile the support is for many of our historical sites, since so many of the volunteers are retired individuals; many of whom are elderly. The main thing driving them is their great love of history, and their particular site.
It's not just Clayville that faces this, but many of the smaller sites, where the main bulk of their volunteers are in their later years. And the work they do isn't just talking to people and taking them on tours - it can require cleaning and some heavy work.
Now I'll grant that for Clayville's many festivals there is help of all ages, but the normal, weekly, part falls to just a few people.
What happens when they can't do it anymore?
Who will step in?
Places such as Clayville, the Elijah Iles House, and the Grand Army of the Republic - to name a few - are staffed by dedicated people, but the demands can be hard. These individuals strive daily to see the stories of these places told, and that the sites live on for other generations to know where history happened.
It also made me wonder if we couldn't create a youth volunteer program for historic sites, such as what is done with the Henson Robinson Zoo (http://www.hensonrobinsonzoo.org/page.php?8) and Lincoln Memorial Gardens (http://www.lincolnmemorialgarden.org/programsatthegarden.html)? Maybe there is one. Hopefully there is. And if not, one should be created as we need one to train future custodians of these sites.
But foremost, I offer a challenge - take some time this summer to help at a historic site. They need people to help keep them clean and ready for visitors.
And to preserve the property.
Plus you are helping the city by showing our many attractions in their best light to visitors.
Yesterday evening I was sitting at Barnes and Noble, and in my selection of books was Susan Cheever's Louisa May Alcott, and also the Autobiography of Mark Twain: Vol 1. And along side these is Twain's Innocents Abroad. I can't remember what prompted me to look up Twain, but those three books came home. The Alcott biography was prompted by another book, Mary Kelley's Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic.
I've been reading Learning to Stand and Speak at lunch, which is usually at Incredibly Delicious (whose home is a lovely Victorian mansion). Over the course of many lunches I have followed a time line across a hundred years - from when women of early America usually were taught little beyond reading, writing, and ciphering, since they were considered "too weak" to take on more serious learning - to the time past the Civil War when female academies were growing into colleges. And in all the time between women were proving that they could tackle the most thorny of sciences and philosophy.
Yet, they also had to navigate between the shores of a well-educated mind, and of being useful to their families. This was the case so they would not risk the advances they had made in learning; they had to wrap their learning in the proper clothes of deference and usefulness.
"Usefulness" was a powerful tool, though, as under that cloak they became writers, editors, missionaries, and educators. And began to have a much more visible impact on the world.
Women like Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe had to maintain not only household tasks, and later to write, but they also had to steal time to pursue their own continued learning.
It was that love of learning and reading that comes through in the excerpts in Learning to Stand and Speak. These ladies valued their libraries (even if was just a few books), and strived to keep learning through out their lifetimes - seeking out a variety of topics to consider.
Yet the continued learning came with a price in many cases. Martha Lauren Ramsay, three days before her death in 1811, told her husband about her diary, which she had kept for a number of years. It was in her diary that her brilliant intellect shown through, and where she recorded the struggle between her love of knowledge and the restraints of her daily life. Her husband was so proud of his late wife's learning that he published the diary as the Memoirs of the Life of Martha Lauren Ramsay. However, he was not only proud of her learning, but her efforts to properly put her family first.
Also mentioned were two sisters, Eliza and Harriet Adams, who were both graduates of female academies. Harriet married, and struggled to continue her learning after she became a new mother and keeper of a house. She often begged her sister to come visit so that Eliza could read to her from various texts. Eliza was better off since she didn't marry till later, but she still had to help with the care of her parents' home, and had to do most of her studies in the early morning and evening. Her time spent with Harriet was precious as Harriet died not too many years after her marriage.
And as I sat in Barnes and Noble last night, with information, both in book form and digital, all around me I realized how much I take it for granted. We barely have to think of a topic that we want to look at, and its at our finger tips. And yet, I also wonder if all of that ease actually buys us the time to truly consider the information we are reading? To think - to weigh the material, and to share it with our friends and family.
And I also started thinking about the current popularity of Jane Austin and the fascination with the Edwardian and Victorian era that fills both fiction for the young, and for adults. All the mores of those times are recorded amongst that fiction, and yet I wonder if the readers realize that those stories are about time periods that really existed? That many young women, and young men, had to conform to those standards, and prejudices. That all those mores, and the stuggle against them, has shaped our lives today?
So, in the end, all I can do is to give a humble salute to the ladies, and men, of the past that pursued knowledge; particularly to the ladies, though, as knowledge for them was a currency worth more than gold.
Tuesday the Sangamon Historical Society had its meeting at the Abraham Lincoln National Museum of Surveying. Unfortunately, this was the last day the museum would be open; possibly the last time we will see NOAA's Science on a Sphere. (http://www.surveyingmuseum.org/)
The museum focused a spotlight on a vital, though little considered, science that has impacted not only how we view the world, but how the United States was built. Not only did surveyors risk their lives mapping the wilds, but they helped give form to our cities. And many influential people, such as Abraham Lincoln, began their careers as a surveyors. Of course, the museum also showed how surveyors use the most modern of technology, and the important role they continue to play.
The Abraham Lincoln National Museum of Surveying has been influential in teaching the public about this fascinating, but little pondered, science.
There may some hope that the museum might open, and here is a link to an article that discusses it, (http://interact.stltoday.com/pr/arts-entertainment/PR010313104311476).
I knew it had been a long time since I wrote, but I hadn't realized how long; nor can I blame it all on the scorching summer (though it does explain the last few weeks).
Nor has it been due to a lack of things to do - there have been many an interesting activity. So interesting that I still want to do an overview:
April offered two fascinating events.
The Sangamon County Historical Society
(http://sangamonhistory.org/) offered a bus trip to the C. H. Moore Homestead (http://www.chmoorehomestead.org/) in Clinton, Illinois. The C. H. Moore house is a beautifully restored Victorian home, with exquisite furnishings, and material examples of the life of the time. The curator, Larry Buss, has a wealth of knowledge on the house and grounds, and along with the house's collection there is also the DeWitt County History Society's museum in the basement, three farm museums, a blacksmith shop, and a telephone exhibit.
This fine outing was followed by the Springfield Art Association's "Titantic Tea." (http://www.springfieldart.org/)
They had the Tea Ladies (http://www.thetealadiesinc.com/)back to host a tea party, which offered foods that would have been on the Titanic. The Tea Ladies then offered a brief history of the people on board, and asked that all those attendees of the tea party to read a card (or more) regarding some of the survivors.
With the coming of May came both the Central Illinois Highland Games (http://www.central-illinois-standrewsociety.com/)and the precursor to the heat), and Clayville's Spring Festival (http://www.clayville.org/).
Both were as fun to perform at as always.
The increase in the heat did cut into the performing schedule, with Clayville not having their usual July activities, and the Elijah Iles House (http://www.ileshouse.org/)cancelling their Strawberry Festival, but I have not been idle.
During this time I have decided to launch Tales of Sangamon (http://www.talesofsangamon.com/), which is a website devoted to collecting stories of Sangamon County, and the surrounding area.
I am truly excited about the site, and hope that some will use it so that stories of the area can be documented, since there is so little Illinois lore in print.
This holiday season has had me pondering traditions, and the challenges of keeping them.
In early December I went to a Christmas Tea at the Edwards Place
(http://www.springfieldart.org/), which had The Tea Ladies
(http://thetealadiesinc.com/index.html) present a program on Victorian Christmas customs. It was a lovely program, and I was fascinated to learn how long it took to make a plum pudding
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_pudding), since plum pudding was part of my mother's family traditions.
The program came to mind again when a friend and I were talking about the mad pace of the holiday season, and the demands of family gatherings. And it dawned on me that along with the commercialism of the season, and the increased demands to be "festive" at various gatherings (family, friends, or work), that some of the stress might come from the fact that many of the traditions we carry on were born at a time when many families had a servant or two to help. Along with the fact that the expectations of presents were usually much simpler.
But I would not be one to argue for getting rid of traditions. They are often our tie to our past, and the family that has gone before.
A fact that was truly brought home to me this holiday.
Once my Christmas was more or less likely many others' - with the joys of decorating a tree, and the gathering of presents for special people, and the bustle of my parents in the kitchen preparing for the family gathering.
And always there was the plum pudding and brandied hard sauce, the putting up of the new Scotch heather, and the burning of the bayberry candle; both the Scotch heather and the bayberry candle were for "health, wealth, and happiness."
These givens continued even after it came down to just Mother and I, which we still enjoyed in the glow of tree lights.
Now it is down to myself and two young hounds. The tree, the lights, and even the Scotch heather are gone, and while I had hopes of plum pudding it too was impossible when the grocery stopped carrying it.
So it was down to the bayberry candle, which was to be burnt to the socket between Christmas and New Year.
And even this I debated.
The last couple of years I had to battle to keep the candle burning, which really bemused me. The candles had been made by a known company, and yet, it turned out, that the bayberry wax was around a core of inferior wax. Plus, with the pups at hand, the only safe place to burn the candle for a long space of time was the bathtub.
Somehow, though, I could not give up that one tradition - one that my mother had carried on after it had been handed down to her by her father.
So I rummaged in the closet, and found that I only had a few candles left, by a different company, and after picking one I settled it in the bathtub. I will admit that doing so brought me a little amusement, and an acknowledgement of the lengths I actually would go to continue a tradition.
The candle burnt true, and before the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve it was to the socket.
On a related theme of Christmas traditions, and the keeping of them, I have to mention a little book I found.
Not too long before Christmas I felt the need to stop in at the Widow at Windsor antique shop, though I usually only look at their displays. However, the shop is always fascinated, and I had a moment, so I gave into the impulse. And it wasn't until I was leaving that I found what I had come to get - a tiny book entitled The Message of the Bells: Or What Happened To Us on Christmas, by Hendrik Willem Van Loon.
The illustrations alone were worth the price, but I was also intrigued by the story. I was vaguely familiar with Hendrik Van Loon, since my father left me a copy of his The Story of Mankind, but I knew little else of him. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hendrik_Willem_van_Loon
The story of the little book centered around a Christmas that he and his wife were sharing with their children and grandchildren.
Van Loon's youngest son, along with his nephews, had arranged a surprise for Henrik and his wife - the traditional arrival of the Three Wise Men. They did this to let Hendrik and his wife have tiny taste of home. A home in the Netherlands being torn by WW II.
As they prepared to light the outdoor Christmas tree the grandchildren wanted to know more about their grandparents' homes, and Christmases.
Henrik told them a little, but added that even the bells of Veere were silent now.
It was then that all of them heard bells, but not to them American bells; to Henrik Van Loon and his wife they heard the Bells of Veere ringing clear - across oceans and maybe time. And whether his children and grandchildren heard the same bells it was such a strange occurrence that they created this beautiful little book about it.
The heat of summer has made reading in a cool house very appealing, and between efforts to amuse very bored, young, coon hounds I have endeavored to focus on useful material.
The two books that have proved informative have been: Charlotte Erickson's Invisible Immigrants: The Adaptation of English and Scottish Immigrants in 19th Century America; and Robert Mazrim's The Sangamo Frontier: History & Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln.
Invisible Immigrants offers several sets of family letters that span the century, and they also span a wide range of social backgrounds and motivations. Charlotte Erickson also offers good overviews to the letters' contexts in terms of family history and economic background. While the book was published in 1972 it still is an excellent book to have if you are interested in hearing the "voices" from the past. The only thing I could have wished for would have been more women being represented, and maybe some of the responses from England and Scotland.
I have to consider The Sangamo Frontier a "gold mine" of information. Robert Mazrim has a gift for words, and weaves history and archaeology into a very readable book. However, beyond that, he offers one of the best overviews of the history of the area I have ever read.
What particularly fascinated me was his discussion of "Edwards Trace" (http://www.sancohis.org/OLDER%20FILES/trace.htm), and what is being learned of its long history. Robert Mazrim's commentary on the Trace truly brings its import to life.
He also offers such nuggets as the fact that "groceries" were blamed for luring young men to drink. He points out that while dry good stores and groceries both sold a range of goods, and liquor, but that it was to the groceries that the young bucks went for a wild time.
Other points of interest are such offerings as the fact that good tea cups and saucers often turn up in even the most rural and rustic site.
And I will fully admit that I am only half way through the book. So I am sure I will have more to add later.
Though this probably also should be called, "From Memorial Day to 4th of July," and it admittedly has a touch of "Story Musing."
While not intentional, since I kept hoping to write sooner, I seem to have managed a thematic framework in terms of dates.
On Memorial Day Springfield had the opportunity to recognize a long-forgotten hero, Leroy Key, who was buried out at Oakridge Cemetery. For the expanded story here are links to two Illinois State Journal-Register articles: (http://www.sj-r.com/top-stories/x487935511/Dave-Bakke-Civil-War-buffs-find-grave-of-Andersonville-prisoner-in-Springfield) and (http://www.sj-r.com/top-stories/x1555987949/Dave-Bakke-Hero-of-Civil-Wars-Andersonville-prison-to-get-grave-marker-at-Oak-Ridge).
What better way to recognize Memorial Day then to awaken the memory of a man who had long been lost and forgotten. A man who not only survived the horrors of Andersonville Prison, but organized against the Raiders - men who preyed on fellow prisoners. Yet a man who had to carry the weight of his actions as he was the one to supervise the trial, and execution of these Raiders - men who were also Union soldiers.
And that weight, plus health issues, may have led to his suicide in 1880. Over a century later who is to say.
Author Frank Crawford, and his brother John Crawford, found the grave, which lacked a tombstone, while researching,
Proud to Say I am a Union Soldier: The Last Letters Home from Federal Soldiers Written During the Civil War, 1861-1865.
The day for the unveiling of the stone was a perfect day, crystaline skies, with fluffy clouds, and though warm it was not so hot as to be stifling.
And for whatever spirits might linger at Oakridge, particularly Mr Key, and the other civil war veterans, the scene would have seemed reminiscent of the early Memorial Days. The Municipal Band played, and with the fine outfitting of the 114h Regiment Reactivated and the 10th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment Reactivated, and the ladies of the Aid Society, the scene could have been cut from a hundred years past.
The speeches were very moving, and as was fitting for Memorial Day, the ceremony bound together a recognition of all of our veterans.
I was also privately proud of my Treeing Walker Coonhound, Winston, as he proved as calm as ever as the 21 gun salute went off. (To be accurate - he slept through it.) I know it sounds strange that I brought my dog with me, but Winston has already proved unaffected by loud sounds (he gets bored with bagpipes, and gets even more bored being home), and I have hopes he can train as a therapy dog due to his patience and gentle temperament. He's come a long way from being the nervous young hound that I brought home from the Animal Protective League.
My silence of the month actually stems from other canine activity, since I also added a 3 month old coonhound mix, Fiona, from Animal Control. I, however, will admit that I should never name anything when tired, since I later learned that "fiona" means "white" or fair," and the pup is nearly all black.
On July 1st I performed at the Elijah Iles House, "Clara Irwin's Strawberry Party." (http://iles-house.blogspot.com/)
This is always a delight to perform at. While the weather the was hot the evening was clear, and I was out under the tent. This makes for a very casual time for telling as families would come out so their children could try their hands at marbles, checkers, or ring toss. And soon they would settle for story or three, and a little discussion of history.
Nor was an offer of strawberry shortcake turned down.
I am a Springfield, IL based storyteller with a fascination for how folklore travels, and for history.