My brief, inspiring career as a historical re-enactor on a "Colonial farm."

My brief, inspiring career as a historical re-enactor on a "Colonial farm."

My brief, inspiring career as a historical re-enactor on a "Colonial farm."

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Dec. 11 2008 7:06 AM

A Colonial Dame

My brief, inspiring career as a historical re-enactor.

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One day while I was in the farmhouse assisting Rolando, a class of third-graders, notebooks open, came and peppered her with questions.

Q: Do you got a job?
A: I've got lots of jobs. I do the cooking for my family. We grow tobacco.
Q: How do you go to the bathroom?
A: Oh, we don't bathe very often. It's not good to wash the oils off your skin.
Q: I mean the toilet.
A: There's lots of woods around here. We have a chamber pot in the loft, but we don't use it very often.

The schoolchildren were followed by a couple from Ohio. Rolando asked them if they knew of any hardworking single farmers, as her husband had recently died, leaving her with four stepchildren.

"What did he die of?" the wife asked.

"He got injured in the arm with an ax," she said matter-of-factly. "That wasn't so bad, but he died from the putrefaction of the limb."


There have been living history museums for so long that there could be a living history museum with people re-enacting the founding of the living history museum. According to the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums, the first successful open-air folk museum was established in 1891 in Sweden. In the United States, Colonial Williamsburg opened in 1932 and Old Sturbridge Village in 1946. They pioneered the idea of filling restored buildings with accurately costumed people who could show how those buildings and the tools in them were used. In the 1970s many more living history museums were created, probably inspired by bicentennial historical fever. Today the ALHFAM Web site has links to more than 100 such places around the country.

Claude Moore (named after a benefactor, not a historical figure) was founded in 1972 in McLean, Va., with the idea of showing that most Colonial Virginians didn't live at a Monticello but were poor farmers. It has a budget of about $430,000 and more than 60,000 visitors a year. One of the oddest things about the farm is its location: Across its property line is the headquarters of the CIA. I kept thinking about the essential similarity between the two places: They are both full of people who immerse themselves in false identities. The CIA's training site for people who go on to become spies is even called "The Farm," although that's actually near Colonial Williamsburg. Every time I would drive to Claude Moore, past the CIA guard house, I thought that our next breach of national security wouldn't come from an Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen, but from some Claude Moore volunteer wearing a listening device in his breeches. The proximity of these two federal entities (Claude Moore is the only privately operated national park) results in some strange encounters. Katherine Hughes, who recently left her job as a farmer to go back to graduate school, once got a distress call from the guard house saying they were surrounded by turkeys. Often CIA security will call asking to have the bull removed from their property.

After lunch one day Hughes put me to work making tobacco sticks. These are the humblest of objects—long sticks stripped of their bark and planed straight. They are placed across the rafters of the tobacco house where "hands" of tobacco—10 leaves tied together in bundles—are draped over them to dry. I sat on a "shaving horse," a wooden workbench in which I secured the stick so that it pointed toward me. I then took the drawknife—a blade with handles at each end—and drew it across the stick. As I began my jagged scraping, the 21st-century voice inside my head—a combination of my grandmother and a liability lawyer—started screaming admonitions: "Where are your goggles, a wood splinter could pierce your eye!" "You're aiming a knife toward your pulmonary artery!"

Yet I kept pulling the knife along the stick and it began to smooth and straighten. I fell into a rhythm and my movements started to become fluid. Making tobacco sticks required an action very similar to that used for the latissimus machine at the gym, a piece of equipment I hated. But as I sat on the shaving horse and pulled, my mind began to quiet. I finished my first stick, and as I stroked its silky finish I felt an inordinate sense of accomplishment. I put in another, and I found the scrape-scrape-scrape of the knife lobotomized the usual chattering in my head. A pair of middle-aged women approaching took me out of my reverie; I surreptitiously looked at the watch I had tucked into my pocket. Forty-five minutes had gone by; it had felt like 10.