Editor’s note: Laura Bien writes a bi-weekly history column for The Chronicle. This week she describes her experience reenacting the role of an anonymous turn-of-the-century scrubwoman at Ypsilanti’s Heritage Festival, which took place Aug. 20-22.
My rained-on bonnet flopped over my face like a dish towel. I could see only a sliver of sidewalk. What had been a neatly starched head-shield this morning had been ruined by the Saturday rain.
My long skirt hem was wet, too, and catching on my ankles as I stomped back to the historical museum on Ypsilanti’s Huron Street where our props had been staged overnight. My sleeves were soaked and I was on the verge of tears.
I looked ridiculous. Why, why, had I been so driven to be a historical reenactor at the Ypsilanti Hertitage Festival? Did I even know what I was doing?
Back in the park, the antique trunk I’d borrowed the week before sat under a historically inaccurate blue tarp, waiting for the drizzle to end. I returned from the museum to our staging spot with a basket containing a thermos of water and some bread and cheese concealed under a pillowcase.
My husband had scooped out a rectangle of sod, stored the sod-plank by a nearby tree, and was preparing his firemaking-with-flint-and-steel-and-char-cloth demo. Grey clouds covered the sky.
Both of us had scrabbled our costumes together at the last minute. In Value World the week before, I’d selected a sundress with an old-timey black and white check pattern. I cut off the bodice and hand-hemmed it into a skirt. I combined this with a man’s shirt, with the pointed collar carefully cut off. I trimmed off a few inches worth of material from the shirttail and hand-sewed a floppy pleated collar.
My husband’s costume consisted of a pair of faded Value World dungarees paired with an oversized muslin shirt belted with braided rawhide strips. For his headwear, I cut the hemmed border from my summer straw garden hat, roughened the edges Huck Finn-wise, tied more rawhide around the crown, and stuck in a goose feather for good measure. He topped off his costume with worn Value World brogans, bought for a dollar or two.
I borrowed a bonnet and an apron from the Ypsilanti Historical Museum, where I volunteer. When the apron proved to be too small, I hand-sewed my own from an old green T-shirt. Aprons from my approximate time period did not have a neck-strap, but were pinned to one’s bodice, likely to aid nursing mothers. I carefully pinned the apron bodice over my chest with straight pins.
My character was of an anonymous scrubwoman. When someone during the festival quizzed me as to which era I was reenacting, I improvised: “About the turn of the century.” The truth is I hadn’t aimed for any one era. I knew only that I was presenting something other than fancy starched crinolines, mounds of snowy petticoats, or dainty pleated collars.
I was enacting the lowly scrubwoman who likely starched those crinolines, scrubbed the petticoats, and pleated the collars. My “washing machine” near the antique trunk consisted of a galvanized wash tub purchased a few days earlier at Lowe’s for $14.98, an antique scrub board I bought off of a fellow museum volunteer who snagged it off of eBay, and a wooden drying rack supporting a few clean rags.
My scrubwoman persona arose from my irascible irritation with the sanitized portayal of Ypsilanti history as presented in such canonical works as Harvey Colburn’s “Story of Ypsilanti.”
Written in 1923, the book sketches, decade by decade, a slow yet sure rise of “progress” from the city’s beginnings in the 1820s until the 1920s. “Story” by and large portrays well-off Ypsilantians and their favored organizations – the Rotarians, the Masons, and the Ladies’ Home Association, a pre-welfare Christian charity group comprising the city’s society ladies ministering to the poor.
But anti-myth leanings or no, what authority did I have to portray a common scrubwoman? I was an inexperienced reenactor whose tenuous claim to historical cred lay in a former stint leading a laborious session of candle-dipping over a wood-fired stove at Cobblestone Farm, motivated by a then-crush on a Cobblestone employee (ah, the places our heart will lead us …). Nevertheless, here I was in a homemade costume, wet as a drowned dog, guarding an antique trunk under a tarp 50 feet from Mike the Beermaker.
Mike turned out to be a nice guy. He loaned us some tent spikes and ropes to convert one of my blue tarps into a functional lean-to that protected the trunk from drizzle. I felt abashed to be the unprepared newbie next to his professional beer-cauldron presentation, complete with authentic white canvas tent. Mike talked about how he made beer, and how he used to give tastes to former historical presenters. “I don’t give it to just anyone,” he said. My heart sank, sure that we, inept first-timers, would not qualify as beer-worthy.
The rain let up by 4 p.m. I had abandoned my bonnet and hung it on my chair. I tied a red bandanna on my head and engaged the kids who stopped by with their families. Traffic was light, and for much of the afternoon I sat on my chair, working on a rag rug and watching the passing human parade on the path 100 yards from my lean-to. Passers-by shuffled along the path. The sun fell across the western side of the park.
At home that night, I Googled ways of starching a bonnet without starch. One website advised soaking the garment in a half-and-half solution of white glue and water. I did so and draped my bonnet over my bike helmet, then aimed the floor fan directly upon it. In a couple of hours, I had a perfectly starched bonnet.
The next day dawned clear and promised to be sunny. We retrieved our goods from their museum storage and loaded the trunk on a dolly. We pushed the dolly over the asphalt park paths and set up our area once more.
Folks stopped by. “And behind me, my husband is demonstrating how to start a fire with a flint and steel,” I told visitors, who invariably went back to my husband’s area. Kids scrubbed wash rags on my scrub board and wondered at the “mystery artifacts” in my beautiful antique trunk.
The best part unfolded when kids were looking at trunk items while new folks came up. I told the kids, “You were so good at guessing and you learned so much – would you like to tell these new people what these items are?” Invariably the children would hold up an item and ask the new folks, “Do you know what dis iz?” Smiling, and seemingly as charmed as I was, the new visitors would guess.
The church bells from River Street chimed at 6 p.m. on Sunday. That was the official ending time for the festival. My husband and I watched the six bouncy castles slowly deflate, highlighted by the giant inflato-shark sagging into a garish puddle.
Mike invited us into his tent for a moment of refreshment.
The church chimes continued over the emptying festival. Traffic was thinning and cars began inching down into the park to load up displays to haul out. We took a last look around, folded our tarps, and loaded up our dolly and wash tub.
Two days later we visited the park after dinner at a Depot Town café. We walked around the park’s asphalt path.
Riverside Park was empty. We found the rectangle of sod that refilled the spot where my husband had demonstrated fire. It was lush and green, regrowing.
Our time in the park was past; Ypsilanti history had moved on.
This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.
Last column’s Mystery Artifact elicited some good guesses that tagged the item for what it was; a commemorative chest-label for members of the onetime Ypsilanti German worker’s club, similar to the onetime Ann Arbor Arbeiter organization.
This week’s artifact is the item that proved to be the single most challenging mystery artifact from Grandma’s Trunk at the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival. Only two people during the entire span of the festival correctly guessed it. Ironically, it is an item that my husband and I use almost every morning. Can you guess its function? Good luck!
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.