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American History Lives: A Story Of The People, By The People, For The People

A history actor/interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
David M. Doody
Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg
A history actor/interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Gentle warning: This is a big story about a big nation. My beloved editor, Scott, suggests it can be read as a story and/or used as a living-history resource.

Americans are doers. In the United States today, history is an action word. This is, after all, a participatory democracy, and people are participating in its history by volunteering, crafting, interpreting, re-enacting, re-creating and exploring the old — anew.

"For me, the doing is essential to learning," says food historian Paula Marcoux, who has led culinary workshops at , President Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia.

Back in November when NPR asked people What Do We Do Now In America The Same Way We Did It 100 Years Ago? the number and range of the responses were overwhelming. More than 600 people from around the country sent in star-spangled ideas of American history in action. Several hundred more commented on Facebook.

A history actor/interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.
David M. Doody / Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg
Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg
A history actor/interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.

As the crowd of sources points out in this crowdsourced story, a fair number of our present-day neighbors in the United States dwell in the past — hunting or gathering or going through days (or parts of days) as their ancestors did. They dress up in , speak in distant syntax, use their hands and brains like citizens of yore. Teachers and interpreters demonstrate and explain antiquated activities. Growers adhere to time-honored methods. Makers shape things using the tools and materials of years past. Sellers hawk products today that were available 100 years ago and more. Companies continue to create centuries-old wares.

Throughout the country, countless Americans live and work in the same ways people have for generations. Many, many Native Americans "maintain traditions of food growing, harvesting, preservation and preparation that go back a lot more than 100 years," explains Dawn Hill Adams of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

In pockets of the country, various groups revere traditional life. "Amish country," says Tara Yoder, "is a great place to see things done the old fashioned way, from making bread and jams and pastries, to handwashing clothes and hanging them to dry — even in winter." Communities of Amish folks and other Plain People are found in Pennsylvania, and other states.

"People in Hawaii still dig pits and cook whole pigs in an 'imu' as done for hundreds of years," writes Susanna Cheng of Hawaii. "Japanese Americans in Hawaii still pound mochi — sticky rice 'cakes' — as done for hundreds of years in Japan."

Some Americans choose to live historically to honor the past; others to avoid the present. Some have no choice at all, of course. And parts of our history are, tragically, not worthy of reliving.

Some history lovers believe life was simpler long ago; still others have discovered it was actually pretty complicated.

"I am trying to build a small cabin using an ax and a cross saw. It is a steep learning curve," says Jason Walsh in Alaska.

"We tend to get kind of nostalgic for a slower, simpler time period and think fondly of life when our great and great-great grandparents were alive," writes Melissa Harris. "They were looking forward to a time where there was more ease and more time-saving devices."

Based on the thoughtful suggestions of hundreds of contributors (many of whom are listed at the end of this story) here is a glimpse of — and homage to — the vast number of people in this variegated country who are honoring the past by living in it in one way or another.

History Channelers

"Many hobbies and crafts are largely unchanged.... flyfishing, canoeing, knitting, swimming, violin/cello/double-bass making, lost wax casting, pottery, painting..." suggests Pete Glass of Colorado. He sends a link to his own love of luthiery — the making of stringed instruments.

Leeann Tourtillott of Washington tells us: "My children grew up with their meat grown on site, butchered on site. We made cheese, butter and yogurt from the milk that we milked from our own goats. We made juice from our grapes, dinner could be chicken we raised with potatoes we raised, salad from the garden, sour dough bread I baked, and [dessert], baked apples from our trees with honey from our hives."

And there are scads of people in every place — cigar-box-guitar maker Bruce Graham in New Hampshire; blacksmiths Lewis Meyer in Kentucky, in Wyoming and Mike Hensley in North Carolina; leather worker Cliff Pequet in Indiana; chair caner in Minnesota; textile evangelist and decoy carver in Ohio; ladderback-chair maker , farrier Erin Simmons,winemaker and invitation designer Kari Dias in California; broom-maker the book preservationists at and bookbinder in Texas; potter and cheese-maker Sister Noella Marcellino in Connecticut; potters in North Carolina and my cousins in Tennessee; schooner chef Anna Miller in Maine; silhouette snipper in Maryland; cooper in Virginia; photographers Charles Trentelman in Utah, Jen Jansen in Illinois, in New York and Wendell Decker in Tennessee; Windsor-chair maker Jim Van Hoven; apple grower and metalworkers in Wisconsin; the hand weavers of in New Mexico; baker Evrim Dogu in Virginia; glassblowers like in West Virginia and in Maine and quilters at the ; scrimshaw artist Tina White, ax crafter and the flint knappers of Puget Sound Knappers in Washington; Southern chef in South Carolina; hammock-maker in Washington; and Virginia Taylor of the in Virginia — who swear by particular techniques, ingredients, materials of yesteryear.

All across America people are doing it the old-fashioned way — painting murals in New York, making lace in Rhode Island, producing books in Kentucky ...

Some people are pushing for a return to using ; others are dancing like veritable Victorians. "At Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, formerly the plantation of Lee's father-in-law — and adopted son of George Washington — volunteers formed a Victorian dance group, which became an interpretive program. We dance the way Robert and Mary Lee danced prior to leaving the home at the beginning of the Civil War," writes Amy Delery.

"It is 1910 at my farmstead," says Susan Odom, who runs in Michigan. A food historian, Odom routinely serves "turn-of-the-century fare" such as escalloped eggs and graham gems. is another historic farm stay in Michigan.

History Hot Spots

in Virginia is a hallmark for many Americans with a hankering to experience the past. "When we were down there last January," writes Alicia Newcomb, "we were able to speak to some of the actors one on one. Most of them are actually historians or certified in some other way... I've been going there since I was a little girl."

Williamsburg is but one historical wormhole that leads to the past. Time and again we are told about the glories of Greenfield Village at the Henry Ford museum in Michigan. Joseph Boggs of Ohio says: "As an American history teacher and a history enthusiast, my favorite place in the world is the Greenfield Village ... because of its commitment to history in action."

Of Greenfield Village, Lisa Pierce of the University of Arizona's School of Theatre, Film & Television, adds: "From old-fashioned candle-making, candy-making, blacksmithing, and more, people dress in period costumes from the 18th & 19th centuries and re-enact the jobs that were done in those times." Sarah Jensen and others especially recommend the Eagle Tavern there.

At in Massachusetts, "I saw a cooper make a barrel, a cobbler make shoes, and workers performed both hand milking and hearth baking," writes Al Ross. "They do everything the way it was done before electricity."

And Robin Todd writes of in Iowa, "I've been there too many times to count. They plant food, harvest, shoe horses, make brooms, build outbuildings. They live exactly as they would have in their time period."

in North Carolina is another living history museum. Kyle Denlinger tells us about a gun-maker there who crafts 18th century long rifles by hand: "The gunsmith at Old Salem always likes to point out that his rifles would have cost a person half of a year's wages, but it was a necessary investment. They provided food, protection, and, if you were a soldier, an income. Personally, I could get behind the idea of guns being similarly expensive today."

And at , "they have brought together buildings from actual homesteads in Wisconsin from the various ethnic groups that settled there — Norwegian, German, Swedish, et al. — and have docents acting out the lives of the families," says Diane Scholten.

Sometimes it seems like you can't open your carriage door without bumping into a living museum, many of which belong to the .

Many museums, historic farms and interpretive centers conduct demonstrations, and some places and people allow folks to witness timeless traditions, such as the Cherokee Heritage Center in Oklahoma; in New York; in Kentucky; in Central Texas; the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market in Arizona; the in Pennsylvania; and the National Colonial Farm in Maryland; The Homeplace 1850 at Land Between The Lakes in Tennessee; Sauder Village and Slate Run Historical Farm in Ohio; , Squire Boone Caverns and in Indiana; the in Vermont; in Florida; in Georgia; and in New York; the Plymouth Cordage Company in Connecticut; , the of Columbia, the and Ardenwood Historic Farm in California; in Oregon; the State Railroad Museum in Nevada; the in Arkansas; in New Jersey; the nascent Hermann Farm in Missouri; in Alabama; in South Dakota; the and the Hermann-Grima House in Louisiana; the — brainchild of my late friend Sid Graves — in Mississippi; Fort Delaware State Park in Delaware; in Massachusetts; in Rhode Island; the ; the , and in Illinois; Native American powwows in Montana; the in North Carolina; George Washington's distillery at Mount Vernon; the and in Virginia; an old Dutch mill and Fort Scott National Historic Site in Kansas; the Calypso Farm & Ecology Center in Alaska; the Mille Lacs Indian Museum in Minnesota and the William Harris Homestead in Georgia.

Jim Corless sends along a list of other National Park Service spots that feature historic demonstrations: In Pennsylvania, Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site "produces charcoal in the same manner as colliers at this iron plantation did up through the 1880s" and Independence National Historical Park "prints publications using a late 18th century press and binds these using 18th century methods." Fort Frederica National Monument in Georgia "once a year creates and burns a small-scale lime kiln to make lime for preservation work of the tabby structures at the site."

Last winter "my husband and I took our daughter to a soccer tournament in Little Rock, Arkansas. We ended up staying in downtown Little Rock and stumbled upon the . It was an enclosed area that included four historic buildings from the 1800s on their original site," says Natalie Cagle. "The grounds included a real working garden that they apparently had researched to determine what the owners in the 1800s had grown. They used the garden and other 1800 devices to cook meals in old cast iron pots right there on the hearth in the detached kitchen. The day we were there they had just baked fresh bread and offered us a piece. It was pretty cool."

To boot, each year communities host meaningful multicultural celebrations to honor the rich, robust history of the United States. The grandparent of festivals is the midsummer Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the District of Columbia. You should also check out scores of others, including the UNDIA Wacipi in North Dakota; the Apple Butter Festival in West Virginia; several festivals at Joanna Furnace in Pennsylvania; the Feast of the Hunter's Moon in Indiana; Atascadero Colony Days in California; the and a passel of public events sponsored by the in Minnesota.

History Media

Some contributors aim us toward history websites, blogs and videos: Woodworker Thom Strizek cites Shannon Rogers and Renaissance Woodworker, a site that showcases hand tools. Kristi Wenrich tells us about , a chronicle of homesteading on an 1881 farm in the Pacific Northwest. Todd Trepke sings the praises of woodworker and blogger Christopher Schwarz. Khrista Tabak touts the Itinerant Printer — a look at letterpress print shops — and Carl Neu refers us to , which explores historical places in New Jersey. Old-school knitters and crocheters point to.

Michael W. Twitty, says Ellery E. Foutch, "is doing a lot of foodways research — and cooking — in keeping with the practices of 19th century kitchens run by enslaved people. He has an awesome blog: ."

Jaimie Brunet tips us off to , a historic-gastronomy site. The creator, Sarah Lohman, "explores historical recipes and recreates them...she's popular enough that once she was discussing a recipe using bear meat and a follower who hunts shipped some to her."

Barbara Rust Brown of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia says that Frank Clark, a master of Historic Foodways, has created a noteworthy offering 18th century recipes for 21st century kitchens. Nancy Ellis recommends Eric Gorges in on PBS.

And for a historic nightcap, Nicholas K. Johnson passes along a YouTube video. It features Louisiana bartender Chris McMillian, a shaker and mover in the vintage cocktail movement. Johnson says that McMillian concocts cocktails "as they were made a century or more ago. This is a rapidly growing scene and many mixologists emphasize using recipes from 19th-century bartending manuals."

We will drink to that.

The Practice Of History

In the Chesapeake Bay area, says Kate Livie of the , "we harvest and consume oysters. We still have a sailing dredging fleet of skipjacks — less than 10 — but we have them ... They still harvest wild oysters by dredge — an older, 18th century technology."

Annamarie Fadorsen writes: "I am a volunteer at the in Chicago. I'm one of a handful of taxidermy volunteers that sits at an open desk in the museum and taxidermies critters and chats with visitors. The technique hasn't changed since the museum was founded in 1857, and when I'm sitting at the desk I'm a few feet from specimens preserved by the museum founders."

English paper piecing and hand quilting "are very much alive. Indeed you will find that for all the ooohs and aaahhs longarm quilting gets, it's the hand done quilts that are the most highly prized," writes Emily Hull. "We're making them right here in Indianapolis, Indiana." She sends along a link to the .

The Stuff Of History

America is a living, breathing, ever-morphing museum with a many-mansioned gift shop.

In this room you can find folks from in North Carolina making wooden bowls using a 16th century-style German springpole lathe. In that room, from California and Woodford Reserve Bourbon from Kentucky. Over there, handcrafted brooms from in Iowa; Moravian Sugar Cake from North Carolina and bound books from the . in Colorado makes waist cinchers and in Florida turns out hand-rolled cigars.

An artisan group in California called the , says Richard Pelosi, "makes hand-crafted night lights. A friend just gave me one as a gift and, on the box, it reads: 'This light is hand made in the USA using techniques from a lost art of the 1800s called 'Lithophanes'. Light shining through the varied thicknesses of thin porcelain causes a beautiful image to appear in the lit porcelain."

"I reenact 1850's soapmaking using homemade lye from woodashes and fat rendered from farm animals over an open fire," says Karin McGilvery, owner of in Ohio. "My whole family is involved. My 18 year old son flintknapps arrows and skins deer and raccoons ... My daughter spins wool that we knit into clothes. It's important that we keep this connection to our heritage."

Michelle Beekman, of in Iowa, says, "We use antique gas engines to turn old fashioned ice cream makers when we make homemade ice cream."

According to our crowd of sources, this country is, in fact, chock-a-block with contemporary companies that in one way or another cling to the distant past, such as and Tremont Nail in Massachusetts; furniture-makers in Pennsylvania; the in Wisconsin; Kokomo Opalescent Glass and the in Indiana; Louis' Lunch in Connecticut; Raye's Mustard in Maine; -sauce makers in Louisiana; , tin ceilings and Red Guitar Bread in Missouri; and harp-makers in Illinois; letterpress shop and in New York; , stained glass and the San Francisco Fire Department Ladder Shop in California; Russell Pope's in New Hampshire; and Hoffman's Forge in Pennsylvania; hardware store in Ohio and the Vermont Country Store in, well, Vermont; and in Texas; Montana Rio, makers of Buckaroo hats, in Wyoming; Doumar's and their waffle cones in Virginia; in Utah; in Oregon; Legends Steakhouse in South Dakota; Glur's Tavern in Nebraska; , and Pioneer Power Sawmillin Minnesota; in Connecticut and the in New York.

A Million Mills

To hear people tell it, there must be a million mills in America that whir away just like in the olden days. Textile operations such as in Minnesota, "which has been in operation ... since 1865," writes Liz Pearson.

From the northwestern Catskill Mountains of New York, Peg Odell of shoots us an email: "There has been a water-powered mill on this site since 1846. As a Museum we generate power using water in all three states, just as it was done 100 years ago. We operate a sawmill, gristmill, and woodworking shop using water power and steam power... And, about that third state of water? Ice! Before refrigeration, ice was harvested each winter so it could be used in the warmer months to keep food and agricultural products cool. We recreate this community tradition each year on the first Saturday in February. Using historic tools, kids and adults cut blocks of ice from the frozen mill pond, and then transfer it by sled to the ice house. The ice is packed in sawdust and will last through the summer and into the fall. We use the ice on July 4th to make ice cream on a steam-powered churn."

And mills of other sorts. The volunteers who run the — circa 1682 — in Maryland, notes Steve Hamblin, "grind corn, wheat and buckwheat every year from April to October using a Fitz overshot waterwheel to turn millstones from the Civil War era."

In South Carolina, "has recultivated the Carolina Gold Rice from seeds added to a bank" decades ago, says Kelly Jones. Other folks tout Kenyon's Grist Mill in Rhode Island; Gwynn Valley gristmill in North Carolina; Cedar Creek Grist Mill in Washington; and Butte Creek Mill in Oregon and in Missouri.

The gristmill at Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts is a reproduction of the original, but it still makes cornmeal. in North Carolina, with a water-powered gristmill, has been in the cornmeal-making business since 1757, Sunny Franklin points out. Historic , also in North Carolina, has been restored. And in Ohio was built in 1849. Stephen Golobic, the assistant miller at Colvin Run Mill in Virginia, says, "We are a water-powered gristmill that was built in 1810. We still grind wheat and corn into flour and cornmeal using millstones. We sell what we produce in the form of wheat flour, cornmeal and grits."

The in Pennsylvania, which was erected in 1747, "is a National Historic Landmark that is still producing bread flour, pastry flour, dark roasted cornmeal," says Neil Hobbins.

And in Arkansas has stood on the same site since 1832, says Eileen Oldag, "although it has burned and been rebuilt ... and I better mention floods that have swept it away in the past, too."

Candy Land

Since before George Washington lost his teeth, Americans have had a sweet tooth — and candy purveyors that provide sugar highs.

Candy lovers mention in Florida; the in Idaho and in Indiana. Warren and Jill Schimpff make cinnamon red hot drops the same way they were made by the family in the 19th century, says Luanne Mattson.

"Although I expect this is probably the same as most anywhere that maple syrup — or sirup — is produced from the sap of maple trees," observes Troy Semple, " in central Illinois, along the old Route 66 right-of-way no less, that still does it pretty much the same as always."

Old-School Lessons

While most schools in America prepare people for the future, some teach skills from the past.

"All our students, from urban youth to suburban families, school children to veterans, are taught the time honored and ancient techniques of foraging wild edibles, carving, tool making, shelter building, tracking, hide tanning, flint knapping, friction fires-open fire cooking, story telling, aidless navigation and more," says Lindsay A. Cray of in New York.

At the in Washington, says 2010 graduate Liz Crain, students are taught to connect ancient ways to the present, and the whole educational process is grounded "in the continual complexity of the natural world."

Life learners also speak of experiencing history lessons at folk schools, such as the Fairbanks Folk School in Alaska and the and North House Folk School in Minnesota.

An overriding lesson for all of us, of course, comes from William Faulkner, who reminds us that the past is not past. The past is alive.

Active participants in the ever-present pageant of America's history understand a little of what Faulkner was driving at ...

"When we sit onstage for a concert of that gorgeous orchestral classical music, a lot is exactly the same as it was 100 years ago," says Diane McElfish Helle, a violinist with the in Michigan. "There is, usually, still a conductor moving and cuing in a way that's been passed down from teacher to student through the years. There are still the same kinds and numbers of instruments — meaning whatever the composer calls for — and we still make the music happen live, right on the spot in real time with the audience as our partner."

She adds, "It is the liveness of the experience in a time when so much is electronic and on a tiny screen that makes it so special. And ever-exciting."

Contributors: Justin Lewis; Pete Glass; Sherial Valencia; Stephen Berer; Catherine Shreve; Eva Stettner; Diane Scholten; Mark Richardson; Diane McElfish Helle; Sarah Michlin; Rob Smith; Rick Pace; Albert M. Ross; Gary Hatch; Jerry Massie; Troy Semple; Todd Trepke; Andi Parrish; DeAnna Burghart; Kerry Mower; Jen Sieve-Hicks; Devin Ferguson; Linda Prior; Tara Yoder; RB Fast; Allison Whatley; Damien Daville; Becky McMahan; Eric Johnson Wildbear; Sarah MacDonald; Jennifer A. Jordan; Kathleen Stimely; Nancy Brown; Kara Anderson Stewart; Nadina Pustarfi; Matt Gillard; Patricia Tate; Karen Sandler; Leisha Stelken; Kim Lacey; Hannah Nester; Colleen Isabelle; Josh O'Quin; Eric Shoen; Stephen Canham; Michelle Teheux; Abigail Nourse Van Meter; Robin Todd; Emily Kendall; Joan Bradley; Alex Carlson; Emily Gerger; Lori Pelliccia; Shannon Bardole; Justine Zimmerman; David Schroeder; Cassandra Johnson; Michael Wright; Catherine Ross; Stephenie Foster; Yvonne Tessman; John Hunter; Dory Piccard Dickson; Karen Garren; Elaina Carlisle; Osca Brambila; Cathy Day; Rebecca Bowen; Jacquie Smith; Kyle Leslie; Stephanie Galvan; Anna Miller; Stewart Nelson; Adam Black; H. DeLea Sayers; Lindsay M. Rowe; Nicole Stacy; Jennifer Cannon; Matthew D. Manhire; Sara Toombs; Neil Hobbins; Emily Hull; Patrick o'Sullivan; Jennifer Lawhead; Michelle M. Drummey; Amanda Howard-Phillips; Susan Odom; the Novaks; Alan Curboy; Svend Jansen; Clifford Yeary; Tracey Zaleski; Sandra Polaski; Laurinda Porter; Elizabeth Coleman; Dan Clark; Leslie Sullivan; Rebecca M. Townsend; Michael Rogak; Denise Williams; Eileen Oldag; Marc W. Mengel; Patricia J. Knobloch; Anne-Marie Jensen; Rachel Van Patten; J.B. Smith; Jamene Brooks-Kieffer; Yoshita Patel Hosking; Ryan Beckman; Trish Boyd; John Williamson; Deb Cohen; Jason Walsh; Jennifer M. Lopez; DiAnn Service; Shar Carkson; Jen Knapp; Kathleen A. Crippen; Jim and Gloria Kirsch; Mary Rohrer; Becky Bingham; Andrew Cosby; Becky Leclair; Laura Brubaker; Erickson Adam; Abby Lynch; Alicia Newcomb; Arnold Reinhold; Katherine Kamin; Robin Crouch; Fred Roberts; Kelly Jones; Steve Hamblin; Kathryn Lush Fausel; Liz Pearson; William Morton; Jim Corless; Sunny Franklin; Loretta Wray; Peg Odell; Rebeccah J.W. Cope; Mystie Adams; Patty Johnson; Mike Hensley; Robert Bittner; Alice Fredlund; Becky Faust McMahan; Sarah Lipuma; Jean Hartley; Kate Friesen; Jessica Vellenga; Shannon Bardole; Janice Zindel; Mari Balestrazzi; H. DeLea Sayers; Lisa Malick; Connie Bone; Julie Fromer; Adam Black; Paige Bassett; Liz Burt; Joanne Kearney; Lisa Czech; Rod Dismukes; Eliza Porter; Alyce Green; Erika Keller; Alisa Herr; Annamarie Fadorsen; Samantha Collins; Rebecca Shriberg; Roger Harmony; Lee Grant; Mamie Matassa; Debra Willson; Kim Kieffer; Erika Phillipsen Turner; Hayley Enoch; Rene Michel; Beth Colley; John Lebsack; Betsey Kelly; Carrie Black; Suzanne LeSar; Leslie Wannamaker; Sarah Woods; Tsasa West; Kristin Rutkowski; Jaimie Brunet; Kristi Wenrich; Meg Anderson; Beth Neff; Lisa Perez; Maggie Strickland; Dawn Hill Adams; Jacqui Lewnes; Rachel Purget; Chrissy Vance; Robert Chester; Jennifer Yueill; Judy Thomas; Tovah Close; Ellery E. 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Rivas and Jan Taylor Weeks.

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Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.