First of all, I want to mention two things: with this post, I’ve hit yet
another blogging benchmark, for this is Entry Number 300; and, I’ve
been writing here now for nearly TWO years. HUZZAH!
More importantly, however, is the fact that, 20 years ago today,
April 3, 1991, I started working as an interpreter at (what was
then known as) Conner Prairie Museum (CP) in central Indiana. Yep,
if not for that fateful day, and the years that immediately followed,
this little blog would not exist. For it was at CP that my passion for
open hearth cooking, historic foodways, and culinary history was
born. My years at CP began oddly, and ended even more strangely,
but in general, it was some of the best years of my life. And overall,
that experience has served me well in years since. From the training
I received to the knowledge I gained to the nigh daily opportunities
to put it all into practice (and in front of hundreds of people, mind
you!), it is the basis of everything I’ve done with regard to open
hearth cookery during the past six years (and counting!). I’ve
certainly not only put it all to good use, but I’ve also made many
additions to, and expanded on, that experience, first at Lefferts
Historic House and now at Wyckoff and The Israel Crane House.
My years at Conner Prairie gave birth to my current passion for
food history and hearth cookery. It was definitely time well spent.
The newspaper ad that started it all (eegad, I still have it?!):
Of course, I was familiar with Conner Prairie. I’d been there often
with school, camp, and other assorted groups. I’d always wanted
to work there, to wear the clothing and to pretend it was another
day and time. In short, I was drawn to the acting side of it. And
I tell you, after spending a few years “playing” in the 1836 Village
and then doing numerous acting gigs here in the Big Bad City, it
was most definitely THE best damn acting job I’ve ever had.
As to the headline in the above ad…funny thing is, I can remember
a couple of fellow interpreters complaining that those burger flippers
at McDonald’s and Burger King earned more per hour than we did.
Ahhh, well, but they didn’t get to do it over an open fire!
Here I am, just before my first day of working in the 1836 Village,
which, strangely enough, wasn’t until the end of July. Yep, I had
to spend nearly FOUR months NOT being in the Village. Something
about my working “only part-time.” Huh?!? What about those other
people who are “only” part-timers?!? Or the fact that your ad says,
specifically, “part-time job”?!? WTF…? It was absolutely, positively,
unbelievably wacko. I still don’t understand why I was treated
differently. Ahh, well…so it goes. Nevertheless, I was finally “in,”
and I was more than ready for some REAL “historic” play, er, work,
in a “loaner” outfit (sans apron) from the Museum’s Costume Shop:
The first character I portrayed was Abigail Bucher, the hired girl at
Dr. Campbell’s. It was my introduction to early 19th century cooking,
albeit on a cast iron cookstove and not at the hearth; this is where
I was first introduced to both The American Frugal Housewife and
The Kentucky Housewife, books I still use frequently today:
Now, we had to make all our own 1836 clothing. My first complete
outfit was made by another interpreter, but it was, um, well, a bit
odd and ill-fitting in places. So I figured I could do it better myself.
And once I started, I couldn’t stop! I ended up making three more
work dresses and numerous aprons and daycaps. I also branched
out by tackling several “non-required,” and sometimes challenging,
items such as a quilted sunbonnet, a winter lower-class bonnet,
an early 19th century shortgown, and a full-length cape. AND,
I became an expert at piping. Love, loved, LOVED inserting piping
any and every where I could. I was the Queen of Piping. HUZZAH!
Ada Noreen McClure, daughter of the town’s carpenter, was my second
character. NOW, it was finally time for cooking at the hearth:
By the way, that’s my niece, one Kelly Capehart, standing next to me.
She’ll soon graduate from Vassar College. Lordy, how time flies!
Then it was on to Lucinda Baker, wife of Isaac Baker, one of the three
(then-called) Baker brothers, all of whom were potters. Sadly, the one-
room cabin in the photo below is no more. First, it was greatly altered,
and then, eventually, it was torn down. What a travesty. I spent many
days happily “being” Lucinda and talking to folks while cooking outside
under the canopy of trees. HUZZAH!
I played several other characters, as well, ranging from Patience
Higbee to the younger Mrs. Whitaker to Laura Moore and so on.
I must say, however, that my favorites were anyone who cooked
and those who were members of the “lower” classes. Now, a few
of my fellow interpreters found the latter quite interesting. In fact,
when I was Lucinda, who was pretty low on the proverbial totem
pole, one of them used to voice her amazement at how someone
with a Master’s degree (me) did such a great job playing a lowly
character. (Hint: it’s called “acting”!)
Certainly, one of the highlights of working at Conner Prairie was
being given the opportunity to participate in the numerous special
programs. Candlelight, Maple Sugaring, Hearthside Suppers, and
others, to be sure, but also: being the “bride” (twice, to two different
guys!) in the 1836 wedding (kissie-kissie!); becoming “saved” when
the Camp Meetin’ came to town; assisting with pottery kiln firings;
cooking up scrapple during butchering; dancing with “my man Isaac”
during the Independence Day celebrations…. OH! the list goes on and
on. I even thoroughly enjoyed talking to all the visitors. In fact, I’m
sure some would say I never shut up! But I just loved sharing the who,
what, when, and why of whatever it was that I was doing. And all the
training that was offered, in a variety of different topics. I went to every
session offered, whether it applied to me or not. I was eager to learn as
much as I could. Then there was the working with a great group of people
(for the most part), day in and day out. I made alot of wonderful friends.
Golly, what other job offers up such amenities?!? I know of none. It was
simply pure joy to work in such a unique environment.
My sewing sampler, containing a specified assortment of different
stitches and such. Doing this and “passing” (which I did) enabled
me to sew out on the historic grounds. A similar “test,” along with
some reading, was required for knitting:
Well, I could go on, but I won’t bore you any further. I will, however,
add that I often miss playing in the 1836 Village at Conner Prairie. I
miss all that hustle ‘n bustle. And the people; luckily, I’m still in touch
with a few. It was all great fun. Yet, I firmly believe that I was there
during some of the Museum’s best years. Sadly, things have greatly
changed, and not necessarily for the better. It’s far from the place
I knew and loved, that’s for sure. And in many ways, I’m doing more
now of what CP used to be, at the historic sites where I do hearth
cooking. In any case, life goes on, I’ve moved ahead, and I have
wonderful, lasting memories that I will always treasure. HUZZAH!