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Why I Volunteer...

My earliest memory of Old Bethpage Village Restoration involves the Powell Farm. I remember being very little, and standing in the Powell House kitchen. A fire burned, and the ladies were cooking on the hearth. As a child, I recall the kitchen table looking massive, but I also remember there being large duck or goose eggs on the table. I don’t recall much else from that particular visit, but I know that I was enamored by the history and the place.

As a child, my parents took me regularly to historic sites for day trips and vacations. I visited Old Bethpage Village, Mystic Seaport, and Old Sturbridge Village, the way some families visit amusement parks. At one time, we were members of all three simultaneously. And yes, we visited these places in good and bad weather. All of these “outdoor” or “living history” museums (and their gift shops) had a huge impact on my childhood, and frankly my understanding of history. I was always drawn to these places, and there was a romanticism about it. I have fond memories of these museums, and I am very happy that I was able to visit when they were at the height of their programming. To me history literally smells like these places! Now, I know it’s mostly damp wood, rope, wool, mustiness, dust, burning hearth fires, and leather; but I guess that is the smell of history!

When I was 11 or 12 years old, I was registered for the summer Junior Apprentice Program at OBVR. I recall trying to get friends from my elementary school to join me, but they weren’t too enthused. I was ecstatic when I received the confirmation of my registration though. Honestly, I don’t remember any of the names of the other kids or even the village staff at that time (sorry). All I know is that I was so happy to travel “back in time” for a week, with my wicker bucket, little straw hat and suspenders. It was also really great to see the “behind the scenes” view of the village, with the costuming, the farm animals, and the historic buildings. We “lived” as kids did during the 1840s-1860s, and a lot of the activities and lessons still stand out in my mind. It was one of the best summer childhood experiences of my life, and I was happy to be “immersed” in history. Twenty-something years later, I still have my little wicker bucket from that week.

As I grew older, we continued to visit OBVR regularly. We went to the Long Island Fair, the Candlelight evenings, reenactments, and music performances. We especially loved to come to the village on a sleepy/rainy Sunday to walk around and learn from the staff, hear traditional fiddle music, and get our root beer.

As I neared the end of high school, I decided to finally join a local Civil War reenacting organization, and I officially entered into the hobby of Living History. As a History Major in college, I dove deep into nineteenth century research and culture. During this time, I attended many Civil War reenactments and programs throughout the Northeast (including some great “battles” at OBVR in the early 2000s). As I approached joining the teaching profession, I became a seasoned “veteran” of Civil War reenactments. When I graduated from college, I was hired as a history teacher here locally, and threw myself into the work of being a young teacher. Even with a busy teaching schedule, I was able through both reenacting and professional connections, to begin occasionally performing music at OBVR as a volunteer. That grew into me returning to the Junior Apprentice program picnic to perform music from time to time. That slowly morphed into me becoming a regular volunteer at OBVR.

Nowadays, I don’t reenact the military side of the Civil War as frequently as I once did. Both the travel and expenses, coupled with professional obligations, COVID, and even the political climate, have slowed my “battle” attendance. With that though, OBVR has opened a door for me to continue as a Living Historian or a costumed interpreter. Besides performing traditional songs on the guitar, attending Civil War drill weekends, and interpreting the historic structures in the village, as an active volunteer I have also assisted the village in planning a number of reenacting events, as well as historical programs. In the last few years, I have been honored to be involved in both the 1870s Decoration Day (Memorial Day) and 1860s Independence Day celebrations. I have even been tasked with the responsibility of Master of Ceremonies with the speeches. When I was a 11-year-old Junior apprentice, I never would have dreamed that I would be doing these things.

Recently, someone asked me why I spend so much of my time at OBVR. It is two-fold. Frankly, these events are fun and educational. I joke that OBVR and Disney World have the same appeal to me from a “fun” standpoint. My students laugh at me for this, but then I persuade them to visit OBVR themselves! More importantly though, I want to give back to a museum that has provided so much for me in my life. Imagine what else OBVR has provided for so many Long Islanders, and visitors from around the world?

The mission of OBVR is to provide the visiting public with a look into nineteenth century Long Island life. At the time, Long Island, which included Brooklyn, Queens, and Suffolk Counties (remember that Nassau was not created until 1899), was an agricultural landscape dotted with farms, houses, dirt or plank roads, and small communities. At the Village we want to show how Long Island looked prior to the creation of the twentieth and twenty-first century suburbs, roadways, and sprawl. We have a historical presentation through the buildings, artifacts, and costumed interpreters. We want to engage the public in their questions. How did life look? Who were the people that lived here? Why are their names important (in many cases those names are still with us)? What did people eat? What did they drink? What did they read? What did they listen to musically? How did children learn? How were everyday activities performed? What was it like visiting a store? How were items manufactured? What trades and crafts were available and necessary? How were animals a part of the daily lives of people? What were the roles of family members? What were the roles of Men, Women and Children in society? How did the politics of the day affect everyday life? How did the presidential elections filter down to the local level? What were the demographics of the communities? White? Black? Immigrant? Different religious groups? How did large events like the Civil War affect local communities? What did people do for fun? What was monotonous and boring? What was life? How did death look?

The more time I spend at OBVR, the more I feel that I know some of the homes’ original residents. Whether it be the Hewlett Family, Mr. Noon, Mr. Cooper, or Mr. Luyster, I feel their presence and lingering stories in the structures. Their stamp is still in the structures. Sometimes it’s an initial on a wood beam or an original artifact or document that is attached to the family. When you also look at the original photos of the structures and their inhabitants, you feel a sense of connection to the past, that there is an unbroken chain to the events before us. I also get excited when I see the original locations of the homes (prior to their movement to OBVR).

All these years on, I continue to learn more. When I am at OBVR, I want to look like I walked out of a Civil War era photograph (and I have scared visitors as a result, haha). I always want to do better. I can always focus more on the clothing of the era and how I carry myself. Although I don’t often perform “in first person” or in a “character”, I try to be well-versed in the language, references, and history of the day. And just when I think I really know something, I need to travel down another Wonderland “rabbit hole”, and learn even more. You can always do better!

As a teacher, I love telling stories. As a volunteer interpreter at OBVR, I love telling stories. I love speaking with the public, and I receive more of a thrill from that than firing a musket at a reenactment. History is partly about having a conversation, and conversing about hometowns and local haunts is important. One of the biggest thrills is speaking with folks from other nations. I’ve met people from around the World at OBVR; France, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Korea, Spain, and so many more over the years. I once had to attempt translating the words “Emancipation Proclamation” into German for Austrian visitors (that was a funny day). Remember that our local history is important. Visitors from around the World think it is, and we should not take that for granted.

Besides the history, I have become friends and colleagues with some amazing people over the years (full time, seasonal, and volunteer staffers). We laugh. We cry. We’re serious. We’re quirky. Altogether though, we work hard at understanding and presenting the history of our Long Island home. Everyone who is connected to OBVR cares deeply about OBVR, and there is a big community of local people (professional/academic and amateur historians) who are connected to OBVR. We are unabashedly history nerds. And, so as Long Island was a community in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, so is Old Bethpage Village Restoration today.

On any given day, Long Island is a fast-paced place. It can be rough, and in your face. It can be loud and bright, and obnoxious at times. But when I come to OBVR, I can slow down for a few hours, and I can recall how the forbears of Nassau County lived and breathed. I can smell the farm air, look at blue skies, and for a moment be at some peace. The conservationist John Muir wrote, “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” Just like a beach or a National Park, OBVR works that way for me.

I would not be a Civil War reenactor if it wasn’t for Old Bethpage Village. More importantly, I probably wouldn’t be a history teacher if it weren’t for the village. The lessons I learned, and experiences that I have had at OBVR helped form my professional journey and interests; whether directly or indirectly. As a result, I have to give back to the village. I have reenacted, taught, and volunteered at OBVR, all within a 20-year period of my life. Every time I visit OBVR I discover something new. Whether its historical or architectural. Sometimes I even learn something new about the animals at the Powell Farm or the crops that are growing at The Restoration Farm. Most importantly though, it is about people. The people that were here 150 years ago, and the people that are here now.

My German Tante (Aunt) Edith was the equivalent to a school superintendent in Germany. Besides quoting Goethe and knowing everything about her local community’s past, she used to tell these amazing stories. When my family visited her in Germany we would sit around a large table, enjoying coffee and cake, and she would keep us mesmerized. A history teacher herself, she used to say that history is about people, stories, and places. If you express those things, students will always be engaged. I hope to bring that to my classroom, whether that be the four walls of my school or the fields and structures of OBVR.

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