Living history

Fire and smoke, but no lead, erupt from the muskets of Bill Hoppe, Michael Brako and Ron Rifenburg at History Day outside the Kiersted House last Sunday. (photo by David Gordon)

Last Saturday, the early history of our area was on display at the Saugerties Historical Society as Indians, soldiers from the Revolution and Civil War gathered at the Kiersted House. The occasion was the fifteenth annual History Day.

A series of tents housed the various reenactors, most of whom wore clothing of the historic periods and discussed life during those times. As the Kiersted House adjoins the parking lot where the Saugerties Farmers’ Market is held, some shoppers came across to view the exhibits.


Inside, there were more exhibits and a performance of songs from the Civil War era. The musical group, which derives its name from the title of a novel written by drummer and singer Bill Payne’s novel, “Veteran in a New Field,” consists of Payne, Bob Lusk, Dale Welwood and R.J. Butler.

In addition to the musicians, the house contained several exhibits of artifacts, including a collection of arrowheads produced by the various tribes that lived in the area, said Saugerties Historical Society president Marjorie Block. The arrowheads were collected by June Overbaugh along the banks of the Esopus, she said.

In addition to members of the Esopus and Mohican tribes, the area was frequently visited by members of the Mohawk, Delaware, Oneidas, Cayugas, and others, many of them members of the Iroquois Nation, said Chris Numssen, a Seneca descendent. Dressed in a jacket made from a wool blanket, a type worn by the native people of the area during the Revolutionary War period, Numssen recalled his ancestors would have fought on the British side during the Revolutionary War.

His collection of weapons included a cut off rifle used in canoes, where a long rifle would be too cumbersome. While a bow and arrow would have been faster to shoot and more accurate than the guns of the period, the gun was a status symbol, he said.

Stuart Lahman of Guilderland had an extensive selection of weapons, from flintlocks to an automatic rifle developed by the Northern forces late in the Civil War. The weapon held seven brass cartridges in the stock, an unusual design.

Most reenactors familiarize themselves with the lives of the characters they portray, said Walter Smythe, who portrays general Ulysses Grant. He was joined by Anastasia Martin, who portrays Julia Dent Grant. Both stay in character as they talk to visitors at the various historic events they attend.

As he introduced Julia Grant, the general warned, “be careful what you say to her; she’s a Southerner.”  He stepped away from his wife to a table where he pulled some classified maps from a case, warning that the information on those maps must not be repeated. “I don’t usually show these to reporters,” he said. “I’ve had some bad times with the press; the Galena Gazette has not been very kind to me.” The maps were replicas of actual battle areas as they appeared at the time. Smythe offers historical presentations for schools and is especially well versed in the history of the Civil-War era. Most reenactors are well versed in the lives of the characters they portray, he said.

“You had to have at least two teeth to serve in the army,” said Ron Rifenburg of Hurley. That’s because you bite the top off the small paper package that holds the black powder. Rifenburg poured the powder into the weapon’s pan, then rammed a lead ball into the barrel, along with more powder. “They say a good soldier could fire three, four times a minute, but I think that was a little bit exaggerated.”

As Rifenburg shouldered his weapon, he was joined by Bill Hoppe and Michael Brako. Clouds of smoke enveloped the marksmen as they fired.