Photos by Lauren Thomas
In honor of Independence Day weekend, reenactors from the Colonial Living History Alliance (CLHA) set up encampments on Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) in New Paltz this past Saturday, allowing the public to enter their 17th- and 18th-century live interpretations of what daily life was like for villagers and craftsmen, as well as the militia.
“We’ve come from all over,” said Bill Cooper, a history enthusiast who was part of the reenactment on Huguenot Street, the oldest incorporated street in America. “We have people from all over New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and even one from Maryland.”
The tent, which mimicked the kitchen area of a Colonial home roughly between 1680 and 1710, was busy with men shooting the breeze, women cooking and sewing and a wooden table filled with food that one would likely find during that period.
“It’s noontime here, so we’d probably be picking at things,” said Cooper, who made the trip from his home in New Jersey. “It would be too hot to be cooking now, so we’re enjoying some of the apple pies that the women made earlier, as well as some bread and cheese. Typically we would not spend a long time in the kitchen/dining area; we’d be out in the fields working, or busy with other trades.”
The men were wearing period dress, including breeches, leather latchet shoes and long-sleeved linen shirts. “If you weren’t wearing a waistcoat or a jacket, you wouldn’t be considered to be properly dressed. But for those who were working on a hot summer day, they’d be wearing what we are.”
Asked what made him interested in participating in these reenactments, Cooper said, “The apple pie!” with a laugh. “Seriously, we all share an interest in history and have become history buffs of this time period in American history, and it’s become a hobby to go out and try it and educate people and share that passion rather than just sitting at home reading about it. It’s much more fun this way!”
Sitting on wooden chairs next to the table was Anne Matusiewicz of Troy. She was working on a bobbin-lace pillow, creating lace that would have been used in that time period to decorate clothing. “It would be used on collars, cuffs, waistcoats and caps,” she explained. “Metallic lace would be used for suits and gowns.”
Matusiewicz was carefully using the wooden bobbin pins to twist various-colored threads together in an intricate lace pattern, with pins to hold them in place until they were twisted tightly together. “This was a common thing for people to do and was a skill taught in orphanages during this time period, so that those children would be able to support themselves.”
Matusiewicz said that she enjoyed participating in the reenactments because “you can take things you read about, see in films or online and make it interactive and come alive. I feel that American history prior to 1750 has been grossly neglected…and then there’s the clothes!”
She explained that a common female villager would be dressed as she was, with several petticoats made of linen. “Having several petticoats on at once served a few purposes,” she explained. “One is modesty, as they didn’t want the shape of their legs showing. But the second was practical, as they could roll up their best petticoat while working or walking to keep it clean, while the under-petticoats could get dirty.”
Her hair was also hidden behind a linen wrap. “This was for modesty, but also, in this time period, women didn’t wash their hair often or well, as the soap was not what it is today! It was a way of keeping your hair long without having to expose it when it was dirty.”
John Machate of Maryland made the trek to New Paltz and entranced visitors with his military officer tent, equipped with a double-wide replica of George Washington’s bed that could come apart piece-by-piece, fold in half and then be stored and transported in a five-by-one-and-a-half-foot-wide and two-foot-deep wooden box. “This was during the 1770s, when Washington was traveling all over in the military campaign,” he explained. A table next to the bed held relics that most military officers would have had at that time, including maps, a compass, knives, field glasses and a tobacco pipe. His outfit, displayed outside the tent, included a woolen coat and a tri-cornered hat, along with two pistols, swords and a small valise.
Then there was the Rosendale Dry Cooper reenactor, Rick Vanden Heuvel. He was demonstrating the craft of wooden spoonmaking, where he’d take a hardwood log — either birch, maple or cherry — and split it in half, then decide which half had the best shape for a spoon. Using an adze, he’d shave off much of the wood, then go to his shaving horse, where he’d use small tools like a two-handled plane and begin to shape the wood into a spoon.
“It’s called a dry cooper because we would make small wooden items used to store dry goods like flour and wheat in a home,” he explained. “Wooden spoons were used mainly for cooking, but they were a relatively simple carpentry craft to teach a young lad how to get accustomed to using sharp tools.”
He said that his love of teaching outdoor environmental education and fascination with collecting antique tools all came together during the Hudson Quadricentennial celebration in 2009, where he joined up with the Alliance and began to put his passion for antique tools to work. “I love looking at a piece of wood and imagining what it can become. I also like to educate and teach, as well as learn more about my genealogy, which is both Dutch and English. He explained that in the Netherlands, Vanden is a prefix meaning “from the” and his last name, Heuvel, means “hills.”
“In the Netherlands, I’m not sure where the ‘hills’ are,” he said with a laugh. “It could be a bump or a baseball mound. But one of these days I hope to take a trip there and find out where my ancestors were from.”
Although it was hot, there were constant tours going on in the historic homes, many of them accompanied by reenactors who explained this dynamic time in American history to those on the tours. There was laughter and camaraderie, music and food and a sense that time had been turned back to an earlier period when the French, Dutch and English were settling into their newfound land and finding a way to forage out a living.
“One part of our mission is public outreach and education, and this is a great way to make the street come alive and to bring people in to learn about history in a more interactive way,” said Rebecca Mackey, HHS’s director of visitor services. “We hope they come back next year — but maybe in October, when it’s not as hot!”