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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Guest Blogger's blog

Civil War Reenactor, Living Historian, or Public Historian?

When I was in college people often asked me, “What will you do with your degree…teach?” As an aspiring living historian/reenactor, the answer I always gave was “no,” because I did not plan to become a schoolteacher or professor. But looking back on it, I realized that the dissemination of historical knowledge to people through reenactment is teaching—though perhaps not in a traditional sense.

The terminology for people who impart historical knowledge through performance varies. The hobby (as it is often called) has many faces: soldier, trapper, tinsmith, laundress, or lady, to name a few. Most people involved in historical reenacting do so for a variety of reasons. They may like camping; they may like firing historic weapons; or they may like being with friends and family. Whatever the reason, you can be certain that most people dressed in period clothes do not do so for comfort.

6th Infantry reinactors wearing time period hats, jackets, and pants and holding muskets

6th Infantry re-enactors at the Yellowstone Lodge #88 Historic Masonic Site, adjacent to Fort Buford State Historic Site. Yellowstone Lodge #88 was on the Fort Buford Military Reservation.

Wearing a wool uniform or leather tunic is not comfortable. Women who portray officers’ wives wearing corsets and several petticoats or laundresses toiling over a hot fire are not comfortable. So why are they doing this? I know a former art teacher who makes pottery and sells it at events, but he also loves the camaraderie and history aspects of being a reenactor. Others do it because they enjoy the activities associated with it, like camping, shooting, acting, or modeling period clothing. If you talk to most living historians, however, you would find that the camaraderie of the historical reenactor world is the biggest draw—meeting and interacting with others who are deeply interested in all things historical.

The majority of historical reenactors are ordinary people who relive history for fun and to get away from a fast-paced, technological world. Like anything, though, this hobby has extreme participants.

At one end of the spectrum are the “Farbs” (a fabricated impression). This is a term given to some participants who continue with historical reenactment after being politely told that their impression contains inaccuracies, like, “they would have never worn polyester” or “tennis shoes were not invented yet.” Most people will learn from these comments, often with help from fellow reenactors. They try to improve their impressions, even going so far as to research details on their own.

At the other end of the spectrum are the hardcore “living historians.” These individuals go to great lengths to make sure every detail of their outward garb is accurate. One of the contracted background artists for Gettysburg went as far as urinating into a jar full of brass buttons to get the correct patina. Most living historians, however, are in the middle somewhere (myself included). They do their research and listen to other historians to hone their impressions.

Steven Reidburn wearing a navy blue 1872 pleated blouse

The author wearing an 1872 pleated blouse while reenacting frontier military at Fort Buford State Historic Site.

I have been a Civil War reenactor for 35 years. My own reasons for participating in this activity are simply put: I enjoy the firearms, the people, the fresh air, and the questions asked by visitors about the weapons, trappings, and uniforms.

If you have ever held a Civil War musket and looked at the workmanship of the wood and metal, you will see the amazing skill it took to craft such a firearm. There are many variations of muskets, and most were used during the Civil War. Camping with just a blanket and a dog tent is exhilarating (well, it used to be). The enormous number of questions asked by visitors and audiences is stunning. There is always one about wearing a wool uniform on a hot day, “Aren’t you warm in that?”

Robert Lee Hodge dressed as a confederate soldier

As his name implies, Robert Lee Hodge is reenacting a Confederate soldier. He looks and acts the part of a underfed, clothes scavenging, hard core Confederate veteran soldier.

It is wonderful when the questions someone asks are about something I know very well, and about which I can provide a lot of information. For me, that would be any question about Fort Seward, strategy during Gettysburg, or any other major battle of the Civil War. “Do you think Robert E. Lee was off his game during Gettysburg?” (Yes.) “Could the South have won with Stonewall Jackson?” (Yes.) And if the answer to a question is not clear, it makes me curious. I then go read the relevant historical accounts to glean an answer, if there is one. With those questions, I usually answer like any teacher would: “That is a good question. I don’t know for sure, but will look deeper into it.” In this sense, living historians are also lifelong learners. The truly best questions come from young people. It thrills me to answer their questions. From these encounters, I always feel there is hope that the work that living historians do to preserve the past will continue.

Next time there is a living history demonstration going on near you, I recommend that you watch and ask questions of the participants. You will see the light in their eyes and the passion they carry in their hearts for what they do.

Guest Blogger: Steven Reidburn

Steven ReidburnSteven Reidburn is the former Site Supervisor at Fort Buford State Historic Site and is currently the Site Supervisor at the Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site. He is also the State of North Dakota Historic Weapons Supervisor.

Understanding the Importance of Tinware Production throughout History

Although tin as a metal has been used for thousands of years, its use as a coating for metal plate dates only to the 16th century. Historical records suggest the first manufacture and use of tinplate was in Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic) and parts of southern Germany. A coating of tin on thin metal plate provides a rust inhibitor. Because it’s non-toxic and food-safe, tinplate is a useful material for making cups, bowls, and plates.

Tin, which is contained in an ore called cassiterite, was mined in various places historically, including perhaps most famously in the British county of Cornwall. Cornish mines provided tin to the ancient Romans when they occupied what they called ‘Britannia’; later, Cornish tin was exported to Bohemia and other centers of tinplate production as a raw material. But the secret of how tin was made to coat very thin iron plates was kept a secret for many decades, until a bit of early industrial espionage made the secret available to the English in the third quarter of the 17th century. The impetus for covertly acquiring this knowledge was declining tinplate availability in England. The English (like many others) had been importing finished tinplate from the Bohemians and other producers for many decades. A shortage of tinplate, however, made them want to discover the secret of making it for themselves. An Englishman named Andrew Yarranton traveled to Germany in 1665-1667 with the express purpose of touring facilities and learning the process of making tinplate. Having learned the manufacturing process, Yarranton brought that knowledge back to England. Combining Cornish tin with thin iron sheets milled in Wales, British tinplate manufacturing took off rapidly.

The first tinsmiths came to the American colonies from England in the mid-17th century and began producing tinware for the colonial market. Tinware proved popular, and the few tinsmiths found themselves with more work than they could handle. This situation led to the training of new tinsmiths and to the creation of new foundries to produce tinsmith’s stakes and other tools. By the US Civil War, much tinware was being made in factories, although nearly every town across the country still had a working tinsmith who produced tinware for sale and made repairs.

Tinware remained popular until the 1920s and 1930s, when it began to be replaced with aluminum and stainless steel and later, plastics.

Karl and Nadine Schmidt in front of their Tinsmithing stand at Fort Abercrombie

Karl and Nadine Schmidt tinsmithing at Fort Abercrombie, June, 2016

A friend of the Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site, Karl Schmidt developed an interest in tinsmithing after he met a working historical tinsmith at the Brookings Summer Arts Festival in South Dakota some 12 years ago. Karl was fascinated by how the tinsmith turned flat sheets of tinplate into useful items. In spring 2014, Karl learned that the resident tinsmith at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, Loren Miller, was offering a weekend in Nebraska. Karl and his family signed up. For Karl, this was the beginning of a new adventure.

Historical tinsmithing tools

Historical Tinsmithing tools

By spring 2015, Karl decided to become a working historical tinsmith (one who makes primarily historical tinware reproductions and uses primarily antique tinsmith’s tools). He found tools and hand-crank machines on Ebay. Some tools, like the tinner’s stakes, were ready to use, but some items, particularly the tinner’s machines, needed careful restoration work, which Karl did himself.

horse and pig tinware molds

Tinware by Karl Schmidt

In June 2015, Karl met William McMillen, arguably the best-known and most accomplished historical tinsmith in the country. Two months later, he attended McMillen’s week-long tinsmithing workshop, learning the fine points of historical tinsmithing, and making a variety of projects.

Tinsmith Karl Schmidt working

Tinsmith Karl Schmidt working with period tools

With excellent training under his belt and a tin shop full of tools, Karl began to make tinware and demonstrate his craft. Karl first demonstrated tinsmithing Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site for the Living History Weekend in June 2016.He continues to demonstrate his craft each summer in historical dress, using his 19th century tools.

Lantern made by tinsmith Karl Schmidt

Lanterns by Karl Schmidt

If you are interested in meeting Karl and watching the art of tinsmithing, join us for Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site’s opening day on Saturday, May 26, 2018. Karl and his family will be demonstrating and having wares for sale at this event and at Fort Abercrombie Living History Weekend, June 9 – 10.


Photos and history summary courtesy of Karl Schmidt.

Guest Blogger: Lenny Krueger

Lenny KruegerLenny has been employed by the State Historical Society of North Dakota for the past 6 years at Fort Abercrombie. He has enjoyed the role of site supervisor for the past 4 years. He has many roles as the site supervisor at Fort Abercrombie as the team leader, historical interpreter, custodian, store clerk, programming, publicity ,and community relations coordinator. He has the perfect summer job as site supervisor, as he is employed at Richland 44 School District as a Title I reading and math elementary teacher during the school year.