Captain John Sutter stomps across the parade grounds, his heels kicking up swirls of dust that settle slowly in the midday heat. A ragtag line of men, most dressed in heavy buckskin or scratchy homespun, are reloading their still-smoking flintlock rifles as Sutter strides up. His voice, with its heavy German accent, is as harsh as the sun. "How many times must I tell you: fire only on my command. So, we try again."
While the would-be soldiers drill, the carpenter and cooper leave their work-benches to watch; the blacksmith shapes a horseshoe as an apprentice keeps the forge hot; women scrub clothes on a washboard; stew simmers over cooking fires near the tepees of trappers who have stopped at Sutter's Fort for supplies. It is a typical California summer day--typical, that is, for 1846.
Other visitors also watch the drill. Dressed in baseball caps, shorts, and cotton T-shirts, they awkwardly try their hand at various camp chores. For these present-day visitors, history has somehow come to life at Sutter's Fort State Historic Park in the heart of urban Sacramento. And they love it.
Part theater and part interpretation, living history is catching on at a growing number of state-run historic sites. This year, you can watch California's history come alive at 13 very different sites, from Chico to San Diego.
"It is not a new idea," notes state coordinator Dave Vincent. "Living history programs have been evolving at popular historic sites, like Colonial Williamsburg, for years. In California, interest has exploded in just the last five years."
One reason for the success of living history has been the increase in volunteerism. "None of these programs would be possible without the active participation of volunteer groups," stresses Vincent. "They have added an extra dimension of enthusiasm, time, energy, and even money. The volunteers bring it to life."
Because most of these programs are relatively new, they can vary considerably among parks. In fact, the biggest issue is defining what living history is.
For volunteer Diane Spencer-Hancock, living history criteria are quite specific. "Authenticity and believability are essential. Historic characters, costumes, and events should be carefully researched for a specific period in time. Having a character show up in tennis shoes can ruin the impact of a historic reenactment. The goal should be to re-create the everyday life and times of a place as it might have been on a given date in history."
At several parks, interpretations are so strict that a visitor from the past would feel right at home. Costumes are authentic, from fur hats to ivory buttons and buckled shoes. Volunteers cook over fires or in adobe ovens, eat from wooden trenchers, and sleep in tents or in historic buildings; some assume the identity of the character they play for an entire weekend. Some programs aren't so well defined. For example, at Mission La Purisima, near Lompoc, living history gives a general idea of life at the mission during a 21-year period of the early 1800s.
The common goal of all the sites is to get park visitors involved. You're encouraged to try your hand in activities and to join in the spirit of a bygone era. Reliving history at 13 California sites
We list living history events scheduled at our press time; some parks may offer more programs later in summer. Dates and times, especially for events later in the year, may change; call ahead to confirm details and get directions. Nominal admission fees are charged at most parks. For a copy of the 1984 Historical Events Schedule, write to the California Parks and Recreation Department, Box 2390, Sacramento 95811. NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, Chico; (916) 895-6144. November 17, from 1 to 4. Get a glimpse of the 1880s on a tour of Annie and John Bidwell's 26-room mansion.
California State Capitol Museum, Sacramento; (916) 324-0333. June 2, noon to 4. It's June 2, 1906, and an emergency legislative session has been called at the capitol to discuss the San Francisco earthquake. About 50 historic figures will be on the first floor and west steps of the capitol (now magnificently restored) to reenact events.
Central Pacific Passenger Station, Sacramento; (916) 445-7373 (weekdays only). October 13, from 10 to 4. Stagecoaches and wagons will pull up to the replica of this 1867 station, while workers and passengers re-create the ambience of a depot in 1876.
Columbia State Historic Park, Columbia; (209) 532-4301. June 7 through 10, from 10 to 6. In a re-creation of a gold rush camp of 1850 to 1852, 16 tents will be manned by costumed prospectors. Most reenactments will be on June 9 and 10; concessions, music, and some entertainment make it a lively but less than strictly authentic event.
Empire Mine State Historic Park, Grass Valley; (916) 273-8522. Sundays through September 30, noon to 4. The rustic elegance of gold country life in the 1890s is relived during tours of the Bourn Cottage; outside, women wearing 1850-style hoop skirts will promenade on the mine grounds.
Fort Ross State Historic Park, 13 miles north of Jenner; (707) 865-2391. June 23, September 1 and 2, from 10 to 5. One of the more authentic programs takes place in this restored 1812 Russian fort (near its prime in 1836); good reenactments. The September program may be more varied. Make lodging reservations at Mendocino and Sonoma coast inns now.
Governor's Mansion, Sacramento; (916) 445-7373. August 4, from 10 to 4:15. Meet the family of Governor George Pardee as he prepares to leave office in 1906. During a 1/2-hour tour of the 1877 mansion, you'll see seven brief playlets by various family members in different rooms.
PEtaluma Adobe State Historic Park, Petaluma; (707) 762-4871. May 26 and 27, October 21 and 22, from 10 to 5. General Mariano Vallejo's adobe is the site of this re-creation of life during the Mexican rancho period (around 1840). Relatively new, the program is small but striving for authenticity.
San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, San Juan Bautista; (408) 623-4881. First Saturday of each month, noon to 4. Meet in the restored bar on the old mission plaza; a short skit, usually starting around 1, and crafts demonstrations throughout the park show life of the "stagecoach" period of 1860 to 1880.
Sutter's Fort State Historic Park, Sacramento; (916) 445-7373. June 16 and 17, August 4 and 5, September 29 and 30, November 10, from 10 to 4. One of the most authentic programs portrays daily life at the fort during 1846, the year California became a U.S. territory. Avoid crowds by going early Saturday morning; picnic outside the stockade on grass under cool trees. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Fort Tejon State Historic Park, Lebec (about 40 miles south of Bakersfield); (805) 248-6692. Each third Sunday, June through October, from 8 to 4. Though the fort (built in 1854) has only tenuous connections to the Civil War, it is now the site of three Sunday battle reenactments by 75 to 150 fully outfitted Civil War buffs. In September, out-of-state groups will join the skirmishing for the season's biggest battle.
La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc; (805) 733-3713. June 24, July 21, August 18, from 11 to 2. Costumed volunteers will demonstrate crafts of the early mission period (1813 to 1834), including weaving, pottery, candle and soap making, as well as cooking.
On a special evening candlelight tour October 13 ($15 per person last year, by reservation only), you become an "invisible guest" viewing life and activities as they are carefully reenacted. This popular fund-raising program includes a supper of bread, cheese, and fruit.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, San Diego; (619) 237-6770. Living history programs are getting a promising start in this commercially developed park area. There'll be short programs from 10 to 11 on July 4 (flag raising), July 15 (founding of mission), September 9 (Admission Day). Every Saturday morning, 8- to 12-year-olds can join programs giving hands-on experiences typical of early-1800s life. Call for details and reservations.…