Staying in Character

Article excerpt

Byline: Cheryl Chojnacki Daily Herald correspondent

This weekend, Anne Basten will put on her fancy gray dress with the mutton sleeves, tie her best white apron around her waist, and cook up a feast of chicken and dumplings at the wood-fueled stove inside her cabin.

John Sauter will spend time cleaning his flintlock rifle with infantry comrades, and Phyllis Dickinson will haul water to her campsite with the help of her great friend Murphy, the Siberian husky.

It's Trail of History weekend again in Ringwood, where the McHenry County Conservation District hosts its 22nd annual living history event on the spacious prairie at Glacial Park. Nearly 500 historical re-enactors, volunteers, and MCCD staff will re-create frontier life in what used to be this country's Northwest Territory Illinois, Wisconsin and a few neighboring states.

Spanning the time frame between 1670 and 1850, more than 80 encampments stop the clock at different years for different peoples, including explorers, pioneers, Native Americans, fur traders and military recruits. But these are not still-life portrayals; this is history come to life.

The 1838 cabin where Basten interprets a farm wife usually has a line of people waiting to see inside the tiny, 12-by-12-foot home. She and others who role-play family members spend the weekend staying in character as a family on the frontier.

"The children have learned not to answer questions about electricity or television or cell phones,["] Basten said. "They talk about what they do on a typical day. They do the cooking, sweeping; they've done laundry, they go fetch water, they fetch wood, and they encourage the public to participate with them.

"They might say, 'Oh, I'm so tired,' and invite someone to go with them.["]

Continuing in character, they tell visitors how they came to McHenry County from Vermont, just like so many others who streamed by wagon and boat along the Erie Canal and west. Anne's husband, Scott Basten, is part of a two-man sawing demonstration next door.

Visitors often come with the idea that all of 19th Century Illinois looked like "Little House on the Prairie["] and are surprised to learn how relatively modern this area was in 1838. By then, Anne Basten said, the Native Americans had moved on and Chicago was already a city.

"You were only one day by horse from Chicago, two days by wagon, and Chicago had over 100 stores and doctors and lawyers and things like that,["] Anne Basten said. "Steamships started coming in 1836, so there were goods that you could buy.["]

Over at the William Hendricks Company, which won a quality award last year from Trail of History, Sauter and about 20 other re-enactors bring the Revolutionary War period to life.

Set in 1775, the site headquarters Thompson's Rifle Battalion, also known as the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment, which had the honor of becoming the first Army regiment commissioned by the Continental Congress.

But more than just explaining how their long rifles were superior to muskets, Hendricks Company demonstrates life on the frontier in the early days of revolution. …