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. …