I often wonder what it would be like to open a book and have it magically pull
me into its pages.
If you’re a reader, you’ve probably thought the same thing or imagined what it would be like to walk the streets of a novel or converse with the characters of history.
Since that doesn’t generally happen, reading or movies are typically the closest I get to stories of other worlds and times.
There are other ways to experience stories..
There are more unconventional ways to hear stories, like the living museum of Colonial Williamsburg. And as an avid reader and an author (The Travelers, Saguaro Books), I am keenly aware that it’s the stories that really make history come alive.
Living the Stories of History
Walking into Colonial Williamsburg with its brick sidewalks, iron lamps, horse drawn carriages and tri-cornered hats is like walking into a historical novel. The details, people, language are meant to recreate the world of the late 18th century, when our country was on the cusp of declaring independence.
It’s not just a look.
The Colonial Williamsburg employees who recreate this past (called “interpreters” in that they help interpret the past – which is super cute) immerse you in the experience.
The History is in the Details
When you buy something at a shop, the shop owner will say something like “And with the governor’s tax that comes to a total of…”, as he’s taking your credit card.
Men in billowy white shirts and knee high socks lift their triangle hats and say “good morrow.”
It’s like time traveling without having to give up your cell phone or deal with those sometimes hilarious and oftentimes dangerous fish-out-of-water experiences.
(I’m pretty sure with my tendency toward bucking authority, feminist ideas and lack of tolerance of people who don’t believe the world is round, I’d be burned as a witch if I went back in time. Plus, I suck at churning butter.)
There are varied levels of participation at Colonial Williamsburg.
You can remain a sidewalk dweller, a “reader,” observing the action or you can interact, discuss, talk to the interpreters. Learn a little more than what you might from just simply watching.
Although my husband and I were a little more reticent, new to this concept, my daughter had no qualms about stopping or talking to interpreters.
On one sunny day…
During our visit my daughter spotted a man on horseback. Mid-conversation she broke away from us and ran off into the street.
Normally when a kid runs into a street you worry about cars. My biggest concern, which I think I yelled, “watch out for that horse poop.” My daughter had already side stepped it and approached the straight-backed man would would best described as “dignified.”
This man happened to be George Washington. Upon learning this my daughter, who loves history thanks to a great teacher and Hamilton, could have asked him anything.
And, I expected her to ask something very thoughtful and poignant. She’s kind of a thinker.
What did she ask?
“Can I pet your horse?”
She’s also kind of 11 and decided to become a vegetarian because she can’t stand the idea of eating adorable animals. I should have realized her love of fur-covered creatures would inch out of her love of the past.
On another occasion…
While wandering the streets Colonial Williamsburg, we came upon a bespectacled and thoughtful looking man with a cane. My daughter asked, “Are you Ben Franklin?” To which he replied, dryly, “Franklin has 30 years and 30 pounds on me.”
He was actually Patrick Henry, once the Governor. He’s probably better known as the “give me liberty or give me death” guy.
We all laughed. Colonial Williamsburg knows sarcasm. It won me over in that moment.
Total Immersion of the Heart
There is also a third level of experiencing Colonial Williamsburg.
This is participation. To be honest, I didn’t feel comfortable putting a puffy piece of cotton or a wide brimmed hat tied with a ribbon on my head.
But, there are many visitors, and I envy them, who dive into the narrative and become a character, they volunteer, participate. They’re playing a role.
However, you don’t have to volunteer to sink into the history, you can also just listen to the stories that the interpreters tell.
Oh the Places You Will Go
One of my favorite stories, or better my favorite storytellers, was a woman at the Coffee Shop.
Although Colonial Williamsburg itself relives a few days of America blossoming into revolution over and over (like that movie Groundhogs Day) there are certain locations or buildings that pick different time in history because it’s best to tell their story.
It’s like a time travelers sample platter.
The Coffee house chose 1766, which our pre-guide, who is akin to a prologue of a book and keeps you company while you’re waiting for your tour to start, explained meant that the interpreters inside would have no concept of revolutionary ideas or, even if they did, would not be willing to discuss them. During this time the revolution had not yet seeded.
As we sat in the little 18th century recreation of the coffee cafe…
Clearly waiting for the previous group to clear out from the next part of the coffee tour, we got to listen to and interact with the head mistress of the Bray school, for slaves.
Interestingly, she didn’t once mention coffee. But she adhered so well to her character I sometimes questioned if she actually thought she lived in the past.
The moment she started speaking I was hooked. She was coy and funny. She used the word “eponymous” over and over, pretending not to now what it meant and giving a wink to the women of the time who may have known but pretended not to know because they’re role wasn’t to be learned.
She, like much of Williamsburg, illustrated the conflicts, discrepancies of class, race and gender as well as the absurdities and contradictions that embodied that reality. And she was also very entertaining, never breaking character.
When asked how long the Bray school continued. The response of the interpreter? “Well, it’s 1766 and the school opened in 1760 so it’s lasted nearly 6 years now.”
The Stories Make the History Great
We care about history when its given a face and a story. Think Anne Frank, Band of Brothers, Killer Angels, Turn, Hamilton.
Those books, shows, plays, movies remind us that history is a story with a “hi” added.
And we all love stories…
History is all too often forgotten or ignored. Or it’s learned and not understood for its lessons. I’m glad Rockefeller saw the benefit in creating this world of Colonial Williamsburg that captures the days before the Revolution.
The words “American Revolution” seem mundane now.
But think about it. Really think about it. The US was born out of a revolution, a rebellion, fighting back.
It didn’t start from people who liked the status quo or clung to an antiquated system of governing.
We were revolutionaries.
Out founders wanted to move forward. They wanted to progress.
Fast forward 250 years, our forefathers wouldn’t be the people clinging to past systems of oppression. In spirit, they’d be the ones screaming for true freedom.
Sure, in the 1700s only white land owners benefited from the concept of free speech, free press, free religion.
But if you translated their ideas 250 years later, what would they be like now?
Colonial Williamsburg tells us so much more than just dates and facts.
It tells us that our ancestors where thinkers. They didn’t go “hmmm, I didn’t realize that <<insert ANYTHING>> was so complicated.”
They knew everything was complicated. Nothing is simple.
So let’s get back to basics.
That doesn’t mean getting back to simple. That means getting back to the basic, and maybe even complicated, principles that made this nation great.
We don’t follow conventional thought because it’s conventional. We think for ourselves. We’re revolutionaries.
The Idea of the American Dream
Maybe we got the American dream all wrong. Maybe it isn’t making something out of nothing. Maybe the American dream is actually rejection of oppression.
That’s what Americans have done since the country’s inception, thrown off the chains of monarchies, colonialists, slave owners, oppressors. We’ve fought against the people, sometimes within our own government, who’ve told us how we should think and said, we’ll decide for ourselves as individuals how to think.
Colonial Williamsburg is the perfect place to visit to remember that the US was founded on resistance. It was founded on rebellion. It was founded on revolution.
Maybe sometimes history does needs to repeat itself. It needs to repeat because people don’t listen the first time.
Give me liberty or give me death.
Definition of Liberty
The state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views.