By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — “Studying history is about taking a leap of imagination,” Kristen Farrell told her students last week, standing in her history classroom at Mt. Abraham Union High School.
On Friday, that leap took students out of their classroom and back in time, when an annual Living History celebration brought the past to life at a small military encampment beside the Bristol high school.
Featuring re-enactors representing French and Indian War- and Civil War-era soldiers, the Living History demonstration has pitched camp on this spot annually for 14 years, and marks the school’s nod to Memorial Day.
“Hopefully it will excite them, and energize them,” said Farrell, a 10th-grade history teacher. “It’s great, the connections they’re making about … the emotions of human spirit that are timeless.”
The re-enactors clustered around a small log cabin tucked among the trees just a stone’s throw from the high school. It’s an inconspicuous building — one student said he’d mistaken it for a storage shed for years — with a rich history. Long-time Mt. Abe history teacher Jim Ross built the cabin with students in 1991 to celebrate Vermont’s bicentennial, and this year students spent a day learning old-fashioned building techniques to repair the cabin.
“It was great to hear them say how long it took, and how tired they were, and really get that sense of how it was,” said Farrell, glancing over at the cabin. Most teenagers, Farrell went on, want to be “plugged in” all the time — and she saw the Living History day as a chance to pull out the ear-phones and taste, smell, see and hear history.
And, Farrell said, activities like splitting logs, learning old building techniques and studying old weapons is a place where students who may not excel in the classroom can shine.
Nearby, re-enactor Stefan Gunlock hoisted a heavy muzzle-loaded gun from the Civil War, as a band of students circled ’round. In his Union blues, Gunlock was outfitted in the uniform of a soldier, his hands chapped and dirty from handling the guns and gunpowder. He emptied a packet of black powder into the gun, loaded it, and then aimed off into the distance. The gun went off with a loud crack and a burst of smoke, and the students gasped.
It took a soldier on the line 18 seconds to load and fire one of these guns, Gunlock explained, but by the end of the Civil War technological advances meant soldiers wielding Henry repeating rifles could fire as many as 28 rounds a minute. Then he held up a Sharps rifle that belonged to a “19-year-old kid from Brandon,” which the young man used to kill 36 men.
As the presentation wound down — capped off with a demonstration of “bombs bursting in air” — Gunlock stepped back and let the students handle the unloaded weapons. Linwood Chamberlain, 17, hoisted a gun in one hand, marveling at the weight. He said his favorite part of the day so far had been the demonstration with the guns — and that he was surprised to learn about the changes in weapons technology over the course of the war.
Nearby, Leah Norris, 15, held a small bullet in a plastic pouch. Gunlock had given each of the students a bullet. Norris glanced down at a large animal bone, mounted on a board, that had been shattered by just such a bullet — the damage, she said, was shocking.
Norris, one of Farrell’s students, said she’d learned about the Civil War in class, but that demonstration was a far cry from learning facts out of a book.
Gunlock, 62, has been a Civil War re-enactor almost all his life, participated in his first event when he was just eight years old at a battlefield in Manassas, Va. The Burlington, Vt., native has appeared in several films and documentaries about the war.
Re-enacting, he said, isn’t about a sense of nostalgia or romance for the past.
“What we’re trying to bring back is that a lot of people, a lot of people were sacrificed just to keep this country going — just at this age level,” Gunlock said. “What I find fascinating is that the kids I’m talking to today are the kids who were fighting the battles.”
Fellow Civil War re-enactor Whitney Maxfield of Barre has been donning the garb of a Union soldier for 10 years. He was inspired to take up the hobby after hearing stories as a boy about his great-grandfather, Albert Dodge, a Vermonter and Civil War officer. Dodge was made a captain in the war, and led a company of black soldiers until Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnson’s surrender in North Carolina in April 1865. He worked on reconstruction duty, but eventually returned to Barre and the quiet life of a carpenter.
Maxfield said he hopes that even if students don’t remember the names and battles of wars past, history classes and re-enactments serve as a reminder of the bigger lessons: that no state should secede from the union, that slavery is an evil, that compromise is important and that Americans should pay attention to the politics of the day.
Stepping back even further into history, “Major” Ross — decked out in full French and Indian War-era garb — served up roast chicken, salt-cured fish and gruel in a literal taste of history for students in a nearby tent.
For some Mt. Abe students, the annual Living History display is a gateway to their own burgeoning hobbies as re-enactors.
Consider Ryan Conant, 16, a Mt. Abe junior — or “buck private” Conant, quipped Devin Thurber, 18, a 2008 Mt. Abe graduate. Conant jumped on the re-enactors’ bandwagon after attending the Living History event last year.
“He’s in training,” Private Thurber explained.
Thurber learned about re-enacting from his older sister, and after being dragged along to enough events, he said, he was hooked. He gravitated to the French and Indian War era, he said, because the “Rev War” re-enactors are a little uptight — whereas French and Indian War soldiers focus more on culture than the details of battles.
On Friday, “culture” meant food, which Ross cooked up over a smoky campfire. The two young men ate roast chicken from wooden bowls dolled out by “Major Ross,” spearing the chunks of meat with the tip of a knife.
Not every student who meanders through the encampment will walk away a re-enactor. But for Ross and Farrell, it’s more important that students walk away with a better sense of the past.
And on Friday, there was plenty of chatter about history that reached beyond the simple facts in a history book. Fifteen-year-old Roxanne Lafayette sheepishly confided that, in her opinion, “their food (wasn’t) that great,” sending a sidelong glance over to Ross’s encampment.
“It’s hard to think about them wearing these clothes on really warm days,” added Patience Thompson, 16, clad in flip-flops and shorts and eyeing the heavy wool uniforms of some of the soldiers.
“It just turns it into reality,” said Kimmy Kayhart, 16.
For the students’ teachers, that’s the goal.