Arts & Leisure

Mike Blakeslee lives history by reenacting it

STARKSBORO'S MIKE BLAKESLEE has been a historical reenactor for decades. These days you can find him reenacting the life of a Chaplain during the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, like in this photo, taken earlier this year, at “Soldiers atop the Mount,” at Mount Independence, in Orwell.

STARKSBORO — On those days when your computer freezes, your cell phone endlessly beeps, buzzes and dings with updates from your social media feeds and you can’t figure out what diet to follow, it’s easy to wish you lived in a simpler time. Well, that’s part of the appeal of being a historic reenactor — where you say goodbye to the 21st century and fully immerse into the days of the Civil, Revolutionary or French and Indian wars.
Sure it sounds refreshing, but who actually does this?
Starksboro’s Mike Blakeslee for one, and, it turns out, a whole lot of other enthusiasts. 
“I do it because I love history and teaching history,” Blakeslee said in a recent interview. “My family came from England and landed in Connecticut in 1635; we took part in all these wars… I feel I have a vetted interest in this history.”
Growing up on a farm in Connecticut, Blakeslee was surrounded by history and encouraged by his father. He remembers people in their 80s who knew all the old crafts, like clock repair, scrimshaw (engraving and carving on bone or ivory), cutting hay with a horse, building stone walls or splitting rail fences.
“They’re lost arts,” Blakeslee lamented. “One of the keys to being a good living historian is to be a good sponge, and to surround yourself with people who know.”
Blakeslee’s been doing that since he was a kid and hasn’t stopped.
He first started reenacting in high school with the support of one of his teachers. He found his way back to reenactments after he got out of the Air National Guard in 1988, and then settled into the Vermont reenactment scene when he and his wife, Debera, were raising their two sons.
“We did it to teach the boys,” he said. “As you live the history, you can never fully get to where they were, but you learn so many things that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise.
“We’re so fortunate to live in this area that is so rich in history,” Blakeslee said. So they took advantage of it.
Not only was it a great educational tool, but Blakeslee also finds it to be a good stress relief.
As the manager of diagnostic imaging at the University of Vermont Medical Center for 41 years, Blakeslee had plenty of stressful days. He found his calm by returning to his Starksboro home where he handcrafts his reenactment clothing, tools, guns and accessories as he prepared for living history events.
Blakeslee retired in 2017, and now devotes much of his time to the area’s history.
“I’m active in our church (the First Baptist Church, which is celebrating 150 years) and am on the church board and historical society,” he said. “I’m also a site interpreter for three historic sites: Chimney Point, Hubbardton Battlefield and Mount Independence.”
Blakeslee helped form the Champlain Valley Historical Reenactment group, played Samuel de Champlain for the quadricentennial in the film “Champlain: The Lake Between,” and performed in the film “Footprints in the Wilderness,” He’s given many talks and school performances about the living history of the area, and, as you might imagine, is a regular at reenactment events.
Like, for example, he was at last weekend’s atlatl championship at Chimney Point State Historic Site leading a talk and workshop about birch bark canoes — yes, of course, he has one of his own. Blakeslee will also be at the upcoming event on Oct. 19, celebrating the history of the Champlain Bridge.
These days at reenactments, Blakeslee plays a chaplain in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars mostly.
How do you pick your character?
You don’t. This is all very official. Folks from the United States Volunteers (a national association of living history organizations) watch reenactors on the fields of events and judge their authenticity.
“Everyone starts as a private,” Blakeslee explained, using the Civil War as an example. “When you’re recognized for your skill, you move up the ranks.”
Chaplains, by the way, are ranked the same as captains.
During a typical reenactment event, folks show up on Friday to set up.
“The goal is to have everything looking as period as possible by Saturday morning,” Blakeslee said. “We sleep in our canvas tents and wake up on Saturday morning, cook a breakfast (I try and eat period) of venison, duck or maybe pea soup, then officers call duties like getting water or firewood. I often will talk to men and their families, portray writing letters, or sit and read my Bible.
“What we want are for the visitors to ask us questions,” Blakeslee continued. “On Sunday, I’ll give a mid-morning service… I try to find sermons from the time period and then fit them into the 20-30 minute modern attention span… then the men go out to battle.  On the field, I carry extra cartridges, give water to the wounded and things like that.”
Once the event is over, reenactors break camp and character.
Breaking character can be a bit of a challenge, admitted Blakeslee.
“Sometimes I have a hard time coming back into the 21st century,” he said. “When we’re disconnected (from the modern world when we’re) on the field, time goes slower. People actually talk and get involved with your life. The filters that kept things sociable back then are gone in today’s world of e-communication and that’s a huge loss to our culture.”
And Blakeslee doesn’t think he’s alone in thinking this way. “People are starting to find faults with modern life and are re-finding their roots.”
Whether you’re fed up with modern society and conveniences, or maybe just interested in learning more about the rich cultures of our history, these reenactment events at the state’s historic sites are an epic window into a refreshing and, dare we say, romantic world.
On Oct. 19, the Chimney Point, Vt., and Crown Point, N.Y., sites present, a day exploration of the rich history of the bridge area. This event celebrates the the 10th anniversary of the Oct. 16, 2009, closing of the 1929 Lake Champlain Bridge.
Beginning at 10 a.m. (on the 19th) at Chimney Point learn about the bridge project archaeological findings and talk with personages from the past. Then spend the afternoon at Crown Point where you’ll find a discussion of stories from the 2009 closing day, and reflections on the new bridge with bridge designer Ted Zoli. Lunch included. Pre-registration required, call (802) 759-2412.

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