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Civil War reenactors live like it's 1863

In its 21st year, over 600 members of the Northwest Civil War Council participated in a reenactment at Willamette Mission State Park over the Fourth of July weekend


by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: STEPHEN YOUNG - After the public left on the Fourth of July, reenactors had their own fireworks show, involving shooting cannons in the dark.It’s 1863, and you’re in northern Virginia. It’s hot — really hot — and you’re living on a grass field with minimal shade.

The rebels might be approaching, but you’re not sure because the scout hasn’t returned yet. Meanwhile, your hoop skirt and corset ensemble weighs 20 pounds, and you have to figure out what to cook for dinner. Your husband, a detective, is working, and you don’t know when he’ll return.

Fast forward 150 years, and you’re in Oregon, acting out the same scenario.

Playing dead in a field while wearing a wool uniform on a hot summer day was never a dream of Steve Robinson’s. Civil War reenacting just wasn’t for him. His wife, Mary, felt differently, and after two decades of convincing, today it’s the Tigard couple’s biggest hobby.

For 21 years during the Fourth of July weekend, Civil War reenactors within the Northwest Civil War Council have flocked to Willamette Mission State Park to relive a few days of life in 1863. This year, about 650 participators and more than 1,000 visitors journeyed to Keizer for the event, where both civilian and military reenactors came together to create a community set 150 years in the past.

As the history buff of the couple, Mary reenacted by herself several times before convincing Steve to join her. But it required a commitment away from home when their two children were young, and after a couple seasons, she couldn’t keep justifying it. So, she put the hobby on hold until their kids were grown, and then worked on convincing Steve some more.by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: STEPHEN YOUNG - Union soldiers face their Confederate counterparts last weekend at an annual Civil War reeneactment event.

“He came simply because he loves me,” Mary said. “I said, ‘All you have to do is do what you do at home. Just sit in a chair and read a book. You just wear different clothes.’ So that’s how we started. Now he’s company commander.”

Being company commander means Steve goes to board meetings and is in charge of much of the group’s organizing — a far cry from not wanting to participate at all. And for a couple years, he was more of an observer. He followed Mary’s advice and laid back and read, but it wasn’t that much fun.

“I’d be bored if I sat here and just read a book or something like that,” Steve said. “If I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna be all in and connect with the folks.”

So, he adopted a persona and set about to help educate the public, something the Robinsons’ entire group is passionate about. Mary and Steve belong to a group called the Traveling Townsfolk, who focus their reenacting mission on educating the public. They’re extremely careful to make sure everything they display is as accurate as it possibly can be. If they see something out of place, like the wrong trim on a dress sleeve or a boot with a zipper, the item is called “farb,” stemming from the phrase “far be it from me...” If something is “farby,” it doesn’t belong.

“This group has gotten a reputation of being too picky,” said Steve. “But our feeling is that from an educational standpoint, it’s not that hard to have standards and stick to them.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tigard couple Mary and Steve Robinson have been Civil War reenactors for six years. They spent this Fourth of July weekend at Willamette Mission State Park in Keizer wearing Civil War era dress and educating the public.

Getting into character

Within the group, every person has a persona he or she uses to get into character and help educate the public. In the Traveling Townsfolk, there is a firefighter, embalmer and mercantile merchant among others. Steve is a Pinkerton Man, one of the earliest renditions of the Secret Service. The women’s roles are wives, since that was the reality during the Civil War.

“I call it Main Street USA, only it’s 1863 northern Virginia,” said Mary. “Northern Virginia was so close to (Washington) D.C. that there were Unionists and Southerners. So that’s how we kind of explain that we can all be here.”

Setting up their canvas tents and cots, the Traveling Townsfolk are clearly dedicated to creating the illusion that this is happening in a different time.

“I can have my modern day hand cream, but I put it in a jar instead of a tube. It’s the image — if you sweep your eyes, are you seeing 1863?” said Mary. “We used to bring a lot more stuff that was not period correct that we’d have to hide. The motto now is, if it’s not period correct, try not to bring it.”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: STEPHEN YOUNG - Confederate soldier reenactors prepare for battle at last weekend's event at Willamette Mission State Park.Since the Robinsons started reenacting, a lot of research has gone into making sure everything is as correct as possible. Mary said that as information has become more readily available through the Internet, it’s gotten easier to know what’s period correct and what’s not. Primary sources that might formerly have been limited to museums on the East Coast are now accessible to reenactors in a way they weren’t 20 years ago.

“Your primary sources are so important. The diaries of the time, the newspapers of the time, the periodicals of the time. That’s the only way you really know,” Mary said. “I would love to be able to mentally transport myself … it’s really hard to do. Our speech is so different. What we chat about is so different. You just can’t take the 21st century out of your head. It’s really hard.”

Eventually, Mary said, the Traveling Townsfolk hope to get to a point where they can start talking as though it’s 1863 amongst themselves. It’s a long process, and every year they get more and more knowledgeable about the times and get better about the accuracy of their setup.

For the Robinsons and the rest of their group, reenacting isn’t about the battles or the politics. It’s about educating the public and being together, while remembering a piece of history that’s so crucial to what we know today.




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