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Middletown Life

Bringing history alive is a group effort

Mar 19, 2015 05:09PM ● By Steven Hoffman

To get to her shady spot by a campfire, Linda Harting had to travel just a few blocks from her Middletown home, and go back about 150 years.

Wearing a hoop skirt that was fashionable at the time of the Civil War, Harting was slicing peaches into an iron kettle during Middletown's Peach Festival on Aug. 18, while a small campfire smoldered nearby. As visitors walked past, she discussed how she became part of a loose-knit community of people who find satisfaction in living in the past.

“I take no credit for it,” she said, smiling. “My daughter Abby has always been passionate about how people lived during different points in time. She got the rest of the family sucked into it.”

Abby, who was home-schooled, began at the age of 4 by dressing up in costumes as part of history programs. Now 25, Abby was busy helping set up the Civil War encampment at the Peach Festival. Harting's son, Drew, 20, was also helping out. Her husband “is more involved in the academic perspective” of history instead of the re-enactments, she said.

When she was in school, “I really didn't like history at all,” she said, laughing. "It was all dry dates and that sort of thing. When I was teaching my daughter, I said, 'It's not going to be that way.' We did a lot of traveling -- going to Plymouth and going to Williamsburg. Once you get the real history -- people's stories -- it's fascinating.”

Abby has pursued her interest in history, and is now doing graduate work in museum studies through Johns Hopkins. She works at the Greenbank Mill at the University Museum.

“I work at Greenbank and Historic Odessa,” Linda said. “Odessa is colonial, and then jumps to pre-Civil War with their Underground Railroad stories. And then Greenbank is the early Republic.”

School students are frequently the guests for her history presentations, she said, so there's an emphasis on chores and toys of the 1800s. Kids get a chance to carry water buckets, gather wood, or try to make a spark to start a fire.

“What we like to do is ask them questions," sie said. "When it's something like how you start a fire, the one answer I love is, 'Flip a switch.'"

Children of the 1800s had little time for leisure, but they still had toys. Children today “are surprised how simplistic they are,” Harting said. “So different from the electronics of today.”

At the demonstrations, children can try to write with quill pens, roll a hoop with a stick, or play shuttlecock and battle-board, which uses birdies that are made out of corks, with feathers attached.

Harting specializes in dances of the early 1800s, largely because Abby and a friend once organized a ball in Wilmington for family friends who were leaving to be missionaries abroad.

“I had to learn the dances,” Harting said. “That's when I really started getting sucked into it. Luckily, there's a wonderful website at the Library of Congress that has dance manuals from the 1600s to about 1920. I used a few of those as reference. There are a couple of organizations, such as the Victorian Dance Ensemble, that have a video where they teach the dances.”

In the early 1800s, there would be traveling dancemasters who would go from town to town, instructing young ladies and gentlemen in the steps of the latest dances, so that when a ball was held, they would be prepared.

“Dancing was such a wonderful format for young ladies and gentlement to have wholesome interactions,” Harting said. “Dancing of that era was very social. The dances were designed to mix people.”

That's one big difference between yesterday and today, she said. “Ladies and gentlemen had manners. They knew how to talk and listen to one another.” At the Middletown festival, the re-enactors called each other “Miss” and “Mister,” even when modern visitors were not around.

Sewing is another lost art, Harting said. At some of the school programs, children are allowed to try their hand at stitching. “Some of their stitches are an inch long,” she said, “but some of them are fairly accomplished.”

Sewing was not just a vital household skill when cloth was expensive and clothing had to be maintained. It was a sign of good breeding to be skilled with a needle and thread.

Despite the elegance and formality of the past, life was hard, Harting said.

“People today think it was all romanticized, all 'Gone With the Wind,'” she said, smiling. “We've been out, doing stuff in Gettysburg. You hear all kinds of funny things, like, 'I'm not going to believe another thing that guide says, because he told me that a bullet went from here to there, but there's a hotel in the way. That couldn't have happened,'" she added, laughing. "People don't have that historical imagination across time and space, you know?"

Harting said it is the stories of ordinary people – such as the girl who tended to wounded soldiers at Gettysburg – that inspire her the most. “Tillie Pierce was 15 at the time of the battle, just an ordinary person doing things that seem extraordinary. When she had to help nurse these men who had limbs blown off, most of us will never have to see that in our lives."

Two young girls approached Harting's table while she was slicing peaches, and lingered expectantly.

“How are you today? Is there anything I can help you with?” Harting asked courteously. She went on to explain that she was making peach butter, and asked about the ingredients laid out on the table. “Where do you think my sugar is?” she asked.

After a moment, one of the girls pointed out two brown conical shapes.

“That's right,” Harting said. “During our era, we had had sugar from cane. People boil it down, crystalize it, and pour it into cone molds." In keeping with the era, there was a block of ice beneath her table in a wooden crate, covered in straw to keep the afternoon sun away.

Most people at living history events see the formal dresses she wears and ask, “Are you hot?” Harting said. “And then they ask if you're Amish.”

Harting admitted, “I'm not a neo-Luddite. I really enjoy technology.” She particularly favors the wealth of historical information available on the internet, and how easy it is to find things she needs to know. She often gets questions from the public that she can't answer, so research is an ongoing process.

While she has become something of an expert on the domestic skills of the 1800s, she admitted that the men who re-enact the lives of Civil War soldiers, for instance, know far more about the intricacies of uniforms and battle movements than she could ever know.

There is also a subset of living history re-enactors called “Authentic Campaigners,” Harting said. They seek to live as completely as possible in the era of their choice, avoiding any modern conveniences. She is not one of them, but appreciates their dedication. "They also call themselves 'Progressives,' because they always want to be making progress in the hobby," she said.

Living in a place like Middletown is fun for a family so interested in history. The town – which boomed thanks to the wealth supplied by nearby peach orchards – also was on a dividing line during the Civil War, Harting said.

“This little town was really a microcosm of what was going on in the United States," she said. "Delaware was a slave state. There was also a Quaker influence in the area. We had the railroad come through in 1855, so that brought all kinds of activity. Plus, the canal was the political, social and economic dividing line in the state. Here in Middletown, we had the Witherspoon Inn, and it got to the point where the political debates would get too hot. They ended up building another hotel by the railroad called the National Hotel. They had to build a second hotel because you had one sympathetic to the north, and one sympathetic to the south. There's just so much history here. It's very interesting."

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