Capturing stories of bygone eras
Long Coulee School, north of Holmen Wisconsin
I love making images of bygone eras. Every so often, I'll pass the remains of an earlier time, and if I can, I like to stop and take it in. This old schoolhouse on a country road not far from my home invites images of little boys going in one door, lunch baskets in hand, while the girls, all in dresses, head in through the other one. I can just imagine the stories this old building would tell if it could speak.
When I started this blog, I mused about an old stone bridge north of town, one that I feared would be replaced with the generic utilitarian metal guardrail style. I finally went out after the big snowfall last month to try and photograph it. In spite of the lichens growing on the stone, it's solid and reflects an era when art entered into the equation along with safety. I wonder how much longer it will be around to tell its stories of kids hiding underneath, fish pulled from the stream and families gathering watercress early in the season.
Old Highway 16 Bridge, north of West Salem, Wisconsin
There are other stories begging to be told from bygone eras. Many storytellers find themselves drawn by a character from history, perhaps not well known, and will research and develop a persona for that character, bringing history to life through their stories. My family has been involved in French and Indian reenacting, so the research aspect is nothing new to me. A couple years ago, I encountered stories of Mary Greene, a female pilot of the Delta Queen, said to haunt it to this day. I did a lot of research on her, but stopped moving forward when I learned that a storyteller a little further downstream was already using her story. Had even witnessed odd things herself on the Delta Queen, staying in the cabin next to the one Mary Greene had occupied in life. I couldn't really top that.
Things transpire in odd ways sometimes. Searching for some interesting geocaches to visit during our upcoming spring break, I came upon one located not too far from here, in the Wisconsin Dells. It was called "Confederate Spy," and this being Wisconsin, got my attention. Turns out that "LaBelle Rebelle," Belle Boyd, is buried in the Spring Grove Cememtery in the Dells area. As I began to read about her, I found her stories fascinating, if perhaps a bit exaggerated, as some have suggested. At age 17, defending her mother against Union soldiers trying to raise the Union flag over their family home, she shot and killed one who had offended her mother. She went on to gather secrets about Union troop movements, passing them along to Stonewall Jackson, being made an honorary captain and aide de camp. She was an excellent horsewoman--like my own grandmother. It's said her ghost can sometimes be seen on the roads near her home in Martinsburg, West Virginia, riding her horse Fleeta. Why has this stuff never been made into a tv movie? Scriptwriters couldn't do any better!
Her story goes on. More than once, she was placed in prison by the Union for short periods of time, always using her, ahem, feminine charms to gain freedom. One such time, she and her guard fell in love, got married, and headed off to England. He died not long after.
How did this femme fatale for the South end up buried in Wisconsin, you ask? After the War Between the States, she took to the stage, later to the lecture circuit. While in western Wisconsin on one such circuit, she took ill and died. Every year on Memorial Day, a color guard recognizes her contributions to the war effort. What a story!
This is my current effort, to dig up as much information as I can on this fascinating figure from history, then decide how to portray her telling her stories. The costuming and such is the easy part. The challenge comes in how best to construct a program of her stories, taking the intrigue and adventure and placing it in a context that connects with an audience. This is the kind of program that can take a long time to craft. The teller is being asked to create personal stories that aren't their own, that they didn't experience. Clearly, as a native of the midwest, I already know it might be best to portray her in her later years, not just because I'm old, but because perhaps by that time in her life living above the Mason-Dixon line, her Southern accent would be less pronounced. I'm not even going to pretend.
To start the process beyond my rabid internet searching and ordering her first person narrative, I think I'll visit another nearby geocache, one containing a geocoin that commerorates the Civil War with both flags crossed in unity. Once retrieved, I'll keep it until we can visit Belle Boyd's grave, placing that little representation of the South in the cache near her final resting place. Though I haven't lived her stories, I can do my little part to bring her a little of her beloved South. I can do my little part to bring to life an image of a bygone era, that of an adventurous young woman who tried to advance a cause for which she would risk her own life.
Postscript: If you are another storyteller who has gone through this process of bringing a historical character to life, I'd love to hear your stories.