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posted: 8/12/2013 1:00 AM

Families travel back in time for 'good, clean' fun

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  • A group of re-enactors eat together at a Revolutionary War camp site.

      A group of re-enactors eat together at a Revolutionary War camp site.
    Courtesy of Gill family

  • Keith Gill and his wife, Christine, pose for a photo during a re-enactment with their two children, William, left, and Valerie.

      Keith Gill and his wife, Christine, pose for a photo during a re-enactment with their two children, William, left, and Valerie.
    Courtesy of gill family

  • Keith Gill, second from left, gets ready for battle.

      Keith Gill, second from left, gets ready for battle.
    Courtesy of Gill family

  • William Gill, 8, must entertain himself at re-enactment campsites by playing period games. He shows young visitors how the games are played.

      William Gill, 8, must entertain himself at re-enactment campsites by playing period games. He shows young visitors how the games are played.
    Courtesy of Gill family

  • Valerie Gill, 11, takes instruction from a woman at camp.

      Valerie Gill, 11, takes instruction from a woman at camp.
    Courtesy of Gill family

  • David Nordin, his son's girlfriend Emily and his son, Steve, portray Revolutionary War-era residents of Illinois.

      David Nordin, his son's girlfriend Emily and his son, Steve, portray Revolutionary War-era residents of Illinois.
    Courtesy of Nordin family

  • David Nordin, right, and friends get ready to fire a Revolutionary War howitzer.

      David Nordin, right, and friends get ready to fire a Revolutionary War howitzer.
    Courtesy of Nordin family

  • David Nordin and his son, Steve, dressed as Revolutionary War soldiers in what would become Illinois.

      David Nordin and his son, Steve, dressed as Revolutionary War soldiers in what would become Illinois.
    Courtesy of nordin Family

  • David Nordin poses with his wife, Mary, who made the silk Civil War ballgown she's wearing, a copy of one worn by Mary Todd Lincoln.

      David Nordin poses with his wife, Mary, who made the silk Civil War ballgown she's wearing, a copy of one worn by Mary Todd Lincoln.
    Courtesy of nordin family

 
By Kat Zeman

Keith Gill leads a double life. In one life, he's the director of museum operations at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. A family man, he lives with his wife and two children in a suburban home in Wheaton.

In his other life, he travels back in time to the American Revolutionary War, where he's a soldier in Capt. Alexander Hamilton's New York Provincial artillery unit. His wife and children warp back in time with him, personally observing the fight for America's independence from Great Britain.

"For us, it's a good, clean family time," says Gill. "It's very relaxing to get away from the craziness of your everyday life and have fun."

The Gills are one of many families who spend certain weekends during the summer participating in historical re-enactments throughout the Midwest. From the clothing they wear to the foods they eat, these families strive to be as historically authentic as possible.

These weekend getaways are a mix between camping and theater. During the day, the campsites are open to the public so that visitors can witness history in the making. The men re-enact historical battles, while the women can be observed performing daily tasks at the campsite, like cooking or making clothes and crafts. Down to the last detail, re-enactors strive to be authentic.

"There's not a whole lot that families do together today that is as intense as this," says David Nordin, a lawyer from Naperville, who has been participating in Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactments, with his family or alone, for more than 35 years.

"You can go to a movie or play miniature golf, but (re-enacting) involves everything from what you wear, to how you get around, where you sleep and how you prepare your meals."

Some families are partial to the Revolutionary War, while others prefer the Civil War.

"The Revolutionary War was the beginning of it all, the creation of this independent nation that has meant so much to so many people around the world," says Gill, whose family will be participating in the upcoming Revolutionary War Reenactment with the North West Territory Alliance Sept. 7 -8 at Cantigny Park.

Nordin and his family have been involved in re-enacting both wars. He serves in Capt. Alexander Hamilton's New York Provincial artillery unit. But he also spins the wheels of time back to the American Civil War, where he has been a member of both the 10th and 36th Illinois Volunteer Regiment, as well as spending time in the Union Navy, Union artillery and the Confederate cavalry. His wife, Mary, who often joins him at camp, even makes her own period clothing. He's especially proud of a Civil War-era ballgown that she once made for a fundraising dance for a historical building in St. Charles.

Nordin doesn't play favorites between the wars.

"I can't say I like one more than the other. There's so much fascinating material for both. Both are fascinating periods," he says.

But no matter which war a family chooses to re-enact, both require a dedication to authenticity and a passion for history.

"Historical re-enactment is truly a patriotic, fascinating, positive and exciting family activity," says Nordin. "It appeals to people of a broad variety of professions. The things that all re-enactors of all eras have in common is a love of country, history and teaching; and an attention to detail."

Sweating authentic bullets

Even if the temperature at camp turns toasty, Christina Gill generally wears at least two petticoats, bed gown or shirt jacket, slip, a type of corset, stockings and a garter -- as well as an apron and a cap on her head. Her husband sports a uniform that includes leather breeches, linen shirt, waist coat, wool regimental coat and a tri-cornered hat. Even the children are expected to wear period clothing.

"You can't be in camp in modern clothing," says Christina, who majored in fashion merchandising in college and takes great pleasure in making period clothing for her family.

That means paying close attention to the types of materials that were available during the Revolutionary War era and researching the styles of clothes down to the last stitch -- which has to be done by hand.

"I have always been interested in fashion and the history of clothing," she says. "The further back it goes, the more intriguing it is."

It's this passion for period clothes that first attracted Christina to the idea of participating in the Revolutionary War re-enactments -- and she soon convinced her family to get on board.

At first, her husband wasn't especially keen on the idea, admitting that he once thought it "too weird." But all that's changed. Keith enjoys his double life -- even if he has to dress in a wool coat when it's more than 100 degrees outside. Though he's more interested in the historical military equipment and weapons he gets to use in battle, he takes great care to look as authentic as possible.

"I don't smoke, but a lot of men during that time did. So I carry a pipe with me," says Keith.

You are what you eat

Visitors to camp won't see re-enactors eating food from McDonald's or Burger King. Even certain healthy snacks -- like bananas -- are typically absent at a Revolutionary War campsite because they were not commonly available during that time. Water is kept in canteens and pop cans are hidden from public view.

Bowls of assorted nuts and fruits are common. Plates with cheese, fresh bread and honey are plentiful. Visitors may even witness a pig roast or observe women making stews and minced pies.

"There's always someone at camp who is whipping up something amazing," says Christine.

When at camp, children are expected to maintain a level of authenticity as well. Besides dressing in period clothing, they learn to amuse themselves without modern entertainment. The Nintendo Game Boys and other electronic tablets stay at home.

Instead, they play games like "hoops and graces," a popular period pastime involving hoops and sticks. They also host tea parties, build forts and play "soldiers."

"Sometimes we make candles out of bees wax," says 11-year-old Valerie Gill. "I like doing that."

Her brother, William Gill, 8, enjoys sharing his newfound knowledge with children of modern visitors.

"Sometimes we show other kids how games that were played in those times," he says.

Both children say they enjoy participating in re-enactments, which they consider more of a historical camping trip.

Though both of his children, Steven and Cristina, are now adults, David Nordin says that some of the family's fondest memories are from the years that they participated in historical re-enactments.

"It's a wonderful experience that brings people together," says Nordin.

Christine Gill agrees.

"When the public goes home, we sit around the campfire. We talk, we laugh and the kids play Ghosts in the Graveyard," she says. "Sometimes, people will break out into period music. I love that."

Families often form friendships with others at camp. Most re-enactors describe these friendships as unique bonds that bring them back to their roots.

"Along with the art of cooking over the fire, there is the long lost art of conversation," says Nordin. "The conversations are often at a pretty elevated level. We talk about the ideas of the revolution as applied to modern politics … those conflicts are still with us today."

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