Monday, October 23, 2006

Plantation-oriented Oddities

Plimoth Plantation, my current place of employment, is a "living history" museum. There aren't many in the US, but in the UK, there are several. It revolves around the idea that we, the "docents" take on the roles of people from the 17th century, live in similar conditions, work there, and through demonstration and explanation, teach people about the time period.

The basic premise of my job is to "educate." Now, granted, that concept rather conflicts with the classification of my place of employment as a general tourist attraction. Every so often, there are some amusing moments.

A few years ago, one of the supervisors, Michael, told a group of us a story on our collective break after returning to the "lounge" space from the Village. He said he had been carrying water by yoke and buckets from the "spring" we have set up just outside the south gate of the Village (this comprises of what looks like a coopered half-barrel, complete with iron rings, with a hosepipe attached to it underneath to ensure it always remains full and yet the visitors do not see the artificial source of the water). It was summer, and a group of people approached him. He spoke to them for a few minutes, describing what he was doing to two boys who had come with their grandmother for the afternoon. Then, as a "let the kids get involved" gesture, he offered to allow the boys to help him carry the water in his full buckets back to his house. The grandmother's attention had been momentarily directed elsewhere, and when she turned back to the boys and saw Michael demonstrating how to carry the yoke and buckets by placing the contraption on the sholders of one of them, the grandmother cried in alarm:
"YOU shouldn't be WORKING! YOU'RE on VACATION."

So much for hands-on learning.

Sometimes, there are interesting interactions between co-workers. We all get "paired" up on the Village site in order to portray the 17th century families that would have lived in Plymouth in 1627 (not all of them). One year, my friends Bertie and Mike were playing the husband and wife of the Cooke family. They had invited me over for lunch because the artisans in the Village had recently decided to take down the house I had been "living" in as Elizabeth Howland in order to build a new one (that to this day, is still a house frame--the frame having been erected very soon after the destruction of my former abode, and this was at least two years ago). I was sitting at their table in rather the back of the house when a group of children came in. Mike had always been good interacting with them, so he started telling the story of "how he met his wife" in Holland (which was entirely made up by him given we have no idea how the Cookes actually met).
He said as follows:
"You know when I first saw my wife?" (hands on hips, slight pause), "I was in Holland and I saw her sit down to take her noonmeats (lunch). She pulled out a thick slice of bread (pause, hand extended flat out to simulate the bread surface), and then, she covered the top of it with butter (back and forth motion with other hand to apply the aforesaid butter). And then (added inflection on this "then"), she took out a thick piece of cheese, almost as thick as the bread, and put it on top of the bread and butter (one hand covers the other). And then (more inflection on this "then"), she takes a great jug of milk and starts to drink it."
He pauses a minute to let the children take in the story before going on.
"And you know, I told her if she continued to eat cheese and butter and drink milk as she did, she would have the brain of a cow!"
He closed this narrative very well insothat the whole audience understood the reason for the build up. Snickers answered his tale.
Now, Bertie, who had been quietly cutting up herbs to put in the boiling pot over the hearth, sort of "deflated" in her posture like a balloon after the children heard his story. She took a deep breath, and in a very dejected tone in her Dutch-accented English, said,
"Now, husband, I know you are smarter than me and stronger than me, I being only a woman, but you have always been so kind and so patient with me. I try so hard to be a good English woman as your wife even though I am Dutch."
Mike's facial expression entirely changed. He must have told that story to a hundred people over the course of the entire season to that point without eliciting this response from Bertie, so he was baffled. He stuttered, trying to make up for the insult he hadn't realize he had given. Bertie did not change her tone or her reaction. It became so uncomfortable that I truly thought he had insulted her, and I was ready to leave the house so this "marital" problem could be resolved. Eventually, Bertie went on break, leaving a very concerned Mike behind.
Later on, at the end of the day, Mike was climbing the stairs to the changing areas after work at the same time that Bertie was coming down to leave for the day. As they passed each other, Mike was all ready with an apology. But before he could say a word, Bertie put her hand on his arm and said only,
"Got you."

Sometimes visitor nonsense goes too far. Now it is no secret that the "Pilgrims" had religion to arm them in a number of ways. I won't go into the whole "they didn't come here for religious freedom" argument, because that is a moot point. However, as in any other case or category, visitors have a touch time separating "reality" from our 17th century environment. We, as Plimoth Plantation employees, do not prescribe to the same religious sensibilities as these people did. We only have to understand what they believed and then accurately portray it--our own personal feelings do not figure into the equation. Some visitors seem to think that they do. Either that, or they believe in spreading God's word so adamently that they will come to a museum and regardless of the religious persuasion of the employees, attempt to convert us all anyway.
The worse case of this occured in my first year. There were a few people my age on site, one of whom was portraying Elizabeth Howland, which would be the role I would subsequently take. One day, I went down to her house for a visit. Very soon after my arrival, a school group came through with papers loaded with questions. While I was attempting to answer them, two other visitors slipped by me and into the back of the room where they struck up a conversation with Beth. They were quoting scripture and talking to her nonstop, but I didn't notice nor did I interfere. After the students left, I could turn my attention to their conversation.
I don't know if they were in "conversion" mode, but they were certainly putting forth a "test of faith" by asking her when and where she read the Bible and why, etc. Not "how and where does your church meet" or "what happens on Sunday," but personal questions about her faith--and I don't think it mattered to them whether she spoke in character or whether she was speaking as herself. This started to go on too long and it was more than obvious to me that they were getting into matters of faith for their own purposes and not to be educated about the 17th century.
So, then I decided to "step in."
One of them asked her whether she had a Bible in the house. Now, we do not have scripture in everyone's house all the time because we have no way of proving that each house had a Bible or even whether or not most of them could even read. She stuttered an explanation--her "husband" had taken it with him in the morning when he went out to work and would not be returning until late. Then, he pulled out a small, orange-bound book from his pocket, and opened it up in order to read part of it to her.
Yeah, I had enough of this.
I asked him, "So, master, what is it that you have there to read?"
His reply, "It is the Proverbs and the Psalms. I always keep them with me."
In response, I said, "Well, master, if you were a truly godly man, you would take the whole Bible with you rather than use your flawed reason to determine for yourself what the best parts of it are."
Needless to say, this ended the "converstion effort."

The best line ever goes to Matt. Many people really think that the 17th century was some kind of underdeveloped stone age. They come through the Village amazed we have tools and iron fittings. On one occasion, a visitor started arguing with Matt (who was in character) about the historical correct-ness of having nails in the Village. He was ignorantly insistent that we certainly did NOT have nails in the 17th century. Matt tried to brush him off, but he wouldn't take a hint. Finally, Matt had enough and said,
"Well, they DID nail Christ to the cross."
Conversation over.

How many weeks until the season is over?


"Angeldust" said...

Heritage Park in Calgary, Alberta is a similar set-up - only in the Wild, and not so Wild West, except for the dentist and doc - most everything is "functioning".
A wonderful experience.
I am sure glad that there is room in our world to revisit the past and have an opportunity to savor it.

love and joy

Anonymous said...

Your workplace sounds like so much fun!

anonymous jones said...

A place like that called "Pioneer World" near me used to be like that. This place, however, had a proper primary school in the grounds, and the kids AND THE TEACHERS had to wear period costume to school every day! (How much would that suck in summer?!) The tourist thing has largely gone now, but the school is still there (Pioneer Village School), but the costumes are gone.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

It does sound like a colourful place, with some great anecdotes there.

Kory Johnson said...

Great article!

Cathy said...

Please tell us that you've encountered an occasional visitor or family who engaged you in playful discourse, whilst pursuing solid information on this most interesting period in history.

ellesappelle said...

I find it very amusing that anyone would feel they had enough time on their hands to start an argument about whether nails existed in the seventeenth century or not. :) Some people.

Ravenbajan said...

LOL. That is one interesting work place you have! It sounds like a really fun job to have.

On a side note, welcome back to North America! (I would say welcome back to the US, but as I don't live in the US.... well, you get the picture!)

captain corky said...

I give you a lot of credit. I saw a reenactment of the Hatfield-McCoy feud and the audience and everyone around were being so rude.

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