2008-08-16 / Top News

Fort Interpreters Show Women's Roles in History

By Diane Ivey

Rachel Zimmerman, a volunteer from Cheboygan, and interpreter Claire Herhold chop potatoes and carrots for the pasty they are making for lunch at Biddle House. Demonstrations in cooking, spinning, and gardening are presented daily by female interpreters at Mackinac State Historic Parks' downtown historic buildings. Rachel Zimmerman, a volunteer from Cheboygan, and interpreter Claire Herhold chop potatoes and carrots for the pasty they are making for lunch at Biddle House. Demonstrations in cooking, spinning, and gardening are presented daily by female interpreters at Mackinac State Historic Parks' downtown historic buildings. For most college students, dinner means zapping precooked, frozen meal for less than five minutes in a microwave oven.

Cleaning up is just as easy. Toss the plastic packaging in the garbage, and all the work is done.

But for Claire Herhold and LeeAnn Ewer, making dinner is a more time-consuming effort than microwaving a plastic plate of budget gourmet.

They start around 11 a.m., chopping the ingredients for pasties, a meat pie brought to the Upper Peninsula by Cornish miners in the 1800s. Dicing potatoes, garlic, and carrots is only half the work, as they combine the vegetables in a pot to simmer for an hour or so before combining flour, butter, and salt to form the pasty's thin crust.

Although outside temperatures climb into the upper 70s, they remain cool inside Biddle House, one of Mackinac State Historic Parks' living history exhibits downtown, despite a fire burning on the kitchen hearth and layers of 1830s undergarments.

Rachel Zimmerman, who worked as an interpreter last summer but returned for a day this year to volunteer, slices potatoes for pasty filling at the Biddle House kitchen. Rachel Zimmerman, who worked as an interpreter last summer but returned for a day this year to volunteer, slices potatoes for pasty filling at the Biddle House kitchen. "I'm wearing three pantalets and a second petticoat," Ms. Herhold said. "But I'm actually not warm at all. It's kind of like wearing a giant potholder."

Although spinning, gardening, and washing clothes by hand may not be part of the typical college student's summer, Ms. Herhold, Ms. Ewer, and five other women practice oldfashioned skills daily as members of a team of historical interpreters at Mackinac State Historic Parks.

While the parks are celebrating their 50th year this summer, female interpreters have only been part of the program since the 1970s, education curator Katie Cederholm said. The first interpreters, often serving as guides more than actors, performed military duties at Fort Mackinac in the late 1950s.

LeeAnn Ewer winds wool into thread as part of a spinning demonstration at Biddle House. LeeAnn Ewer winds wool into thread as part of a spinning demonstration at Biddle House. Female interpreters first acted as laundresses at Fort Mackinac, she said, because the officers' wives used to earn money doing laundry in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Women started to play a larger role when the parks decided to expand into Mackinac Island's downtown historic buildings, changing the time frame depicted from the American Revolution to the 1880s at the fort, and the 1820s to 1830s for the downtown locations.

Programs added in the late 1970s and early 1980s gave female interpreters more options, and many tasks to learn. Downtown sites include Biddle House, which depicts 1820s domestic life, Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, an ironworking shop, the French Canadian McGulpin house, and American Fur Company Store and Dr. Beaumont Museum, focusing on 19th century medical discoveries and the economy of the fur trade.

"Interpreters really have a broad, broad field of knowledge," Ms. Cederholm said. "They go from 1880s up at the fort to the 1820s and 1830s downtown. They need to know about the religious tension with the church, the architecture of McGulpin house, medical history for the Beaumont museum, and economics of the fur trade, as well as daily family life in the 1800s, and all the domestic tasks that are performed at Biddle House."

Claire Herhold washes a cutting board after chopping vegetables in the Biddle House kitchen. Claire Herhold washes a cutting board after chopping vegetables in the Biddle House kitchen. Making soap, molding candles, doing laundry by hand (with starch made from potatoes), knitting, quilting, and tending the vegetable garden are just a few of the tasks performed by female interpreters at Biddle House. Interpreters work six days a week, spending a majority of their time downtown, with a visit to Fort Mackinac once or twice a week.

The hands-on approach is a great way to teach others, Ms. Ewer said. Interpreters are given a set of chores to complete each day, and they use these tasks to interact with visitors, explaining daily domestic life in the early 1800s.

"I love teaching people via hands-on experiences," she said. "I think you get a lot more from visiting these historic sites if you can see, taste, and touch something. It leaves a lasting impression."

For Ms. Herhold, it was that kind of sensory experience that gave her a lifelong dream of becoming an interpreter on the Island.

"I've been coming here since I was four," said Ms. Herhold, who is originally from Fenton and attends Saginaw Valley State University with a history and secondary education specialization. "Most little girls wanted to grow up and be a princess at Disney World, but I wanted to grow up and be an interpreter."

Ms. Ewer, who is from Ladysmith, Wisconsin, decided to apply for a position as an interpreter after a summer camp she worked for took a trip to the Island. She has a background in history, and she is interested in the research and development of programs for living history sites. She said she would love to have a job like Ms. Cederholm's someday.

Interpreters, male and female, are selected for Mackinac Island by Ms. Cederholm and her staff. An online application is available from November to February, with park representatives seeking potential employees through job fairs or Island interest Web sites, as well. Approximately 40 applicants are given interviews in Mackinaw City or Lansing, with the largest pool of applicants between 18 and 23, college age, Ms. Cederholm said.

Once the interpreters are selected, they are given manuals, books, and other research materials to prepare them for their role at the parks. After arriving on the Island, they go through training on public speaking and how to complete the specific tasks necessary to operate the sites.

Although many history and education majors come through the program, Ms. Cederholm said she looks for anyone with a great attitude and an eagerness to learn.

"I started here as an interpreter, and it was one of the best jobs I've had," she said. "It taught me how to make great connections with people. Sometimes, we've had interpreters change their majors to history after working here because they see how much you can do with a bit of historical knowledge."

It's important to represent both male and female interpreters, Ms. Cederholm said, because women are not always depicted at the forefront of history.

"It's good to have all aspects of life represented," she said. "Soldiers at Fort Mackinac wouldn't have survived without their wives and families."

The cooperation Michigan's settlers needed for survival on the Island is something even today's families can relate to, she said.

"Even the kids had to help out," Ms. Cederholm said. "It's the same today. People relate with the idea that everyone has to pitch in."

It's all about creating an environment where visitors can understand people's roles in history, Ms. Herhold said.

"I love to see girls get the same look on their face that I once had when they're watching what we do," she said.

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