Fair-goers browse in colonial life For want of a nail, house once burned

June 01, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The 18th century is a fun place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there.

A few minutes with participants sharing 200-year-old crafts and wearing period dress outside the B&O Railroad Station Museum at Founders' Day Weekend in Ellicott City yesterday would convince you of that.

When a man asked the blacksmith how much he was charging for the nails he had made, Twyla Hirrlinger butted into the conversation.

"You're not planning to burn your house down, are you master?" she asked. "It's against the law, you know."

"Burn my house down?" the 20th century man said.

"Oh yes," said Mistress Hirrlinger, one of the founders of South River Sutlers of Annapolis, a group that specializes in historical recreations. "Unless you're traveling with a blacksmith, you won't find any nails."

With no blacksmith, people needing nails in the 18th century would burn down houses and sift through the ashes -- a practice so common that a law forbidding it is still on the books in some states, she said.

"Thanks for the story," the nail buyer said.

"Oh, it's not a story, sir -- it's history," Mistress Hirrlinger said.

Ed Williams couldn't have scripted it any better.

It is Master Williams who brought Mistress Hirrlinger and her friends to Ellicott City for the Memorial Day weekend.

"There is constant discourse, constant interaction," said Master Williams, director of the B&O Railroad Station Museum.

"Everything talked about is a history lesson -- why butter is made that way, how the blacksmith gets his fire started, how candles are made. It's living history -- more memorable," he said, than what is taught in the classroom.

Like Mistress Hirrlinger, Master Williams was dressed yesterday in Colonial attire. And like Mistress Hirrlinger, he was full of stories. The reason his pants are baggy, he said, is so he can bend over to do work without ripping them. Only gentleman have tight-fitting trousers, he said.

There was a story for everything.

A clay pipe being eyed by a customer should actually be longer, Shirley Stoner said.

"It's been broken off. We used to think they did it for sanitary reasons" -- different people smoking the same pipe. The real reason, she said, is that heat seals the hole to the pipe. The pipe is broken at the stem to open the hole up again. "With taking only two baths a year, people were not too worried about sanitary conditions," she said.

A short distance away, Blacksmith Holmes Stoner was creating a roasting fork. He stopped for a moment and showed a small child his tinderbox, explaining that matches were not available until 1836. Inside the tinderbox were a flint and some charcoal cloth. Master Stoner struck the flint to the cloth and it began to glow immediately, the fire growing more intense in his palm as he blew on it.

He next showed the child a small tin that looked like a sardine can with a small hole in the center. Inside were patches of cloth which he said came from discarded trousers or shirts. He placed the tin containing the cloth on the fire. "That's how we make charcoal cloth," he told the child.

The re-enactments were so authentic that one customer approached Mardelle Hirrlinger as she was making an 18-bobbin pillow lace and asked for a professional opinion.

"I've just bought an antique doily that was advertised as crocheted, but it doesn't look crocheted to me," the woman said. "I was going to research it but perhaps you can tell me what it is."

Mistress Hirrlinger examined the doily closely.

"It's definitely lace, M'Lady," she said. "You're looking at about 90 bobbins" -- long dowels with strings of cotton or linen attached.

The lace is made by weaving a pin-hole pattern with the string attached to the dowels. The more dowels, the more intricate and complex the pattern.

The woman was delighted. "Wow!" she said. "That's good to know. Thank you. Wow!"

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