Fest revives Colonial heritage

July 27, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

History is coming to life at the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum next weekend.

A crew member on a replica of the shallop used during Captain John Smith's Chesapeake voyages 400 years ago will be on hand to discuss life on the boats, and living-history interpreters will portray a Nanticoke tribe member, a sailor from Colonial times, and villagers. They will answer questions about their characters' daily lives and demonstrate early customs.

"People think that times are hard now," said Brenda Dorr Guldenzopf, executive director of the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum. "Times 400 years ago were difficult, too. We want to transport people back to that time."

These Colonial living-history interpretations are part of the annual Havre de Grace Maritime Heritage Festival, or Mari-Fest, to be held Saturday and next Sunday at the museum. The festival was started 18 years ago as a way to share the maritime heritage of the Chesapeake Bay and the Susquehanna River. Admission is free.

Money is raised for the museum's educational programs through a catered all-you-can-eat crab feast to be held Saturday evening. The festival - which costs between $10,000 and $12,000 to present annually - is funded by grants from the Maryland Humanities Council and the Harford County Cultural Arts Board.

The festival, which has drawn as many as 8,000 people each year, has been a success because people want to take part in local history, Guldenzopf said. This year, the event will include several hands-on activities, demonstrations of boat-building and nautical skills, and trips in a canoe constructed in the museum's boat-building school.

New this year is a cardboard boat race. Festival attendees will be able to construct a boat from corrugated cardboard and duct tape, and anyone who makes a boat that floats will receive a prize, she said.

The festival celebration also commemorates the maritime museum's 20th anniversary. Organizers originally had hoped to hold the grand reopening of the museum - which includes the addition of a mezzanine level and professionally designed exhibits - during the festival, said Ann Persson, the museum's curator.

Although the exhibits aren't completed and the grand reopening will take place at a later date, two well-known living-history interpreters will present stage performances in the museum, Persson said.

"The interpreters are making history come alive," she said. "People get to see these characters walk around in funny dress and talk funny. It forces people to think about why. It sparks more imagination than just an exhibit."

In the first performance, William Balderson, manager of public history development at Colonial Williamsburg, will portray Anas Todkill, a man who was brought to America in 1607 to be a manservant.

However, after his master returned to England, Todkill explored the Chesapeake Bay with Captain John Smith, who credited him with helping to write chapters in three of Smith's books about the 1608 voyages, Balderson said.

During his hourlong presentation, Balderson, a character interpreter for 33 years, will talk about Smith's stops in Jamestown and along the Chesapeake Bay.

"Anytime I go to a site where something happened that concerns John Smith, I treat the audience as a new group of Colonists who have arrived there," said Balderson, 53, who earned a bachelor's degree in history in 1979 from Virginia Commonwealth University.

At the maritime festival, Balderson will be dressed in 1609 attire that includes breeches and a breastplate, he said. "During my character interpretation, I am dirty and carry a sword," he said of the performance that he first gave for the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Project in 2004.

The interpretation offers the European view of the New World, Balderson said. He uses props that are replicas of items found in the Jamestown excavations, he said.

"I have to make the character believable," he said. "People are storytellers and enjoy the telling of good stories. It's important not to lose sight of that."

His goal is to cause people to suspend their disbelief, he said.

"I take on many of the beliefs and precepts of an actor," he said. "But I also make sure the audience is receiving my message. Once the audience suspends their disbelief, they are with you. They are no longer in a museum. They are focused on this character. Could they read what I tell them in a book? Sure. But this is another way for them to get the story, whatever the story is."

A second presentation will be given by Daniel Firehawk Abbott, a descendant of the Nanticoke tribe of Maryland's Eastern Shore, who has spent years researching Mid-Atlantic Native American culture. His presentation will include demonstrations of Native American tools and life skills.

In addition to the living-history interpretation and demonstrations, there will also be a Native American village at the festival. It will include a modern wigwam, two dugout canoes, a fire pit, a native garden, a drying rack, a fishing weir and a trash pit, Persson said.

"We want to do things that show how life was different 400 years ago," she said. "We want to show people what the bay looked like then, and how it's different now. We want to bring in the modern heritage movement."

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