Re-enactor makes her mark in history

Docent turns 18th-century life into a 21st-century passion

August 24, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Susan Wooden can work miracles with history.

She can get people excited about doing ordinary tasks such as laundry, washing dishes, or hearth cooking.

"I go back to a time when there was no electricity and no freezers," Wooden said. "And then I show people how things were done. I enjoy seeing the excitement in the eyes of the audience. I know I have connected with them."

Wooden joins a group of historians and living history interpreters as a board member of Jerusalem Mill. She is also a docent volunteer at Hays House, a member of the Maryland Loyalists Battalion, and a volunteer docent at a Colonial Williamsburg event.

She is making her mark in history.

In the next few weeks, she will be portraying an 18th-century woman after the War of 1812, will teach children old-fashioned housekeeping skills, and be a part of an encampment during the American Revolution.

Her boundless energy and quest for knowledge have distinguished her among historians, said Pamela Williams, manager for historic properties and museums for the city of Bowie. Williams met Wooden at Jerusalem Mill.

For a living, Wooden, 57, is a technical writer and editor at Towson University for the Center for Geographic Information Systems. Although she had been enamored with Colonial history for a long time, she was unable to delve into it until her children were older and she had completed her master's degree, she said.

Wooden said she got into historical re-enactments in 2001 in connection with storytelling to educate people about history.

"People come up to me at events and say things like, 'Are you from the North or the South?' " she said. "Or they can't tell the difference between the American Revolution and the Civil War."

She has always been interested in the 18th century, and when she visited Colonial Williamsburg for the first time in 1978, she said she felt comfortable. Now when she visits, she wears period attire that is so accurate that people can't tell her from the employees, she said. ,,

"People continuously stop me and ask to have their picture taken with me," Wooden said. "I let them do it."

She dons the clothes that would have been worn by a middling sort of the 18th century, she said. She has two gowns, one a fancy dress that has to have several petticoats under it, and the other one is an ordinary blue linen dress. At one point, she had about 30 petticoats, she said. Most recently, she has focused her attention on using the correct fabrics, like linens, wool, and silk.

During her Colonial Williamsburg trips, she visits the milliner's shop and typically spends at least an hour with them, asking questions about 18th-century clothing construction. When she returns to Harford County, she shares her newfound knowledge at the events in which she participates. She hand stitches clothing at events, and also helps make costumes for docents, she said.

"The volunteers are really happy to have a costume," Wooden said. "Especially the type you might see on interpreters at Williamsburg."

In addition to wearing and constructing authentic costumes, Wooden is interested in food and its preparation from that period, including gardening, cooking, and preserving foods. To learn more about 18th century food, she attends conventions and symposiums on tea, coffee and chocolate, she said. She has learned things such as what vegetables were grown in the 18th century, and which ones were not.

"During the 18th century, people didn't eat tomatoes," she said. "They were considered poisonous. By 1801, tomatoes were sold commonly."

The diversity of her interests allows her to relate one thing to another, Williams said.

"One minute she will be talking about 18th-century clothing," Williams said. "Then that will segue into a discussion about aprons, which turns into a discussion about cooking. She's a continually rolling ball of fun."

Today she will be participating in the weekly living history program at Jerusalem Mill, where she will be making bag pudding, she said.

Eighteenth-century cooking is tough, she said. For starters, she uses an 18th-century recipe book, she said. The hardest part of making the foods is deciphering the recipes, she said.

"You have to figure out the measurements," she said. "What's a jug of wine? Or how many cups in a pound of flour? Or the recipe calls for 13 eggs, but eggs were smaller back then, so how many of today's eggs should you use? Eighteenth-century cooking is scientific experiments basically."

Recently, she taught people how to do laundry 18th-century style at an ice cream social held at Hays House. Using a big wooden tub and a string clothesline, she showed children how to clean their clothes on washboards.

She also makes vintage aprons for which she has won accolades at the Maryland State Fair and the Harford County Farm Fair. She ties her fascination with aprons to an activity she holds at the Hays House called Grandma's Aprons.

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