Working for the state parks, this was the most difficult for me to write, because I know both sides of the issue.
Most of our events are held at state parks, and we sure appreciate them for hosting us at many events throughout the year. But our relationship with some parks has not always been easy. In the mid-1990s, several events at parks suffered from changing and inconsistent rules, and intolerable treatment at events. We felt unwelcome, and that things were being done to destroy reenacting altogether.
In the early 1990s, the Florida state park system suffered from a budget crises that threatened to close many parks. Park employees were asked to work without pay, and if they declined, they were penalized and or even fired. An uncertain environment developed for the parks, and this may have been part of the underlying cause that reenactment events at parks went downhill as well. With less money for parks to operate, they were less willing to spend funds on events.
One thing that directly affected events at parks are the park manager’s support of the event. Simply put, if a new pharaoh comes in power that did not know Joseph, then the treatment of the reenactors will be less favorable. Things were done at events that made us feel like unwanted stepchildren. One year everything would be fine, the next year we might find that they stopped providing us any meals. Or we were moved from an area that was high and dry, to a place that was flooded and underwater when the rain hit.
To be fair to the parks, reenactors are a sensitive and temperamental lot. If there are any changes from pervious years, misunderstandings quickly result. When the rules change, there are a few people who are shook up when they have to do it differently from previous years. It only adds to the problems and friction created. If the location for parking or modern camping are changed, the change is not always taken very easily by the reenactors who have been use to doing it in a certain routine for years.
But one of the main reasons for bad treatment of reenactors at parks also became a solution to the problems. Many parks have volunteer organizations, known as CSO’s or Citizen Support Organizations. Sometimes the volunteer organizations running events did not understand the needs and requests of reenactors giving programs. We need to be able to haul our gear on and off the site, which means driving our cars to the location. We don’t often have time to eat or prepare food because of spending all day to give programs, so providing meals is an immense help. Many of the problems at events were caused by the CSO’s not understanding our needs, like one event where we were given frozen hot dogs for lunch.
Our solution to solving all these problems with the parks became simple: get involved and volunteer. Many reenactors became involved in the park CSO’s, got elected to the CSO board, and the problems settled down. This was the case at Dade Battlefield and Fort Foster. Once we had a voice in how our events were run, it solved our problems. A good line of communication will solve a lot of problems and even prevent them from happening again.
The problems between reenactors and parks had no better example than what happened at Fort Foster.
Fort Foster at Hillsborough River State Park is one of two reconstructed Seminole War forts, and the only fully-furnished period fort. (The other fort—Fort Christmas—has modern museum exhibits in the fort buildings.) So Fort Foster is the only place in Florida where you can see a working Seminole War fort, where reenactors can act out and participate in first-person living history scenarios in a setting that is not cluttered with modern furnishing.
On the other side of the river opposite the fort, we had an Indian village. This village was build exclusively by volunteers. This was great interpretation tool for the Seminole side, and really the only interpretive village in Florida where we could do this. We had several chickees and a round lodge house. Some of the best events I ever attended were with the soldiers in the fort and the Seminoles in the village, acting out in first-person during the entire weekend.
The Park Rangers at Fort Foster created a labor of love. I specifically remember Ralph Smith, Dan Marshall, Karl Beier, and Dale Grubbs. They were among the best Seminole War living history interpreters employed by the state of Florida. And they did an excellent job working with the public. Unfortunately all of these men are no longer with the park service. Three were fired (although one was years later for something he was innocent of, while returning home from an interpretive program at another park), and one person transferred to another state agency. One of these four men had a PhD in history but died in the gutter in the streets of Tampa. Being skilled at living history interpretation is not necessarily popular in the park service.
When we started to do a lot of events at Fort Foster, Ralph Smith told us that this fort and village were here for us, and that this was our village. Any time we wanted to come here and do interpretation, we were welcome. This was great news, because we could come here and step back in time any weekend that was available. And we enjoyed entertaining the public on the fort tours.
Then it seemed like things were being done to get rid of us at the fort. Shortly before our annual reenactment at Fort Foster, we were told that animal parts would not be allowed in our camps or displays. This was a confusing request and very hard to do, because a lot of the things that people had in the 1830s were made from bones and feathers. Also shoes, moccasins, belts are made from leather. Wool that the soldiers wear is made from an animal part. It seemed pretty absurd.
Then the next year we were told that our Indian village would be torn down. There was quite a vocal campaign to keep it, but we felt that our voice in the matter didn’t amount to anything, and the village was razed. The reasons given for razing the village did not really make any sense, but just seemed like excuses. Even the blacksmith shop outside the fort was removed, when there was historical documentation that one outside the fort existed. We felt that we were no longer welcome at Fort Foster.
Fortunately those times are past now. Ten years later, Fort Foster now has a strong group of volunteers and soldiers, and they are doing very well. The people who wanted to get rid of living history have moved on to other places. I know some people may not like these negative things I have had to say, but it is history and you can confirm it with any reenactor who was there and participated at these events. It was a sad episode in the history of reenacting, and I hope it has now passed.
The best and worst of times for reenactments that I went through happened at Fort Foster. One of the best things that ever happened to me at Fort Foster was that I met Steve Abolt. Steve is one of the best living history interpreters in the country. He lives early 1800s all the time, and has made many film & documentary appearances, as well as making fine, hand-sewn, clothing for military museums all over the country. Because of Steve, I have done living history events not only in Florida, but also in Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana, and western New York state. Steve is commander of the 7th U.S. Infantry Living History Association, and puts on the best living history events anywhere.