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Down to Earth

Living history parks lead a visitor to contemplate the mysteries of spaceship earth.

By Dana Joseph

One of my favorite movie scenes occurs in “Apollo 13” when Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton, playing astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, are facing death in their malfunctioning spacecraft. Carbon dioxide is building up and the air they're breathing is becoming more toxic by the second. Cut to Mission Control, where the NASA engineers are given a do-or-die challenge. They’re presented with a jumble of miscellaneous stuff available in the spacecraft from which to jury-rig a new filtration system. They’ve got to solve the problem. Fast.

Using a hose, the wrong shaped housing, the plastic cover from a flight manual, a sock and duct tape, they do. True need gives birth to functionally beautiful invention.

There is something incredibly attractive — heroic and important — about the way those aerospace engineers solved a serious problem with their resourcefulness and what was available. I say it’s scene from a movie, but it's really a scene straight out of history. Art imitating the drama of real life. Actors interpreting American history so that we might be entertained, and maybe enlightened.

Which brings me roundabout to the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm in Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site. It's only about 20 minutes away from all the quaintness of Fredericksburg, but seeing early 1900s Hill Country farm life interpreted here is looking a lot more interesting than shopping the day away.

My friend Ya-Ya and I have just been helloed and welcomed to watch morning chores. The friendly come-on-in emanates from a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department interpreter named Ricky Weinheimer, a magnetic, tall hunk of Texan who's been at this gig for 22 years. Dressed in the homespun look of the 19th century, he's doing something mysterious with foamy white stuff and a contraption I’ve never seen. For all I recognize watching him at work, I might as well be on a foreign planet. But Ya-Ya might as well be at home — or at her grandparents’. She knew immediately that Weinheimer was separating cream.

We're both enthralled by the sight. Granted, the De Lavel #5 cream separator — $28.50 at 1900 prices and a big investment for a family — isn't rocket science, but it solved a real problem for the Sauer family of 10 children and for other families like them. They were trying to make it in an era when people had to figure out things for themselves, look to their community and rely on what the good Lord and good earth gave them.

"Today, you take away money from the average American, and they aren't going to eat," Weinheimer says, putting milk and cream in pans to take to the kitchen for some German-inflected cooking later. This life doesn’t involve running to the 24-hour grocery store. "We pay for convenience," he says. "It's a fast and expensive way of life. Back then, it was hard work, but it was a simple life. Whatever you didn't get done today, you did tomorrow."

I’m dismayed to realize that I am that average American. Without money to buy my food, I wouldn't know how to feed myself. As much as I love the landscape aesthetically, I've lost all practical contact with the earth. If I were off the grid, I'd have a few candles and flashlights, but no knowledge with which to power my survival.

Not so with Weinheimer and his fellow interpreters. They do a lot more than separate cream. They grow crops and put up more than 300 quarts of food after harvest. In the outbuilding where Weinheimer is working, a shaft of light hits Mason jars of fruits and vegetables, making them glow like jewels in the overflowing pantry. Outside, someone in overalls and a straw hat is hoeing in a garden full of different seed crops. Besides farming, they butcher hogs and steers and smoke and preserve the meat. They raise chickens for eating and for eggs. They milk cows, which gives them not just their milk, but their cream, butter and cheese. They shear sheep with a 1903 hand-crank rig (it takes two people). They also hand-crank the wash with a Sears model agitator straight out of the turn-of-the-century catalog, and wash with lard soap made over a fire.

And they don't do all this just for show. The interpreters don't sleep here, but other than that, they live here just like the Sauer family would have from 1869 to 1900, and like the Beckmanns, who bought the place in 1900 and added the Victorian-style house and barn in 1915. Visitors see whatever it is they're doing that day. And whatever it is, it won't be done with electricity or indoor plumbing. It'll be done with the wit and wisdom of the frontier — information the University of Texas comes here to study and document in oral histories so that we won’t lose the hard-won knowledge of our frontier forebears.

I’m learning things here I'd otherwise never have known. Pin cushions are stuffed with collected hair, which oils needles and pins and prevents them from rusting. Clothes are kept in armoires, which are nontaxable in a day when homes are taxed by the numbers of rooms and each closet counted as a room. Whey — as in “Miss Muffett’s curds and” —can be rubbed on the skin to bleach out freckles. Because pigs don't sweat, they roll in mud to cool off. Table scraps are never wasted because a bucket full of them makes for great pig slop. Salt cures meat; smoke enhances flavor; black pepper repels flies. Roof shingles can be propped in the garden to shade seedlings from the searing Texas sun. A steer's tail can be made into a fly swatter, and its hide can be used to make a chair. Chickens are fed eggshells so they get enough calcium to make their eggs hard, but the shells are baked first to change the flavor so the chickens won't start eating their own eggs. And mud daubers won't nest on a porch ceiling painted sky blue because the color distorts their depth perception and they can’t land.

I try to take all this in while petting the new calf in the barn when the protective mother cow isn't looking. I soak in the sun and the quiet and the fact that the Sauer's second-oldest daughter went across the river and delivered baby Lyndon Johnson in 1908. I discover the bladder from last year's slaughtered hog is now a ball in my son's hand. In the other he holds a GameBoy.

Like Ricky Weinheimer, who goes home at night to electricity and a John Deere tractor, we're living in two worlds — maybe not the way Weinheimer does, but for these few hours anyway, I feel the pull of the soil and hear the call of a simpler life, one in which I can tell a carrot plant from a beet.

The Trail of Independence

As Ya-Ya and I drive the Texas Independence Trail about an hour west of Houston, I'm reliving a day in seventh grade when, in an uncharacteristic act of insubordination, I told a substitute teacher my name was Betsy Ross. The rebellion set off a class-wide insurrection. In retaliation, the sub assigned us an essay about the Civil War: Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Agree or disagree?

It was a contrite fraud of a Betsy Ross who wrote her way to redemption. Not only did I agree and support my thesis, I offered a corollary: Those who don't preserve history are destined to lose its knowledge.

Something about Cari Box in her warm, wool, period cape on this cold, damp East Texas day makes me think that, unlike me, she'd be able to sew a flag. Not the flag of the American Revolution — that's not this interpreter's era at the Barrington Living History Farm at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site — but the flag of the Republic of Texas. And maybe, given the two slave cabins on the property, the flag of the Confederacy.

What we're experiencing here is a typical Brazos Valley farm of the 1850s, the centerpiece of which is the original home of Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas. All the animals on the farm are rare breeds, some endangered, all accurate to the day. Out in the pasture you see Pineywoods cattle. They don't look like the longhorns that came to Texas from Mexico. That's because these beautiful creatures are descendants of a breed that spread throughout the Gulf Coast after the Spanish brought them to Florida. The interpreters at Barrington Farm go to great lengths to get stuff like this right, combing through period documentation to make sure everything from the cattle to the kind of cotton they grow — visitors can help pick it — to the heirloom seeds for other crops is accurate for the time.

Those would be mid-1850s Brazos Valley radishes, onions, lettuce, cabbage, collards and peas that volunteers are tending in the garden out back. These women learned about the gig in Worker Camper News, a publication for retired RV enthusiasts who travel around the country picking up park work for a cool place to stay. They gained their expertise with the crops from Mark Anderson, the lead agricultural interpreter on this 70-acre piece of independence. He's got the goods on not just the heirloom seeds, but on all the animals on the place.

At this moment, Anderson is suitably bedecked as a gentleman farmer, grooming Abe and Bud, a team of working oxen, much like the four teams Jones had. The two have been a team since they were six weeks old. Anderson wonders aloud if Abe missed his yoke mate these past couple days while Bud was away getting corns removed from his back feet.

"In Jones' day,” Anderson says, “if oxen around the age of 9 developed corns that made it hard for them to work, they were butchered. Beef didn't preserve well, but pork did — it was the main meat, then wild game, chicken and finally, beef."

To reinforce the lesson, we go to a pen beyond the slave cabins to meet the Ossabaw Island hogs. Petunia is breeding stock, but the babies don't rate names that have personality. "We try not to get attached," Anderson says, "because they are slated to be hanging in the smokehouse in January." I don't eat meat, but if I did, I'd want it raised this way: running around out in the outdoors and the fresh air, having some kind of life before death. No steroids, no chemicals.

Anderson knows pigs and period tools, too. The outbuildings were all reproduced using hand tools and construction methods of the period. We stop at the slave cabins. One has a dirt floor and a mud-and-stick chimney whose construction and dangers Anderson is well-acquainted with. More appalling than the fire hazard is the fact that the Joneses had six to eight permanent adult slaves. Twenty-five slave names are recorded in the family history. Charity was the cook, the oldest on the plantation. She had belonged to Mrs. Jones' mother and was probably a gift to the couple. You don't have to be a Yankee like me to hope this is one of those things we've learned once and for all. Sad to say, though, it doesn't take much looking around our world to know that slavery is just one heinous form of economic exploitation.

I'm wondering if we've really come very far at all when caped Cari Box shows up to begin the day's textile work. Will she spin, knit, crochet, sew in the bedroom that doubled as a schoolroom, where Jones' sister from Boston slept and taught the children? Another day she will be dipping candles. Too bad it's not open-hearth cooking day, Box’s favorite living history activity. She's a seven-year veteran of the interpretive world and earned her college degree in it. Who wouldn't want to see her use a recipe from the 1836 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, cooking in cast iron and masterfully controlling the heat of the fire? A farm favorite is cabbage pudding, wherein a cabbage is hollowed out and stuffed with sausage, potatoes, and onions, wrapped in cloth and boiled. The aroma — and the heat — would be so nice on this bone-chilling day.

Today’s blustery weather makes it not so evident, but the reason this house was built with a breezeway was specifically to deal with Texas heat. In the summers, the family lived on the breezeway — moved their beds out and everything. In addition, cooler Spanish-moss or cornhusk mattresses replaced the feather ticking ones used inside during the winter.

I'm not going to be turning off my air-conditioning and living on a breezeway any summer soon, but the Barrington herb garden inspires me to make a start at a simpler lifestyle. A couple of rosemary plants do not self-sufficiency make — but they could be the beginnings of a delicious homemade pizza.

So Far from the Farm

I am thinking about heirloom herbs, canvas floor coverings that kept dust down yet allowed air to flow, and the many amazing uses of lard as my mom and I begin down a path that leads around the Penn Farm Agricultural History Center at Cedar Hill State Park. We're only about a half-hour south of Dallas, but we're in another world and another era.

It's a good thing my mom is with me on this third living-history journey because otherwise I would never have known that the falling-apart white thing with legs in the farm building in front of us was once a refrigerator. There are no interpreters here at the agricultural history center where John Anderson Penn and his sons founded a farm in the middle of the 1850s, erecting buildings during the next 100 years, from the earliest barn in 1859 to the latest building, a chicken house, in the 1950s.

Even though she’s no country girl, my mom turns out to be a pretty good interpreter. This was more or less her era. All the buildings have been restored to their appearance just after World War II. Refrigerators weren't the only thing changing then. Rural self-sufficient agricultural life was giving way to agri-business. It was the beginning of the end of the family farm, and the further distancing of people from the land and what it produces.

It's a glorious Texas afternoon, a sparkling-air day for a walk among the old granaries, the original Penn house, the newer main house, chicken coops, smokehouse, cement water tanks, log barn, double- and single-crib barn, pumphouse, wooden water tower, root cellar, brick cistern, old tenant's house and a garage built to accommodate a Model T Ford. We wind along paths and through Texas farm history, following a booklet that describes the buildings' functions and their construction. Walking and reading and poking around in the empty buildings, we learn about things like tenon-and-mortise joinery. And we reflect on how much farming has changed, how much we as a country have changed, how far we have come.

In the silence of all that once was, the pensive atmosphere gives rise to a question. Have we gone in the right direction? I'm poor company for my mom, I'm so tangled in thought. But she knows about my tendency toward the apocalyptic. What if all our technology and mass consumerism don't work out the way we hope? Do we have a back-up plan? Have we wholly lost simple self-reliance to gross convenience? What do all our gizmos really do but take away the joy of real work with our hands and alienate us from our own humanity, each other and our land?

Well, it's way more than I'll answer today, but all the navel-gazing brings me right back to another scene from “Apollo 13” — or rather, from history, from life. The scene puts the p in poignant for me — the one where Tom Hanks/Jim Lovell wipes condensation from the window and looks out at a shining blue and white planet. It’s just a short scene, but an infinite moment. There's not a word of dialogue and yet you can plainly hear what he is thinking: How precious it is, what a miracle it is.

Perched here up above Joe Pool Lake, something similar runs through my mind. Underneath that water lies most of the Penn family farm — and a lot of their history and a lot of our collective connection to the land. Though I'm standing on solid ground, I feel distant from earth right now, floating unattached, out of radio range, not on the dark side of the moon but of a complicated technological era.

I strain to hear that still quiet voice inside — no cell service here. Suddenly there's an inaudible prompting in my spirit, or maybe it's the whisper of wind in the trees or the rolling of waves over the water below. Maybe I'm imagining it, but when I finally make it out, it seems to be the prayer of the whole planet. Call me crazy, but it sounds like the cry of all of us who are lost in space and technology, complexity and convenience, alienation and scary times. It's the sound of all of us who are looking to Mission Control and trying to pilot this thing home on the power we've got left.

Experience History in the Parks

When you’re ready to take a few steps back in time, plan a living history lesson at one of the sites mentioned in this article. For more information, contact:

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