Fredonia to host early American exhibits, reenactments at Living History Day

Reenactors at Living History Day

On June 7, 2018, Living History Day included more than a dozen reenactor groups demonstrating day-to-day aspects of Early American history.

By Lisa Eikenburg

Early American history will take center stage at Living History Day, a free public event that will bring more than a dozen reenactor groups and other history enthusiasts from Western New York to Fredonia on Thursday, June 7.

“The day is unique to the area since the event is an immersion into the culture of early America, not just a battle reenactment,” explained Jason Steinagle, director of education at the Boston (N.Y.) Historical Association and lead organizer of Living History Day.

Numerous demonstrations, exhibits and hands-on activities will enable visitors to experience the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, as well as Native American culture, as conveyed by the members of the Seneca Nation. Morning and afternoon sessions will be reserved for area middle school and high school students; the event will open to community members from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.

“Living History Day will provide a unique opportunity to learn more about the culture of early America in all its complexity and to explore how war shaped the lives of people who lived in the region 200 to 150 years ago,” said Fredonia Department of History professor David Kinkela.

The goal is to get students out of the classroom to experience and learn history from a different perspective, Dr. Kinkela explained. “The reenactors will engage students with the processes, ideas, and stories of the past. Moving through the various exhibits, students will consider multiple interpretations about past events and learn how people in the past thought about and shaped their worlds.”
The same mission easily applies to community members. “The point of the event is to experience the past in ways that are both informative, informal and fun,” Kinkela noted.

Last year’s Living History Day, exclusively devoted to the Civil War and held at the Hamburg Fairgrounds, was an overwhelming success, attracting more than 1,000 community members, in addition to students. “It was fantastic,” Mr. Steinagle said of the turnout. “Students and families really enjoyed the day, the variety of sessions being offered.”

Musically inclined students were attracted to the fife and drum performers, while science students were drawn to medical personnel. Another favorite was the cannon, which was actually fired, and the actor who portrayed President Abraham Lincoln. He engaged the students with observations that Lincoln himself would have made. 

Events will be staged in areas adjacent to the Science Center, Fenton Hall, McEwen Hall and Jewett Hall.

Living History Day has traditionally been staged in Hamburg, so this will be the first time in a different location. Members of the campus community, including academic staff and faculty, the Faculty Student Association, University Services and the Native American SUNY: Western Consortium at the university, worked with Mr. Steinagle, a teacher at Hamburg Middle School, and the Hamburg Kiwanis Club to bring this year’s Living History Day to the campus.

“For us, the history department, we very quickly embraced the idea of hosting Living History Day. Not only will the event bring history ‘to life,’ but the event has the potential to demonstrate the value of history or thinking historically in our own time,” Kinkela said. Moreover, bringing nearly 800 students to the campus for a day of learning and fun also made this event extremely attractive, he added.

The idea to bring Living History Day to the campus can be traced to Department of English professor Bruce Simon, whose daughter participated in last year’s Living History Day.

Reenactor groups representing specific delegations or points of view of the Revolutionary War include: Hosington’s Rangers (Patriot); Brandt’s Volunteers (Loyalist) and 64th Regiment of Foot (British). Exhibits will be devoted to the role of the Iroquois Nation in the war, as well as colonial money by the Daughters of the American Revolution, butter churning and grave stone arts.

Members of the Seneca Nation will demonstrate traditional games, tell stories, present a dance with singing and discuss corn husk dolls.

Civil War presenters and what they depict or represent include: ACW Artillery (Fredonia heroes the Cushing brothers); Company A Engineers (Confederate and Union drills); Reynold’s Battery (blacksmith, cannon, leatherworker, camp life, Confederate medical, infantry); NY 155th (soldier’s life); Jim Pace and Brian Seibel (fife and drum); Thomas Melville (cricket); Dianna Ellis-Cummings and Carmen Swan (abolitionists and women’s rights advocates Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth); Buffalo Soldiers Volunteers (Buffalo Soldiers); Blood family (historical music) and Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum (African American social reformer, statesman and writer Frederick Douglass).

Reenactors in costume portraying President Abraham Lincoln, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant of the Union Army and Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy will stroll the grounds. A video conference with a Martha Washington portrayer from the Mount Vernon Museum will also be conducted.

Students from Hamburg and Frontier central school districts will also present their research projects at Living History Day.