Missive from the Reading Room of the American Antiquarian Society

by Lisa Hayes, Director of Public Programs and Education

In December I learned that I had been selected for a four-week Creative and Performing Artists and Writers Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, to do research for the Accokeek Foundation’s museum theater program. With our busy schedule at the farm, the only time I could come was January. So now it’s the day after a blizzard, and I’m sitting at my wooden table in the beautiful Reading Room at the AAS. Two tables over, I see James and Lois Horton, distinguished scholars here to do research for a major new work on African American history. Looking down at me is a portrait of Isaiah Thomas, the New England publisher who started the Society in 1812 with his personal collection of 8,000 books. The AAS is now home to over three million books, pamphlets, newspapers, periodicals, graphic arts materials, and manuscripts that document the history of the United States. While my main focus has been on crime and punishment (the theme for our 2011 Museum Theater Internship Program), I have also been searching for materials related to what we interpret at the National Colonial Farm, from foodways to plants and animals. Today’s “digging” turned up an article on making cider and two articles from the January 1787 edition of The American Museum, one on an “Experiment for raising Indian corn in poor land” and the other about the “culture of carrots.”  Time to get back to “digging”!

Twilight Tales: The Darker Side of Colonial Maryland’s History

Hog Island Sheep Grazing

At 5:00 p.m. last Saturday the National Colonial Farm was the perfect picture of a pastoral scene. Cows and sheep grazed in green pastures as shadows lengthened and light softened. By 6:00 p.m. the scene had become a spectacular 19th century landscape painting. An absolutely stunning sunset backlit house and barns with pink and orange and violet hues. But by 7:00 a chill crept across the fields as an inky purple sky sucked in all the sun’s light, and history took a turn toward the sinister. The near darkness revealed a shadowy scene where colonial ghouls lurked behind fences and spectral children played “Ring around the Rosie” and all fell – dead! Lost souls dined in an eerie tavern from which they knew they would never take leave. Nearby a ghostly farm wife snatched from the 18th century headlines told tales of her three late unfortunate husbands and how each met his fate.

National Colonial Farm as the Sunsets

“Twilight Tales,” this first-ever experiment in the darker side of colonial Maryland’s history, turned out to be a crowd pleaser. Visitors came out in numbers to be shocked and frightened and entertained. We don’t know how many made it home safely, but we heard from most of them that they liked it. Many stayed after their tours for cider and cookies.

Is this history? Real characters, recreated and embellished with a flair for the theatrical? What will they think of next?