Monthly Archives: December 2013

Tentative Cedar Creek and Belle Grove NHP Sesquicentennial Events

As the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek nears us, the National Park Service and its key partners have organized special events to commemorate the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. This week, the tentative schedule of events has been released. This events include special “real time” interpretation on October 19th and other special interpretative events.

For the tentative schedule, click here.  

I am proud to say that I personally will be leading the interpretive hike to Signal Knob on October 17th. I also will be conducting a special “On This Day” Battlefield Tour of the Battle of Second Kersntown on July 24th, 150 years after the battle. All of the Park Service programs are free and I encourage everyone to come! 

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My Time at the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia

As the semester is now over, I think it is time to reflect on some of the things I have learned and how I can apply these skills in the future. One of the classes I took was “Introduction to Interpretation and Museum Education”. Having a background in interpretation with my job at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, I was interested to see what this class had to offer.

We covered different interpretative theories from Tilden, to Cable and Beck and delved into how to create a school program at a museum designed around Virginia’s Standards of Learning. (S.O.L’s). One of the most effective aspects of the class was the various guest speakers. Panels of two to four professionals came into the classroom and talked to us about their experiences in the field of interpretation. There was a panel made up of Education Directors, experts in Native American Interpretation and professionals who interpret slavery. The latter, being the most effective.

The slavery panel made was made up of three young African-Americans. One of them was my friend and colleague Emmanuel Dabney, (check out his blog here). This panel talked about the controversies with interpreting slavery. Subjects such as, “Slavery interpretation sounds better coming from an African-American” and “Oh, you are black, you must be an expert in the intricate history of American slavery”. This panel provided the class with first hand experiences with some of the foremost interpreters in American Slavery.

One of the most effective aspects of the class was the opportunity to volunteer some our time at the Frontier Culture Museum. Our professor is the head costumer at the museum and utilized her position at the museum to allow the class to help out with school groups. If you are not familiar with the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia, I encourage you to visit. For their website click here.The museum is designed to show the progression of life in the Shenandoah Valley from the time settlers settled to valley through the antebellum period in the 1850’s. However, there is also a portion of the museum dedicated to the “Old World”. Here, there are exhibits on old world England, Germany, Ireland and Africa. These are designed to show the lives of families in the Old World and what motivated them to travel to the Valley of Virginia. A visitor can travel from the “Old World” to the “New World” and follow the steps of families as they created a life in the Shenandoah Valley.

Each student in the class was assigned to a specific exhibit. I was assigned to the 1740’s Settlement cabin. This exhibit shows what life was like during the first years settlers lived in the Valley. The first time I volunteered, I was orientated to the site and learned about how the interpreters interpret the site. More importantly, how the site handles the numerous school groups that travel the museum on a daily basis. The interpreters treat this site like their own home. They clean the inside of the cabin, they plant food during the summer and harvest it in the fall, and all the tools they need are made by hand. This was impressive.

1740's Settlement Cabin

1740’s Settlement Cabin

Interpretative panel at the 1740's cabin

Interpretative panel at the 1740’s cabin

The interpretation done here is very different to the interpretation I was used to. At Cedar Creek and Belle Grove NHP, we focus a lot on the Civil War and the Battle of Cedar Creek. During my interpretation, I talk about “big” ideas. The socio-economic causes of the Civil War and slavery, why men decided to fight in the war, major campaigns that cover hundreds of miles and thousands of men and of course the Battle of Cedar Creek. Some of these ideas may seem lofty to the visitors and hard for them to relate to. But at the settlement cabin, the visitor is right smack in front of something tangible to them. Visitors will ask very practical questions. How and where did they sleep? What did people eat? How did the children work on the farm? The interpreters use these questions to shape their interpretation of the site at a given time.

When interpreting at Cedar Creek I often have to explain why things happened in a certain way and how this lead to specific events unfolding. At the Frontier Culture Museum, they often try to answer the question of how things happened and how people lived. I guess the big difference is simply that the museum broadly interprets, “Daily Life”. This daily life might be Virginia in the 1820’s or daily life in Ireland. One of the most effective parts of this interpretation is the fact the interpreters are costumed.  A family may visit the site with no interest in 1740’s Virginia, but they may be interested in the clothing and how it was made, its uses etc.

Myself costumed and interpreting as a 1850's Virginian

Myself costumed as a 1850’s Virginian. Our final exam for the class consisted of students interpreting during a special event at the museum

Since Cedar Creek is still a fairly new National Park, we do not have school designed programming. This being interpretation designed to handle school groups and field trips based off of certain grade level S.O.L’s. Seeing this done and helping guide school groups at the Frontier Culture Museum was an eye opening experience. Getting students to participate in hands on activities is crucial. At the settlement cabin we let students use a cross cut saw and supervised them cutting a portion of wood off of a log. They loved it.

In the future, I hope Cedar Creek and Belle Grove NHP can develop school programming designed for school groups. This would be very effective in many ways. First, this would help get more people at our lesser known park. We are a historical park, not just a battlefield park. So the possibilities are almost endless. We can cover and interpret everything from Native American history in the Valley, early white settlement, the rise of commercial agriculture in the Antebellum south and of course the Civil War. This is a catch all for almost all elementary school history classes. Secondly, by bringing in schools, the park is networking with younger children, which is our future. Children may go home, tell their parents about how much they liked visiting the park and tell their parents to take them again. Also, it is introducing children to National Parks and what they stand for, maybe encouraging them to visit other parks in the country.

I hope in the future I will have the opportunity to volunteer at the Frontier Culture Museum again. The staff is highly knowledge and passionate on their respective subjects. But if I do not, I have taken away numerous skills I hope to apply to my personal interpretation. The importance of school groups to a museum, Virginia’s Standards of Learning, and how to conduct a school program with children. All positive experiences for a young interpreter like myself.

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A Visit to Turner Ashby

In my opinion, one of the most overrated, inflated and overblown men during the Civil War is Turner Ashby, the “Black Knight of the Confederacy”. Dying in June of 1862, he lived to fight in a Civil War that was just entering its second year. Before the battle of First Kernstown on March 22nd, 1862 he gave his superior, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson inaccurate reconnaissance information about the Union Army outside Winchester, after skirmishing with Union forces. What he thought were only a couple of regiments turned out to be a massive Union force.  Jackson would learn the hard way the next day during the Battle of First Kernstown.

With this being said however, I am always drawn to people to have such a keen interest and love for Ashby. Valley residents today still view him through the lens of a romanticized southern cavalier. The memory of him captivates people in way comparable to that of Jackson. Was this because both were killed during the War fighting for southern ideals and independence? Both did not survive the end of the war and see the Union victorious; this makes it easy for people to place men such as Ashby on a pedestal. A martyr for the “Lost Cause” or as some people will say, “A generation Gone with the Wind”.

But, I do have to admit with all the pomps and circumstance that follow Ashby, I was bitten by the bug. What did he really do? Where is he buried? Questions like these have been floating in my mind for the last couple of months. After doing some reading I decided to go out and see some of these sites dedicated to Ashby in the Valley.

The first one I saw was his grave, in Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Winchester. Over this past summer I was doing some research for a special program I was to conduct in August. Whilst wandering through the cemetery on a scorching hot July day, out of the corner of my eye popped out a large elevated monument for the “Ashby Brothers”. I took a picture and come to find out this is where Turner Ashby is buried.

Turner Ashby's grave located in Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Winchester

Turner Ashby’s grave located in Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Winchester

I put Ashby on the back burner of my mind when the semester started again this fall. After doing some reading and seeing his grave this past summer, I started to focus on my academics. However, I knew there was a monument for him in Harrisonburg, right outside of my campus at James Madison University. One day after class I hopped in my car to see the monument for myself. I pulled in, and as I figured, no one else was in the parking lot. I followed the signs towards the monument, and after reading some waysides about the skirmish and his death, I saw it.

View of the monument as you walk from the parking  lot

View of the monument as you walk from the parking lot

In the middle of a wrought iron square stood a small stone obelisk with a wreath in front of the monument. The monument reads, “Gen. Turner Ashby C.S.A. Was killed on this spot. June 6th, 1862 Gallantly Leading a Charge”. Dedicated on June 6, 1898 , the Turner Ashby Chapter 162 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated the monument on the 36th anniversary of his death. The U.D.C holds an annual ceremony to commemorate the fallen cavalryman. There was no stone equestrian statue of a horseman with his sword drawn or an exaggerated bust of Ashby, but a small stone marker. I was surprised. The monument is modest, for a man that is still remembered and loved today so colorfully.

Close up of the Ashby Monument

Close up of the Ashby Monument

There were two interpretative signs placed on the site. One that seemed a little dated and lacked historical context. The other is a wayside placed by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation that offers visitors historical context and detailed information on the site and action that took place there.

Sign that lacked historical context

Sign that lacked historical context

Interpretative Wayside placed by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. Sorry for picture, some of it got cut off.

Interpretative Wayside placed by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. Sorry for picture, some of it got cut off.

I am glad that this land is preserved and taken care of on a regular basis. The JMU campus literally sprawls to the bottom of the hill the monument is on. A colleague of mine who visited the monument in the 1990’s commented that the land from the monument west towards I-81 was all pristine farmland. Now, JMU facilities are literally a stone’s throw away.

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