Full Chisel Blog

June 13, 2010

Recreating the Past


Or what it is like to ‘get into the moment’.  Over the course of my interest in history I have had moments [some lasting a while] that have left me with the feeling that I have had an historic experience.   I could not tell in which century I was actually in at the time.  While not an out of the body experience, it is both mental and physical and can be a rush.

Some of these moments came during reenactments, in 1975 on Henry’s Fork of the Green River near Burnt Fork Wyoming, the American Mountain Men annual rendezvous was held on the original site on the 150th anniversary of the first western fur trade rendezvous.  During the week long gathering I had several experiences when the line between now and then was gone.  The sights, smell and sounds recreated an environment where all around were opportunities to step back into the past and have an unequalled historic experience.  Many people had their own moments.

On a more practical note, I have also had moments while using old tools or trying to figure out how to use old tools.  In 1978 at Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement in Noblesville Indiana, an 1836 living history museum [where first person interpretation got its start], I had the opportunity to use a twibil.  Now for those who do not know what a twibil is, it is called a twibil because it has twin bills or blades, one a chisel shape and the other an ax shape so the blades are perpendicular to each other and opposite one another with a long metal eye for the short wooden handle.  I had read in other books how these were used and tried pounding with a mallet on the eye as was suggested but that didn’t get me anywhere.  So I sat down and held the twibil in my hands and contemplated how it might really be used.

I had to mortise sixteen 2 inch square through some green 5 inch square white oak and two through mortises 2 inch by six inch for a large pug mill for the Pottery.  My horse was used to power the completed large pug mill that could mix 600 pounds of clay at a time.  I wanted to use the twibil, with a wrought iron body and laid steel on the cutting edges and had sharpened both ends but from the descriptions, it wasn’t working.  Then looking at the inch and a half holes I had bored through the wood and looked at the tool itself, I had a moment.

I realized that the tool was not struck with a mallet or maul to drive it into the wood but was used to loosen the twibil if it became stuck in the wood.  I figured out that the tool was swung like an ax rather than beaten with a mallet.  The chisel side was used for the cross grain and the ax side was used for the inside cheeks of the mortise, with the grain.  Only having to change orientation for the opposite cross grain part, I was swinging and chips were flying.  It was truly an amazing experience and after several hours I had chopped through all 18 mortises and had several moments along the way.  Experimental archeology at its best.  The complete description of the process is in Shepherds’ Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker published in 1981 and reprinted in 2004.

And this brings us to yesterday morning.  As part of a trek program for Mormon youth groups, they are dressed up in ‘period clothing’ and end up pulling hand carts several miles up the canyon on Park property returning in the afternoon.  The groups start out by camping overnight then early in the morning gather for a dramatic presentation by two actors playing Joseph and Hyrum Smith.  [Joseph Smith started the Latter Day Saints faith and was assassinated in June of 1844; he was at the time a presidential candidate].  A mob then rushes in, guns blazing, wrestles them to the ground, rough them up and haul them off in handcuffs and ropes to what will be their doom.  Needless to say many of the youth are in tears as the brothers are lead away, guns blazing, cursing, and a real looking mob scene.

The mob arrived before dawn to prepare, but on this day were distracted by the fact that the barn at the livery stable had burned killing the baby animals housed in side.  The mood of the mob as we prepared was somber unlike the many we had done before where all of the mob members had a good time.  On cue we fired our guns and burst into the school house and at about that time I had my moment.  I was not placing ropes on an actor’s hands, I had securing the hands of Hyrum Smith, I was angry and cursing the damn Mormons [part of the scripted presentation] and had an adrenalin rush that left me short of breath, sweating and slightly nauseated.  I was half way up the street before the moment went away.

Sometimes recreating the past isn’t pretty.



  1. Stephen, thanks for sharing. My two strongest moments in reenacting was at the 225th Savannah. We were on the right, Loyalist Milita from many small units. I got to lead the mishmash and found out why it was better for leaders to lead rather than fight. I was busy firing rather than watching and missed the rebel cavalry coming upon us. Our fire drove them back and we were then ordered to pull back to the redoubt and this time they pressed their charge, and us without bayonets! They held off for safety reasons but what a couple of WOW moments. I had never fully understood the OMG factor of charging horse cavalry before, now I do.


    Comment by Leon — June 13, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

  2. I wish I could have been there. Those moments are the ones I leanrthe most from

    Comment by Jake — June 17, 2010 @ 9:06 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress