Monthly Archives: February 2014

History Camp–the Unconference for Local Historians

You’ve heard of unbirthdays. Well, how about an unconference? Basically, an unconference is an event that’s put together by volunteers, is open to anyone, and any participant can propose and create a session. So rather than a conference committee doing all the session planning, the participants create the conference.

On Saturday, March 8, History Camp, the first unconference dedicated to history, will debut in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the IBM Client Center, One Rogers St, (One Charles Park).  Scholars, writers, museum professionals, and history lovers of all stripes will present more than twenty sessions on topics ranging from the American Revolution to the Temperance movement, from employment opportunities for history lovers to bringing history into the classroom, from mixing social media and history to the tantalizingly titled “Frenemies and Bromances of the Founding Fathers.”

The event runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and lunch is included. And best of all, it’s free! (Although a small donation of $15 is encouraged to help support the event–or $6 just to pay for lunch. Volunteers are welcome to help with set up and clean up.) Space is limited, but there are still spots open, so check it out!

History Camp registration page

History Camp information page with links to information on presenters and more

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The Museum of the Early American Circus, Somers, New York


The Museum of the Early American Circus, Somers, NY

When I decided that the characters in my novel Mending Horses were going to join the circus, I very quickly came up with a long list of things I didn’t know. What was a circus like in 1839? What sort of acts might they have? What music did they play? Where did they tour in New England? What did tents and wagons look like?

I sighed in dismay at my research options: the Circus World Museum in Wisconsin and the Ringling Circus Museum in Florida—not exactly day trips for someone living in Massachusetts. Then I found out about the Museum of the Early American Circus in Somers, New York, just a little over two hours away.

This tiny museum is located at the heart of early 19th-century Circus Central. Somers is often referred to as the “Cradle of the American Circus,” and was home to Hacaliah Bailey (1774-1845), who imported the second elephant to the United States in 1805 (the first was imported in 1796). “Old Bet” became the nucleus of a traveling menagerie of exotic animals, and the beginning of a mania for menageries that raged through southwestern New York state in the first half of the 19th century. Pretty soon businessmen in Somers and surrounding towns either joined Bailey as partners or became his competitors.

At first, menageries were more like traveling zoos, quite distinct entities from circuses, with their trick riders and acrobats. But by the late 1830s, the two types of entertainment began to merge into something starting to resemble the circus as we know it today.


Statue of Old Bet at the Museum of the Early American Circus

Hacaliah Bailey prospered, using some of his profits to build the Elephant Hotel at a major crossroads in Somers some time between 1820 and 1825. This grand Federal style hotel, with a statue of Old Bet on its front lawn, is now home to the Somers Historical Society and the Museum of the Early American Circus. Although small, this museum has a phenomenal collection of circus posters and memorabilia, manuscript materials, artifacts, and publications about the early circus. The museum’s curator was kind enough to let me spend several afternoons poring over the collection. You can read the results of my research in Mending Horses.

You can find out more about early menageries and circuses and see some posters and images from the Museum’s collection on their website.

The Museum is open to the public on Memorial and Veteran’s Day and every Thursday, from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. or by appointment by calling 914-277-4977.


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Mending Horses Book Giveaway

This is supposed to be the Wicked Cool History Stuff blog, right? And what could be cooler than winning a free book? Click on the Goodreads link below for your chance to win a copy of “Mending Horses.”

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Mending Horses by M.P. Barker

Mending Horses

by M.P. Barker

Giveaway ends March 05, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win


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Author Interview: The Snake Fence by Janet Kastner Olshewsky

snake fenceThis week’s wicked cool history stuff is Janet Kastner Olshewsky’s historical novel The Snake Fence. Set in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, the story examines the uneasy relations between English settlers and Native Americans through the eyes of young Noble Butler. Noble’s Quaker religion abhors violence, but, living in Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1755, Noble has heard frightening rumors about the conflicts between English soldiers and the French and their Native American allies. What, he wonders, would he do, if the war hit closer to home? He decides to join a wagon train supplying General Braddock, figuring that he can help the English cause without violating his principles. But an encounter with Broken Blade, a young Delaware, makes Noble question all that he’s heard about the supposedly barbaric Native peoples, and he discovers that there are no easy answers to the conflict.

Noble Butler and his family were not only real historical figures, but were the ancestors of author Janet Kastner Olshewsky, who spent nearly a decade researching their lives for this richly detailed middle-grade novel. Janet recently allowed me to interview her about her work.

What inspired you to write The Snake Fence?

My Butler ancestors were Quakers in colonial Pennsylvania, although my branch of the family has long since found other faith communities. When I began genealogical investigation, I found that the Butlers had been involved in some way in every war of American history! Either they were persecuted for not fighting, or they decided to fight, causing conflict within the family and within the Meeting. Conflict is the starting point of fiction, so I thought it would be exciting to write about them through historical fiction, spanning all of American history. Great idea, but an unrealistically ambitious plan, since I didn’t begin until I was retired.

You moved to Pennsylvania for nine years to research The Snake Fence. That’s a big commitment! What made you so passionate about this story?

Well, we didn’t know at the outset that we would stay nine years! I needed the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College for my initial resource, so we came to Pennsylvania for a semester, during which my husband taught as adjunct at Villanova University. We were at a point in our lives when it was right for a move, and we fell in love with the area. So we stayed.

I really have been passionate about the story. I found historical research totally engaging, and as a high school teacher, I wanted to be sure I had everything right, no anachronisms.  Some might say I got carried away with research. I discovered the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation in Ridley Creek State Park had an education program for school children, so I volunteered for that for four years. The staff there taught me all about life on a colonial plantation, and I learned so much about the house itself that I decided to make it the Butler family home in The Snake Fence.

How did you come to choose the snake fence as a metaphor for Noble’s dilemma?

Noble was full of uncertainty and indecision, sitting on a fence, as it were. Wherever I needed a metaphor or simile, I consciously tried to find one that a colonial person would use. I learned about snake fences at the Plantation, so I chose that metaphor for my title. It has lots of value for me, not only because it’s authentic to the period.

A snake fence meanders, as Noble did. It can be disassembled and moved to a new location, as Noble was.  It can’t be easily knocked down, as a straight fence can. And it makes a catchy title, I think.

You use both real people and fictional characters in your story. Which do you think was more difficult and why?

Probably the real characters, because, again, I wanted to be as accurate historically as I possibly could. So I read personal journals, family papers, and newspaper accounts, and I tried not to put words into a character’s mouth that they surely wouldn’t have said. The fictional characters practically dictated their words to me, often at 3 A.M. Molly in particular would wake me insisting on more pages!

Although he appears only a few times, Broken Blade haunts Noble—and the reader—throughout the story. What led you to create this character?

I think I was as surprised as Noble was to find Broken Blade behind that fallen branch! He just popped into the story and then became a focal point for Noble. His picture appears on the back cover of the book, sort of fogged out like a memory, and he continues to fascinate me.

Can you tell us about your writing process? Are you an outliner or more of a seat-of-the-pants writer?

With The Snake Fence I was a seat-of-the-pants writer. I didn’t know how the story would come out, and it really irritated some of the people in my critique group. One person said she would refuse to read any more until she knew where this story was going! That forced me to outline the whole thing, and then I could see where it needed to go. That’s how helpful a critique group can be.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?

I think it was The Walking Purchase. I knew Indians had been badly treated and shoved off their land, but I didn’t realize how blatant and widespread it was in Pennsylvania until I came across accounts of The Walking Purchase.

Can you tell readers a little about The Walking Purchase?

In 1737, the Proprietors (sons of William Penn) said they had found a copy of an old treaty dating back to 1686 that said the Delaware Indians had sold land to William Penn. The treaty called for a walk to determine the boundaries of the land sale:

Starting at a tree by the River Delaware here in Bucks County, from there westward up Neshaminy Creek, then along a trail northward “as far as a man can walk in a day and a half.”

None of the Indians had ever heard of it, but they honored this “found” treaty. The Proprietors then advertised for the three fastest walkers in the area and promised five British pounds and 500 acres to the man who could go the farthest. Then they took the three walkers over the area in advance and even cleared a trail for them.

The day of the “walk,” some of the Indian leaders came to observe. When the walkers began to go faster and faster, the Indians protested, to no avail. The Indians left in disgust. At the end of a day and a half, the walkers had gone three times as far as the Indians intended. But then instead of drawing a line straight back to the Delaware River, as the “treaty” specified, they went far to the northeast, encompassing much more land than the Indians had agreed to sell.The Indians protested to the governor of Pennsylvania, but he did nothing. This was only one of many instances of Indians being cheated out of their land, but it’s probably the most blatant.

What are you working on now? Will you be writing more about Noble Butler?

As Broken Blade haunted Noble, he continues to haunt me. My next book, tentatively entitled The Third Crow, will be about how the Lenapé survived in Pennsylvania, and Broken Blade is one of the central characters. Although I’ve moved to Florida, I have a culture coach in Pennsylvania who advises me. Noble will appear in this book, and this time I’m beginning with an outline. There may be another book about Noble later, set during the Revolutionary War.

Thank you, Janet! I’m looking forward to your next book.

To find out more about Janet and The Snake Fence, go to her website.


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