March 2008 Issue
Part actor, part teacher, interpreters make history come alive at sites across the state.
Heather Faur steps out of her car and strides purposefully through the twilight toward a two-story stone home on the grounds of Hale Farm & Village, a 19th-century outdoor living-history museum in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Akron. The increasing darkness makes it difficult to navigate the field and stand of trees between the house and two-lane road. But the 28-year-old walks as if her way was lit by a blazing sun in a cloudless sky.
“It’s going to get a lot darker before it gets lighter,” she admonishes as we stumble behind her, complaining about our inability to see.
The house is only a fraction dimmer, illuminated as it is by a couple of candles in each room. Faur heads upstairs to change from her jeans into a long calico dress complete with hoop skirt, and put her shoulder-length brown hair into a bun. The next time we see her, she’s Mrs. Brice Martin, wife of a private in the 67th Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War — kind, proper, eager to entertain the successive groups of visitors who knock on her door during a village lantern tour.
Faur is one of the legions of interpreters at historical sites both in Ohio and across the United States who take tourists back in time. Part historian, part teacher, part actor, they impart knowledge on the eras in which they work via first-person vignettes and one-on-one interactions with the public. The requirements for the job, as Faur and two other Ohio interpreters demonstrate, include a love of history, a flair for the dramatic, the ability to research and memorize, and a willingness to master such tasks as cooking on an open hearth.
“It doesn’t matter if you were a truck driver or if you were a schoolteacher in your other life, as we call it,” Faur says. “What matters is the ability to make history interesting and fun.”
Faur’s fascination with the past began when she was 9 years old, sparked by the “Little House on the Prairie” books and television show. “I was the one out there [in the yard] wearing my mom’s old 1970s peasant skirts, pretending I was Laura Ingalls Wilder,” the suburban Cleveland native confesses. The position at Hale Farm, which started out as a seasonal gig seven years ago, made use of her acting experience in school and community-theater productions by requiring her to develop a character from basic information supplied by a historian. It also required learning such diverse skills as cooking over an open fire, making cheese and milking cows.
“Most of my education for doing this job,” she says, “was definitely on-site.”
Like Faur, Michael Follin developed a love of history early in life — in his case, after he discovered his grandmother’s copy of a book on the Follin family tree written by an ancestor in the 1890s. “What fascinated me were the people and their lives, how they managed to survive against insurmountable odds,” says the 56-year-old Chesterville native, who holds a master’s degree in formative American history and folklore from Ohio State University. For the last 30 years he’s played everything from sedate Mayor O’Fallon to a huckster selling a cure-all elixir at the Ohio Historical Society’s Ohio Village, a representation of a small mid-19th-century county seat located in Columbus. Although people express amazement at the range of fictional characters he’s developed, he says there’s not much difference between them and their 21st-century counterparts.
“People are people — they never change,” Follin declares. “They’re just governed by a different set of social parameters.”
Life is hardly as schizophrenic for Chris Hart, a part-time interpreter at Roscoe Village, a restored 19th-century canal town near Coshocton.
During his summers off from teaching pharmacy classes at Ohio Northern University in Ada, the University of Findlay and Northeast Ohio College of Pharmacy in Akron, Hart is one of four men who portray Dr. Maro Johnson, a physician who actually practiced in the village from 1830 until the 1880s. The 53-year-old Newcomerstown resident has been intrigued by first-person interpreters ever since he encountered them on childhood trips to historical sites such as Monticello and Appomattox Courthouse. “I thought that would be so neat, to dress up and interact with the people,” he remembers. When he heard Roscoe Village was looking for a few good men to assume one of its few first-person roles two years ago, he immediately applied for the job. His main challenge, as it turns out, wasn’t a lack of experience but a historical figure who was “quiet and serious.”
“You’ve got to entertain people a little bit,” he says, “so I try and make him come to life.”
Faur, Follin and Hart admit there are some drawbacks to living in the past. The hardest, according to Follin, is the improvisation required when working in the first person with the public. There is always someone who will try to trip him up with a question to which he doesn’t know the answer or get him to slip back into the present. Hart gives the example of a visitor who asked “Dr. Johnson” if he administers Novocain to pull a tooth. And then there are those people who are just plain uncomfortable interacting with an interpreter.
“If they’re into it, then you really take off,” Hart says. “If you see that it’s strange to them, then you get the facts across and don’t become quite so animated.”
Faur and Follin take their work home with them in a most unusual way. Follin, who speaks in the flowery language characteristic of the period when he’s at Ohio Village, admits that he can take too long to answer a simple question — verbosity that makes his wife tell him to hurry up and get to the point. And Faur leaves people with a “Good afternoon” or “Good day” instead of “Have a nice day” or “Goodbye” and hands things to family members with a “Will this answer?”
“I get an ‘Oh, yes, it will, indeed!’” she says, laughing at the sarcasm with which they deliver the reply. But both are happy to return to a place where they can flip on a light switch and turn on a faucet. And Faur is thrilled to step out of her role of the good little housewife who spends her days catering to everyone’s needs.
“I know enough of the real social history of the 19th century, not just the romanticized history of it, to be able to look around me and to appreciate how far we’ve come,” she says.