Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Buffalo tongue and ruined candles

I've acquired quite the number of new skills in the past few days. A smattering thereof:

Skill number one: cooking over an open fire. I cooked buffalo tongue (which I'm informed was actually buffalo liver) and onions over an open fire. It smelled rather nice, but bled every time I pressed it until it was pretty well charred. I'm also not at all convinced that it was cooked in a way that is safe to eat. No matter, the point is simply to have something period going on for the visitors to see, smell, and ask questions about. The funny thing about food at the Fort is that we are not allowed to offer food to any of the visitors and if they ask for a sample, the answer is no. If, however, they just take some without asking, we won't argue. And that's the exact spiel that we give visitors when they ask if they can have a bite. Gets the point across without any legal liability.

Skill number two: lighting fires. Previously I'd lit fires with a lighter and a bunch of newspapers. Now, however, I can light them with flint and steel. And I learned a new way to do it that involves making a little wind tunnel with two logs, lighting the char-cloth and kindling and sticking it in the middle, and then putting a third log on top. Wind or human breath through the tunnel helps the fire to grow and it burns hot, so it catches the logs pretty easily. I built a fire with this method without a problem, when I'd previously struggled to get one lit.

Skill number three: making candles. This one didn't go so well. I started out attempting to make dip candles by heating up a mix of tallow and beeswax over the fire I built, then dipping a string in (as one does). The strings refused to stay straight and the candles grew very very slowly. Since I was working in the hot sun I decided to switch to candles in a mold. Under instructions from one of the Fort bosses, I sprayed the molds with PAM (secretly, of course), mixed the tallow and beeswax, forced strings through tiny holes in the bottoms of the molds, and poured in the hot wax. I also poured the wax all over the ground until I found the little dip-cup used to make pouring easier. Then I moved a bench over to shade the molds and waited for several hours. At the end of those hours, the candles resembled a funnel - wax had leaked out the bottom where the wicks were drawn through and given them a collapsed center. Plus, though I sprayed the living daylights out of the molds, they apparently weren't non-stick enough and I only succeeded in snapping off several wicks. As this was happening at the end of the day, I tucked them inside and plan to ask someone what to do tomorrow.

Skill number four: cat wrangling. The Fort has two cats, as well as four oxen, two horses, three peacocks, three peahens, a dozen or so peachicks, and ten chickens. The cats are allowed to roam freely but have to be put in every night to keep them from being eaten by coyotes. I don't have any keys and can't help lock up, so while everyone else is closing down the fort, my job is to find the cats. They don't particularly like being shut away, though they tolerate it because food is there. So they don't fight me too much when I pick them up but they do hide themselves in various places around the fort as a matter of course. Today I found one sprawled out in the sun by the blacksmith's workshop, while the other was stalking some sort of creature in the woodpile out back. Turns out the creature was a bat, so I took the cat away. He promptly jumped out the window I'd forgotten to close and went straight back to the woodpile.

I'm hoping to churn butter tomorrow, and praying that turns out better than the candles.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Hello and welcome to 1846

I spent the past few days as a pioneer woman in Colorado. I am not a pioneer strictly speaking - they mostly went on the Oregon Trail, to the north - nor is my presence at Bent's Old Fort entirely historically accurate. The Fort was a major trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, bringing together native tribes, trappers, Mexican traders, and American businessmen out to make money. As may not surprise you, white women weren't particularly common in a place that was fifty days travel from the nearest city and swarming with rough characters. Many of the men who lived and worked here married Mexican and Cheyenne women, not white ones.

Despite my improbable presence, the Fort has given me a costume and allowed me to volunteer for a while. I portray a generic ransomed white woman, captured by one of the native tribes - probably the Pawnee - and rescued by the people in the Fort. The historical record does indeed give us one woman, a Mrs. Dale, whose husband was killed in a raid and who was taken captive, later coming to the Fort and working for her room and board. But there's already a white female employee who plays her, so mine is a general rather than specific role.

I fill my time hanging up laundry, fetching water, mending clothes, and embroidering. Let it be known that I have never before embroidered and have been feeling my way through like the novice I am, to varied result. I'm nearly finished with a tree, so I'll take a picture of that once it's done. The mending is functional rather than attractive, mostly repairing splits along the shoulder seams of shirts and chemises. Hanging up laundry is easy and it dries very quickly in the parched Colorado air, while fetching water is solely to keep the buckets from splitting and cracking. They are made of wood and look much like topless barrels. Wood shrinks in dry heat, so unless the buckets are kept reasonably full, the slats will pull away from one another and leave us with a particularly non-functional watering can.

I also greet the visitors and give them a brief overview of the Fort before handing them off to an employee, since I'm not allowed to handle the cash register. I also answer the shuttle phone and relay shuttle requests to an employee, since I'm not allowed to drive the golf cart. That is courtesy of a volunteer who crashed a cart into a car and knocked off the car's headlight the day before I arrived. My hints regarding a perfect driving record go unheeded in that respect.

My most recent accomplishment is starting a fire with a flint and steel. It's something of a laborious process - you strike the steel against the flint until sparks fly while holding a piece of char-cloth (partially burned cloth made of natural fibers) until it catches. You place the burning cloth in the middle of a big nest of straw and blow on it until the straw catches fire. Then you lay kindling sticks over the burning straw and hope that one of them catches fire before the straw burns itself out. If that step is successful, you attempt to light the rest of the kindling and then lay all that against some logs, with the hope that the flames will spread to the logs and make something of a more permanent blaze. Usually this area of Colorado is dry and this process isn't too difficult, but we had some rain yesterday that finally caused one of the employees to go find a lighter, since the flint and steel method was not catching on the damp wood.

Next week I hope to cook, make candles, and churn butter - all demonstrations that the visitors can ask about and sometimes join in on. The men do blacksmithing or carpentry, make moccasins, whittle, and work leather. These activities are the most interesting part of the fort in my mind, since they make the visit interactive and allow people a glimpse into 1846. I'll report back on any further skills I learn as I learn them.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Back in time

I'm traveling to Colorado for a friend's wedding this weekend, followed by two weeks volunteering at a national park that is also an old fort. Apparently I'm to be allowed to dress up and historically re-enact, something I haven't been able to do since the days of playing a Puritan in Salem, Massachusetts.

Goody Bishop, Faith Clark, Sarah Shattuck - how I miss you!

So I look forward to introducing you all to this world of the mid-1800s Wild Wild West. It'll be a world of trappers, traders, Native Americans, soldiers, and me. The presence of a white woman at the fort is period inaccurate, but I don't mind. I really want to learn to blacksmith, and I also don't mind the period inaccuracy of that. The park employees don't seem to share my lassiez-faire attitude towards accuracy. We'll just have to see how this goes.

I'm pretty sure there are everywhere. And I mean everywhere.