LIVING HISTORY. Hard work, family unity, simple joys: spending a weekend the way it was in the 1870s, at the Washburn-Norlands Center
Livermore, Maine — I remember just last winter when we hauled 50-pound blocks up from the lake to the horse-drawn pung while the wind whipped a chill through the February air, and out in the barn a calf was trying to be born. Now, with the breath of summer gone, it's harvest time. The icehouse is only half-full from summer's use. Apple pies steam to a cool in the kitchen while we line the storage shelves with minced meat and pickles. The soil is laid to rest, and potatoes, carrots, and turnips nestle in barrels in the mus ty confines of the root cellar, ready to sustain the long winter lull. ALTHOUGH this could be an entry from a farmer's journal in the 1870s, it's actually an account of a city-dweller's country respite in the 1980s. The passage describes a bucolic farm site encircled by woodlands and fields, perched atop a wind-swept hill in Livermore, Maine. Here, visitors can forsake microwaves and hot tubs, erase the pall of nuclear war, and for $160 immerse themselves in a weekend of the 19th century. Weekend ``live-ins'' are a small portion of the nearly 25,000 adults and children who visit the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center each year. Teachers can come here to get recertification credit; students can get college credit. Writers come seeking insights into post-Civil War history. Peace Corps hopefuls come to learn about primitive farming techniques. Computer salesmen and bank tellers venture here for a back-to-nature reprieve. But few escape the Norlands without glimpsing something of the in nate values of 1870 Maine farm life -- hard work, personal responsibility, and close family ties.
The setting is reminiscent of a 19th-century novel, with spinning wheel, wooden butter churn, soap savers, cornhusk mattresses, and kerosene lanterns. Volunteers bustle about in post-Civil War dress, portraying characters who lived in the area during that time. They speak the lingo, and feign ignorance of a world beyond the 1870s.
The five-building estate, including a church and library, is on the original site. It once housed the prominent Washburn family -- renowned for its sons, who became congressmen, governors, and influential businessmen. Changing seasons, changing tasks
Ulysses S. Grant is President. The war has just ended. Our week-end live-in group enters a time warp for three days to assume the identities of the Pray and Water families. A stroll though the cemetery at dusk reveals family gravestones, and for the next few days we scour stained and faded journals for facts about our new characters.
The historical setting is presented as closely ``as they or anybody else can portray,'' says Terry Sharer, former secretary-treasurer of the Association for Living Historical Farms and Agricultural Museums at the Smithsonian Institution. ``Our association has about 700 members. . . . None offer the program like they have at Norlands, where you assume a historical identity for 72 hours.''
Indeed, the days following are spent in the nitty-gritties of farm chores -- mucking stalls, collecting eggs, tilling the soil, harvesting crops, feeding pigs and sheep, grinding corn into meal, and familiarizing participants with the nuances of 1870 rural life. Come Monday morning, participants take up quill pens and slates, sit in double seats, and do arithmetic problems in their heads, reciting the answers to the satisfaction of Eunice, the stern schoolmarm.
Changing seasons prompt changing tasks. October is harvesttime, with a gushing supply of freshly squeezed cider to quench the thirst after a day's hard labor. March is maple syrup time; April brings horse and oxen out of the barn and into the fields for the tilling.
Robert Hjort, a bread salesman in New Sharon, Maine, attended the July live-in with his wife, Anita. ``We spent three or four hours on our hands and knees picking potato bugs off potatoes,'' he says. ``It gets you away from the idea of picking up a bag of potatoes at the supermarket and bringing it home.
``I loved the idea that you can go back to 1870, and everything since that time is forgotten -- no phones, no TV, no radio. . . . I'd split wood before at my own house and had my own private garden, but I'd never worked with oxen, milked a cow, or for that matter, baked a pie.'' Rugged families
Much is authentic at Washburn-Norlands. Participants forgo showers, use a three-holer in the barn, and bed down for the night on sloping, cornhusk mattresses. The Washburns were inveterate journal keepers, so meals are concocted from actual menus found in the records.
Yet there are minor flaws in the program's historical representation. The most obvious incongruency is when men and women switch gender roles on Saturday and Sunday to experience a wider variety of farm chores. The house is not the original, but was rebuilt in the 1920s after a fire, and the cookstove doesn't suit the era. But unless one scours for them, exceptions to 1870 are hard to find.
Farm demands of the era fostered strong family ties and dependencies. Children had scant schooling and were bound to the farm as laborers, while male and female roles were rigidly structured. ``You get the distinct impression that, in the past, the family rather than the individual was the basic building block of society,'' says Mr. Sharer. ``Today, the individual seems much more the building block of society than a long time ago, when we thought society was built on rugged individualism. But it's my o pinion that it was built more on rugged families.''
These values, as much as the rigors of farm life, are what the Norlands conveys. ``Any museum, including Norlands, is a kind of church,'' Sharer adds. ``They exist to give everlasting life to some esteemed value, a permanence to the values associated with a life style that doesn't exist anymore.'' Sunday morning breakfast
In this day and age, ``lots of families only get one meal a day together,'' says Glenda Richards, a volunteer who plays the role of the warm, sprightly, marginally literate Emiline Hilton. Here, she says, ``we say grace before every meal, and that kind of thing.''
The epitome of family and community togetherness comes during the Sunday morning breakfast hour. The table is laden with food -- blue-trimmed pitchers brimming with fresh milk, pancakes piled high, newly churned butter, and the sweet fruit of the March workers' labor -- maple syrup. We're served substantial portions of food, but nothing is wasted. Roles are switched, and the men now dart about in gingham aprons and floppy caps, pancake flippers fanning the air.
A handful of neighbors stop in, and each character maintains his or her role to the tee. Rubin Wing appears from the poorhouse with customary ragged beard and disheveled work overalls to exchange a meal for a day's labor. Miz. Lovejoy, a pauper, hobbles in begging and mumbling about her lot in life. Brother Otis Holmes Johnson joins in with an austere presence, and later gives a tedious, yet authentic, afternoon sermon ``mercifully short, relative to how it really was,'' he says with a mischievous twink le.
James Bliven, a biologist from Georgia, plays Israel Martel, a French Canadian was a hired hand for the Washburns. ``In 1870, the census shows Israel as 25 years old; he was my age and came down here [from Canada] with some other fellow to work. The farms in Canada were drying up. He played the accordion and he lived in the farmer's cottage. He was a real girl chaser, and went on trips out of town to chase girls.''
The encounters are meant to teach something about the past, and the roles are based on real people. The atmosphere is inviting, bubbling with conversation. Billy Gammons, a former teacher who came up the with the idea for Washburn-Norlands back in 1972, says responses from live-in participants range from ``I feel so close to these people -- it makes me realize I'm cheating my own family'' to ``I hadn't prayed since I was a kid until I came here.''
For some, the experience at Washburn-Norlands is so genuine that by the end of the weekend, they balk when it comes time to return home. A car passing by looks oddly out of place. The simplicity of the 1870s must be left behind. ``If I had my choice, if I could get away with it, I'd sell my house and go back and live there,'' Mr. Hjort says. ``I would gladly work there for nothing.''