Re-enactors at Mabee Farm make history a living, breathing thing
ROTTERDAM JUNCTION I’d never been to the Mabee Farm at Rotterdam Junction.
Honestly, if I hadn’t worked for The Gazette, I wouldn’t have had much interest in it, either. I’m a native New Yorker but my parents are originally from West Bengal, India, and the American Colonial era wasn’t something we discussed or had a deep connection to. All I knew was from my textbooks in school and that was enough. Going to see re-enactors of that era was also something I never imagined doing. But there I was, on a bright Sunday morning, face-to-face with Drake Rudolph, a re-enactor playing the role of a German mountain man.
“We come to this because we love history and we want to share it with others,” he explained with a wide smile. Rudolph is 18, much younger than most of the re-enactors on that second day of the Living History Weekend at the Mabee Farm. But his enthusiasm and his sense of purpose was the same. For him, re-enacting was also a way of honoring his French, German, and Native American ancestry. “It’s to show a lifestyle that wasn’t all war and fighting,” he said, and he’s been doing it his whole life.
The re-enactors are members of the Burning of the Valleys Military Association. There were about 100 of them, playing roles from civilians to military men. BVMA Chairman John Osinski and Vice Chairman Paul Supley sat together by a tent, discussing the history of the era with the same vigor and expertise I see my own friends discussing football teams or their favorite movies, or that I see in myself as I argue Nas is the greatest rapper alive.
“The American colonies paid less taxes than any other colony,” Supley, who usually plays a loyalist, tried to explain to me.
“Oh, here we go,” Osinski said. “Did we have a vote on those taxes?”
Supley tried to finish his point. Osinski interrupted. They laughed afterward.
I did learn new things from them. For me, initially, the Revolutionary War was a simple thing: Americans vs. British, Americans won, July 4 fireworks. And so on. But after talking with men like Supley and Osinski, I realized that the Revolutionary War was more messy than often portrayed. Families were divided. Avowed loyalists had their land confiscated by so-called patriots. A loyalist campaign burned down patriot homes in the Schoharie and Mohawk valleys.
It was definitely an era that was more violent than I knew.
For the couple of hours that I was there, I walked around the camps, talking to more of the re-enactors and to some of the folks who had come by to check out the farm for themselves.
Some of it was of course what I expected: men and women dressed up to fit a part, grandparents with their grandkids sharing moments, and plenty of men walking around with muskets.
But then, there was the stuff behind the scenes, such as the camaraderie between the actors themselves. They had camped at the farm since Friday afternoon in their tents. When I got there Sunday, there was bacon and eggs for breakfast and inside jokes about the history they were re-creating.
“It becomes a family,” Karin Longtin explained, as more food was cooked over a fire and another re-enactor cut beets to help dye clothes.
The Mabee Farm Historic Site is owned and operated by the Schenectady County Historical Society. According to Jenna Peterson, educator and assistant curator at the historical society, the Living History Weekend is one of their biggest events of the year. It’s a way for people to see and understand history in the flesh, not to simply look at a wall and read text.
And I was definitely beginning to see the purpose of it all. Seeing men and women cooking their food and wearing clothes from that era was definitely more immediate to me. I wasn’t going to become an ardent American Revolutionary buff just yet, but I was definitely starting to see why someone should come here and spend a day or just a few hours.
I was midway through my time at the farm when I asked for someone to show me around the Mabee household. My main hope was to see where the slaves were kept, since I’d never seen anything like that before.
Richard Lewis, a trustee of the Historical Society, was my tour guide. He first showed me the house where the Mabee family lived. I listened but my mind was preoccupied with the smaller house next door, where the slaves lived.
Slavery was legal in the state of New York until 1827. It wasn’t the same as the plantation system down South, where masses of African-Americans were chained and whipped. But still, it was slavery. One man owning another.
Lewis was kind enough to show me around the slave quarters, and I listened more closely to him, but I still couldn’t believe where I was standing. This was the place. This was where Africans who were slaves lived. This was where they tried to make their home.
Lewis even showed me a plaque of an article that the Mabee family had once printed in the local newspaper, offering a $30 reward for anyone who could find a slave who had run away. The June 1, 1798, article described him as “about 25 years of age, about 5 feet 4 inches high, remarkably flout built, very black, large flat nose, very thick lips,” and so on. I stopped reading.
Even though I’m not African-American, I am still a person of color, and as a person of color, I was taught to learn about the history of the United States as it related to people who looked more like me than those who ran the Colonies.
My own grandfather (on my dad’s side) fought non-violently against the British for freedom in India. My mom would also tell me stories about the many men and women who fought and died for us to be free from the oppressor. So a part of me will always relate to the struggle of those anywhere in the world who wanted to breathe a little freer, who wanted to walk without feeling like their lives didn’t matter just because they were black or brown.
I stayed for another hour. I spoke to some more of the re-enactors, smiled with them the best I could, and even interviewed a few more of the people who came to the event. But all I could think about was the African slave who ran away, and about where he had to live till he did so.
Before leaving, I said bye to the folks who I had met that day. I really did enjoy talking with them, but before leaving, I went back to the slave quarters. The plaque with the article was still there, on top of the fireplace. I had to read again the part that described him as if he were a piece of furniture. I also read the part about the reward.
There was an urge to stay a bit longer, till I felt better at least. I also wanted to know more. I wanted to see him. I wanted to ask him about his life, about what he thought about the day before he ran way, about what he dreamt of becoming. I wanted to know more, besides what the plaque had told me. But I had another assignment to get done.
I took solace in the fact that in 1798, there was a man who ran away. I took solace in the choice he made. I promised myself to keep this man’s legacy alive, by sharing what I knew about this man with my friends and family, about this human being who decided he wanted to be free like everyone else. This man who was aged 25, a year younger than I.
His name was Cato.