History comes to life at Southern Heritage Festival

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Ladies young and old flocked to Sylvia's Emporium to select new accessories for their outfits.

By Karen Hall


Imagine leaving the 21st century behind for a weekend to immerse yourself in the life of 150 years ago.

That's what people did at the Southern Heritage Festival last Saturday. It is held every year at the boyhood home of Nathan Bedford Forrest near Chapel Hill. Dedicated men and women portrayed military and civilian life of the Civil War period for many fascinated spectators.

The event is a fundraiser for the continued restoration of the home and surrounding farm. The restoration of the 160-year-old log barn has recently been completed, with a lot of the work done by Elton Wentzel, who said, "It's been an honor to do the work for the Forrest home."

In a field behind the house, with the backyards of modern homes visible in the distance, cavalrymen demonstrated how they maneuvered and fought with both pistols and long guns, riding down a field to fire blanks at "Union" troops and civilians.

The cavalrymen were not in uniform, and did not have matching weapons or equipment. Their leader explained to the audience they brought their own horses, tack and weapons when they joined up. Some may have brought sabers, but Forrest soon told them to replace these with pistols and shotguns.

Men with the more interesting guns stepped forward one by one to talk about them for the audience. The weapons ranged from an 1851 Colt Navy .36 caliber pistol like the 500 Forrest bought for his men to a 12-gauge muzzle-loading shotgun with an effective range of 35 yards, and an Enfield rifle with a maximum range of 600 yards. Other cavalrymen talked about their saddles and bridles. Forrest's cavalry had to take what they needed with them on their saddles -- including poncho, bedroll and spare ammunition -- since supply wagons couldn't keep up with them.

In the 19th Alabama's civilian camp, men and women were set up with tents, living as they would have if they had been following a Confederate army, and demonstrating aspects of life in that era.

Some teenage girls with shining clean hair, dressed in shorts and tank tops, were listening to "Chi Chi" talking about bathing and laundry. She said women only washed their hair three or four times a year. It was customary to wear a high collared dress with long sleeves until 5 p.m., no matter how hot the weather.

"If you were seen with bare arms and a low-cut gown before then, people talked," she said, which was not good if a young woman wanted to find a decent husband. "Your reputation was all you had," Chi Chi told the girls.

She also talked about the way children were expected to help with work on the farm or around the house. Large families were the norm, so mothers and fathers had plenty of helpers.

"Everybody had a job," she said. The youngest children did easy jobs like feeding the chickens, and worked their way up through the tasks. A 12-year-old girl was expected to know how to bake bread, make soup, sew a dress, and do the laundry. This included ironing, with irons heated by the fire.

Women typically cooked a big Sunday dinner, so the family could eat leftovers on Monday while she devoted herself to the weekly washing.

"It was a hard life," said Chi Chi, who said she loves history, and was introduced to the 19th Alabama by someone she met at her church in Old Hickory.

Chrissa Wendt demonstrated spinning and weaving, and has many, many samples of the different fibers which can be spun into yarn.

"If I've impacted somebody in some way it makes it all worth while," she said.

Michael Cole of Mt. Juliet circulated through the crowd, fully in the character of Forrest. He also manages the Bicentennial Mall State Park in Nashville.

"We tell the history of Tennessee," Cole said. "That's what we enjoy doing. If I'm not in the 19th century, I'm in the 18th."

He said he preferred this kind of living history camp to the re-enactments of battles because the spectators get so much more out of it. A battle is fun for those participating, but can be incomprehensible for the casual onlooker.

John and Ann Jarrett of Marshall County specialize in cooking over an open fire, and make everything from baked goods to stews and roasts the old-fashioned way.

There were vendors there too, selling a variety of goods, all relating to history or living history.

Sylvia Hall, of Sylvia's Emporium was doing a brisk trade in ladies' accessories, like hats, fans, and jewelry. One customer bought a fashionable little feather hat, and a hat pin, with Hall explaining how to use the long pin.

"Here I go again," said the customer as she paid for her purchases. "I'm starting a new costume."

And so the hot, sunny day went on, with music, demonstrations and lectures. This once-a-year event is unique and special, and well worth putting on your calendar for next June.