Park Ranger Justin Rexrode, right, shares the story of Sergeant Alvin C. York with visitors at Tennessee's History Festival. Photo by Cara Alexander.
Text and Photos by Cara Alexander
On October 18-19, the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in Nashville will present the 10th Annual Tennessee History Festival, bringing to life over 500 years of Tennessee’s history, from early Native American civilizations, its early exploration with Hernando de Soto, to native Tennessean Sergeant Alvin C. York and World War I, all the way up through the Gulf War.
The Tennessee History Festival is the legacy of Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park Manager Mike Cole, who created the event a decade ago to celebrate the history of many time periods in the story of our state. There, situated along the park’s History Wall in chronological order, living history re-enactors will portray over eight historical eras and give visitors a unique experience in all aspects of our history.
On the Friday of the festival, more than 1,500 school kids on field trips from all over the state descend on the park to take in the sights and sounds of history brought to life. Few have ever experienced the subject in such an interactive and exciting way, and the children’s faces of wonder and awe are testament to how truly fascinating the subject can be. The children are invited to participate in many of the demonstrations, giving them a hands-on, educational experience that is difficult to get in the classroom.
Clad in clanking armor and camped first in the living-history timeline along 7th Avenue is Hernando de Soto at the 16th century section of the History Wall. He was the earliest documented European to venture into Tennessee. Fast-forward 150 years, and Tennessee State Parks’ rangers from Fort Loudoun State Historic Park in what is now Vonore are a visitor’s next stop. Dressed in redcoats and armed with period-correct Brown Bess muskets, they set up their British Colonial Army camp at the 1756 pylon, showcasing life on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains during the French and Indian Wars. An 18th century Longhunter camp also gives visitors a view into the lives of hunters and trappers who utilized much of Nashville area for their trade.
Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park in Manchester also sends park rangers to participate in the festival. They provide an angle on one of the Native American cultures of the state, interpreting a prehistoric Woodland civilization of nearly 2,000 years ago. Visitors are invited to try their hand with primitive hunting weapons including the atlatl, which is a spear-throwing device that utilizes leverage to achieve longer distance and better accuracy on a throw. Arrowheads, blowguns, and other artifacts are also on display.
In the center field of the park, the smell of baking cookies and simmering campfire-cooked collard greens draws visitors over to the 19th Alabama Civilians, a group of Civil War historians who demonstrate the often untold story of what life was like on the home front while soldiers were away, in contrast to the more common portrayal of soldiers on the battlefront. Sara Hoover and her mother, MaryAnn, tend to the cooking, laundry, and mending, while her father, Bill Hoover, is occupied with splitting wood and tending the fire. They have been active in the group for over 13 years, and their knowledge of the era and passion for sharing their expertise with the public is abundant.
Also included in the group is a surgeon, a mortician and an apothecary, who educate the visitors on how their skills were performed in the 1860s, much to the shock and fascination of those watching and listening. The 19th Alabama’s camp is often serenaded by the “Jimalong Josies,” a band playing Civil-War era tunes on period-correct instruments.
A new addition for this year is the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball, which has partnered with the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park “to return base ball to the area where it sprung up over 150 years ago,” says Tennessee State Parks Director of Interpretation (and short-stop) Jeff Wells. This is in reference to the park’s proximity to the historic Sulphur Dell area, which was used by Union soldiers and later the Minor League Nashville Volunteers. It was the longest running professional baseball field in the country, prior to its demolition in 1963. Members of the Association will be at the festival to demonstrate how the game was played in the 1860s.
A highlight for many visitors is the arms demonstrations, with flint-lock and cap-lock muskets, long-rifles, and Civil War cannons fired in succession, showcasing the evolution of hunting and military weaponry through Tennessee History. “FIRE IN THE HOLE” is yelled loudly three times as children sit and wait in anticipation, with fingers plugged tightly into their ears. The boom of the cannons of Porter’s Battery, out of Clarksville, echoes across the grounds of the Bicentennial Mall, to the delight of all the onlookers. The smell of black powder and the haze of the smoke verify to the audience that what they witnessed was authentic. There are few mechanisms as effective as the firing of cannons to make even the most disengaged of history alive with fascination and curiosity. Arms demonstrations will take place on both the Friday and Saturday of the festival, and times can be verified on the event schedule.
The Vacant Chair Photography Studio is a family affair, comprised of the mother-father-and-daughter team of the Reeds, who bring to life the art and craft of wet plate collodion photography as it was done during the Civil War. Photographer and daughter Betsy Reed must first “read” the light, a skill that is paramount for the craft due to the particular nature of the lenses. She then positions her subjects appropriately for composition and instructs them to stay very still. The wooden “sliding-box” camera, fitted with antique, period-correct lenses, requires a certain period of stillness and light to make an adequate capture, based on Betsy’s judgment of the conditions. Father and chemist, Sam Reed, then washes the glass plate in chemical solutions to conjure the photographed image, seemingly etched into the glass. His recipes are taken from period manuals, ensuring their process is authentic. Wife and mother, Mary Lou, interprets the entire process to the onlookers, who in an age of such instant and easy photographic access, find the craft captivating.
This will be the fifth year the Reeds have participated in the Tennessee History Festival, and they actually count the event as their debut in demonstrating the craft of the wet plate collodion process. According to Sam, “The Tennessee History Festival has been a great opportunity for the Reeds to share an almost lost historic craft with the public. We’ll continue to participate and share our knowledge with the public and tell the story of the thousands of wet plate practitioners that helped record the faces and events of The American Civil War.” Betsy’s sentiments echo her father’s, adding, “It is such a privilege to do my bit, however small, to preserve and share this important piece of history.” The Vacant Chair Photography Studio will set up their workshop in the large field behind the amphitheater and the art they create with such passion for the history of their craft is not to be missed.
Further down along the timeline, Park Ranger Justin Rexrode gives life to World War I with his portrayal of Medal of Honor Recipient Sergeant Alvin C. York, of Pall Mall. His display is situated at 1918 along History Wall. Rexrode, in period “doughboy” dress, enlightens the public about a heroic native son who became one of the most decorated soldiers in the Great War.
It is not every day that you witness General Nathan Bedford Forrest shouting orders, adjacent to Hernando de Soto sitting atop his armored horse. At the Tennessee History Festival, however, this totally unique experience is just what you will find.
“In walking the History Wall one day, I had a vision to bring the timeline alive with re-enactors from each period. Ten years ago, we presented our first Tennessee History Festival, and we are thrilled to continue to grow and have this privilege to share Tennessee’s history with our visitors,” says Park Manager Mike Cole.
Tennessee State Parks Interpretive Director Jeff Wells agrees, remarking, “The Tennessee History Festival allows our park visitors to experience the rich history of our great state from its prehistory to the present in one setting.”
The Tenth Annual Tennessee History Festival at the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park will be held on Friday and Saturday, October 18-19, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. All ages are encouraged to attend, and it is free and open to the public.
For more information, or to request a Tennessee History Festival field trip packet for a school, please call the park office at 615-741-5280, or e-mail Park Manager Mike Cole at Michael.C.Cole@tn.gov.
(Cara Alexander is a park ranger at Fall Creek Falls State Park.)