Civil War-era relived during celebration
PIPESTONE -- The sound of cannon fire reverberated, and the acrid smell of gunpowder hovered in the humid air above the Hiawatha Pageant grounds in Pipestone Saturday and Sunday. Yankees and Confederates exchanged occasional volleys of gunfire, but spent much of the time in their respective camps, going about the activities of daily living, occasionally interrupted by a question from a visitor.
Such was the scene at Pipestone Civil War Days, a biennial event that draws re-enactors from across the Upper Midwest to Pipestone.
In the midst of the musters and other military activities, living historians and presenters on the grounds engaged the festival's visitors, offering insight into the events and traditions of the time period.
During the course of the weekend, local funeral director Randy Hartquist made several presentations on funeral customs of the Civil War era.
"A few years ago, they first asked me to do this, and it cost me something like $600 to have this made," he said, referring to the stark black, vested wool suit he wore and its various accoutrements. "I figured I had to get my money's worth, so I did some research on (Civil War funeral customs). I use a funeral coach that I borrow from a guy in Gary, S.D. It was made in 1860, so it was used for the Civil War period. I also borrow an old casket that has glass in the lid. ... There would be a tray of ice under the lid of the casket, to keep the body from decomposing. So I have a couple of props that make it more interesting."
A little farther down the footpath, Dr. Thaddeus Cranium, a noted phrenologist, was offering "readings" of the bumps on people's heads. Cranium, who was later identified under the alias of Myron Koets, claimed to maintain an office in Pipestone.
"I'm very well-educated and trained," he noted. "It is an exact science, you know."
A subsequent examination of a "patient," Patrick McGowan of Pipestone, divulged that McGowan did not possess a trait of destructiveness, only indulged in liquor in moderation, but he did have the ability to keep secrets, possessed strong domestic qualities and could carry a good tune. McGowan and his family largely concurred with Cranium's assessment.
"See, it is an exact science," Cranium said, visibly puffing with pride at his accomplishment.
Another local, David Rambow, had set up shop as a traveling photographer and was polishing a piece of glass in anticipation of demonstrating his craft -- the wet-plate collodion method. He had a darkroom set up on site and was prepared to create images of the soldiers just as photographers did about 140 years ago.
"The wet-plate collodion process was first introduced in 1851 by the Englishman, Frederick Scott Archer," explained literature Rambow distributed Saturday. "By 1860, it had become the universal photographic method employed by virtually all photographers here and abroad. ... It is called the wet-plate because the plate, be it glass for negatives or ambrotypes, or metal for ferrotypes, cannot be allowed to dry during the entire procedure. ... There is no shooting of pictures now and developing them later. In a sense, the wet-plate photographer makes his own film and processes it on the spot."
Rambow is one of the original organizers of the Pipestone event, which was begun in 1991. In its earlier years, he served as an infantry captain, but in more recent times, he has adopted the photographer persona. Rambow intended to return to the military ranks on Sunday, accepting the commission as a corporal with his son Tom, a private, at his side.
"When I grew up, in grade school, it was Civil War centennial times, and I liked to look at the articles about it in magazines like Look and Newsweek," he recalled. "I started getting interested, and then I found out I had an ancestor in the Civil War, and that made it more personal."
Rambow and a few other local Civil War enthusiasts first pursued the re-enactor lifestyle at Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities area, but when that proved to be too far away and too costly, they formed a local group and eventually conceived the idea of starting their own event. They anticipated more than 300 people would participate in the Pipestone Civil War Festival this year.
"Now, we're seeing a lot more local interaction than we did the first few years," Rambow said, noting the presentations by local citizens as well as activities such as a time period-appropriate baseball game scheduled for later in the day.
Scheduling the festival every two years keeps people interested and lessens the work load.
"It doesn't get old, and it doesn't burn us out," Rambow said.