History buffs revel in Civil War Days
PIPESTONE -- Stephanie Hall has never taken a ride in a hot-air balloon, though she hopes to someday.
Yet Hall, who grew up in Worthington, completed plenty of research and gave a presentation on hot-air ballooning during the Civil War era during the course of Civil War Days Saturday and Sunday at the Song of Hiawatha Pageant grounds.
"Hot-air balloons were good as spy vehicles during the Civil War," Hall explained Sunday morning. "They were tethered flights, and frequently balloons carried telegraph equipment so they could track troop movements. The confederates were terrible at it ... but the union, on the other hand, was infatuated with the balloon and put it to much better use."
Hall noted during her roughly 20-minute presentation that three different balloons made by the South met three separate fates, all failing to be properly utilized. The North, however, had a far better record.
In 1861, Thaddeus Lowe, a scientist and inventor who had made earlier attempts at trans-Atlantic balloon journeys, offered his services as an aeronaut for the purpose of aerial reconnaissance on the Confederate troops. Later that year, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Lowe to the post of Chief Aeronaut.
By December 1861, seven observation balloons were serving the union. In 1862, Lowe created a portable hydrogen generator; the first aircraft carrier came shortly afterward.
Lowe ultimately resigned from his position in May 1863, and what was known as the Union Army Balloon Corps ceased to exist just a few months later. He did have one more claim to fame, however -- one of his assistants gave a German named Ferdinand von Zeppelin his first balloon ride, in Minneapolis. Zeppelin would later return to Germany and design the aircraft that carried his name.
Hall originally hadn't planned to do a hot-air ballooning presentation during Civil War Days.
"My husband and I started off with 'Letters from Home' (reading of letters from soldiers to wives), but Chuck Ness (event coordinator) really wanted to do a program about hot-air balloons," she said. "I would love to give balloon rides here someday, but I don't know if that's going to happen."
Plenty of other things were happening during Civil War Days, which takes place every two years and traditionally features a wide variety of educational programs and battle re-enactments. One re-enactor back in his typically prominent role was Max Daniels of Wheaton, Ill., who is in his 25th year of portraying President Lincoln.
A new program Daniels was giving this year, "Abe Lincoln and His Cabinet," is particularly timely.
"It ties in with a new movie Steven Spielberg is doing," he explained. "His cabinet had the most abrasive, irascible men you'd ever want to meet, but they were very good at what they did."
The movie "Lincoln" is scheduled to be released in December.
Elsewhere on the Song of Hiawatha Pageant grounds, a pair of medical programs proved to be popular with Civil War Days attendees. One, "Farie Wynds," was led by Professor Chalmers Bodkin Child -- actor Eric Paul Scites -- of Ohio. Scites' presentation was based on the so-called snake-oil salesman of the time who mixed entertainment with pitches for medicinal products in what were commonly known as medicine shows.
There was no shortage of humor during Scites' program. In pitching one product, he said, "If you drink enough this stuff, your wife will be pretty."
Another medical program given by Dr. John Bonner of Vincent, Iowa, covered different subjects, as he discussed techniques related to dentistry, amputation, boil removal and more. Bonner, though, found a way to keep things on the lighter side, even while relating to program-goers on how an amputation was done -- with a young woman in the crowd as his subject.
"I really don't know anything about amputation, but I loved your holding your hand all that time," Bonner said, to appreciate laughter.
Daily Globe Managing Editor Ryan McGaughey may be reached at 376-7320.