An empty field, filled with nothing but tall grasses and an endless horizon. No trees in sight. Only a lone, four-room house decorates the landscape. The year is 1855, Nebraska has just become a United States territory the year before. J. Sterling Morton, filled with a passion for bringing in trees to the state, founded Arbor Day in 1872 while living in the home.
In Nebraska City, visitors tour the now expansive, 52-room white mansion filled with furniture and paintings dating back to 1855. Women dressed like Nebraskan pioneers welcome visitors. Each woman is eager to share the history of the Morton family who once owned the estate.
This is one example of the living history events taking place in Nebraska to give lessons based on the past. Living history events use historical tools, activities and dress to mimic the past as closely as possible. The events range from tours in historic homes to battle reenactments to interactive exhibits in local museums.
“The times were so different from now. To see what people experienced and being able to learn from it is so amazing,” said Taylor Bartek, a visitor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Arbor Lodge Mansion hosts living history events
Living history events are held on weekends between Sept. 1 to Oct. 31 at Arbor Lodge Mansion each year. 2020 marks the 40th year of “Living History Weekends.” The events are a part of the Harvest Celebration, hosted by the Arbor Day Farm.
“Living history keeps history alive. We can’t rewrite it, but we can relive it and learn from it,” said Lucille Sharp, an Arbor Lodge Mansion volunteer living in Nebraska City.
Sharp, a former rural school teacher near Nebraska City, began volunteering at the Arbor Lodge Mansion in 2009. She shares the stories of the Morton family, as an example of Nebraskan history, with visitors as they explore the 52-room mansion. Families learn historic lessons through the mansion’s direct connection to the founding years of Nebraska. Sharp offers her own perspective on the one-room schoolhouses across Nebraska in the 19th to 20th centuries.
“I was one of the last groups who took 12-credits over one summer at Peru State and became qualified to be a teacher in a rural school,” Sharp said.
Sharp graduated in the 1960s. At the time, Nebraska had over 1,000 school districts with one-room schools and a large need for teachers. Today, Nebraska consists of 431 school districts. All of which contain multiple grade levels and rooms, according to the Nebraska Department of Education.
Sharp’s exhibit is one of many interactive activities held in the mansion. In the main entry, women share the mansion’s history before sending inviting visitors to explore on their own. After climbing the staircase to the third floor, another woman offers lessons to children to make their own cloth dolls to take home.
First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry offers living history events
The First Nebraska Infantry became the only Nebraskan infantry regiment to serve in the Civil War in 1861. Today, reenactors of the First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry participate in living history events of their own across central and eastern Nebraska towns such as Ord, Brownville and Omaha.
The First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry performs drills, parades and recreations as part of their routine for living history events. Last year, in Brownville, the reenactment enveloped the entire town as actors fought from one end of the town to the other.
“The town loved it. We started on one end of the town and fought our way across the town during the skirmish that we put together,” said Capt. Josh Andersen of the First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry reenactment group.
The unit was scheduled to participate at the Bellevue Berry Farm the weekend of Oct. 23-25 but withdrew to protect the health of older members.
“Generally, to portray a Civil War reenactment properly, you have to be shoulder-to-shoulder. That doesn’t go well with social distancing, typically. It was a no-brainer considering the level of risk to older guys in the unit,” Andersen said.
The troop consists of 20-25 men, women and children from towns across Nebraska. Some members travel from as far as Hershey and Red Cloud to volunteer their time. The Volunteer Infantry has canceled its remaining events in 2020 because of the pandemic.
“We can give people a sense of what they might have seen; it gives a personal connection to the soldiers. It takes an overall scheme of what they have learned and gives a visceral feeling of history,” Andersen said.
The “scheme” Andersen refers to are the drills, formations and fights during the Civil War.
There are also a number of living history events in western Nebraska. Scottsbluff’s Legacy of the Plains Museum, near the panhandle, allows visitors to interact with collections of pioneer and early community artifacts. Living history events aim to share lessons from the past in a memorable way for visitors.
“Even though it’s our translation, living history is a record of the past,” Sharp said.