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Volume 24, Number 6 — June 2017

History Through Stories in Piney Flats

Young ladies light the way with lanterns during Rocky Mount's ACandlelight Christmas celebration.
Young ladies light the way with lanterns during Rocky Mount's ACandlelight Christmas celebration.
Additional photos below »

Rocky Mount celebrates A Candlelight Christmas

By Leslie Grace / A! Magazine for the Arts | November 27, 2012

If you follow the march of the Overmountain Men, you'll arrive at Rocky Mount Museum, where the focus shifts to everyday life.

The war is over, George Washington is president; and it is now 1791 at the historic home of the William Cobb family.

Throughout the year, paid and volunteer interpreters tell the story of the Cobb family. But for two weekends in December — Dec. 7 and Dec. 8 and Dec. 14 and Dec. 15 — it is Christmas 1791. Governor Blount has brought his family from North Carolina to visit, and it is time for a celebration. But Christmas at Rocky Mount isn't quite like a modern holiday either.

"It was a much less commercial holiday," Gary Walrath, executive director, says. "It was more spiritual and a celebration of the year's successes. It was actually more like a modern New Year's Eve than our modern Christmas. In 1791, it was an adult-focused event."

Rocky Mount holds the Candlelight Christmas each year to help tell the story of the Cobb family and what life was like more than 200 years ago. The celebration includes storytelling, candlelit tours, music, dance and decorations.

"We use more than 1,000 candles during the four-evening event," Walrath says. "Rocky Mount probably used 600 to 700 during an entire year, but modern visitors are used to more light, and we want to make sure it is safe for people to walk from one place to another. The candles are made on the property and are just one of the crafts that you can see during a visit."

During the Christmas celebration, an interpreter begins by telling the story of how the holiday was celebrated in 1791 and who was at Rocky Mount. Visitors move from the great room, to the dining room, kitchen and slave cabin and in each room learn about frontier life from the perspective of different family members and Ruth, one of the family's slaves. "'Mr. Cobb also compares what it is like in 1791 versus when he first came to Rocky Mount in 1769," says Walrath.

Food, clothing, decorations, music and dance are true to the 1791 period.

"We try to keep everything authentic," Walrath says. "The house is decorated with greenery, but not a Christmas tree because they didn't become popular until the 19th century. But the Cobb family would have used berries and locally available fruits. Since they were rather affluent, we also use pomegranates and pineapples because they would have been available at Dedrick's Store in Jonesborough, Tenn."

The music during the celebration uses violin, flute, recorder, hammer dulcimer, a banjo made from gourds and voices. According to Walrath, drums would not have been used, because at the time they were considered more a military instrument than a musical instrument. This year Trae McMaken will entertain. An adjunct professor in the bluegrass, old time and country music program at East Tennessee State University, he plays the fiddle and banjo and studies the music of the period. He also mixes storytelling in with his performance.

Research is constant at Rocky Mount. When they can't find specifics, they try to stay true to the Cobb family heritage. "We choose cultural aspects based on what would have been English, Virginian or North Carolinian. Southerners were more fun than Plymouth residents would have been," Walrath says.

"Since we were at the frontier, people would move here and then continue west; communities were just starting," says T. J. DeWitt, program coordinator. "The usual source of information to find out what materials made it here is estate records. Since people moved on rather than staying, the estate records aren't available. Even the Cobbs moved closer to Knoxville. At least Mr. Cobb did; it is unclear if Mrs. Cobb died here or after they moved. This lack of estate records makes it difficult to pinpoint what instruments, music, etc., were here in 1791. It's part of the challenge of recreating a moment in history. Rather than give a false impression of certainty, we talk about what is possible."

They've even researched the dance that will be performed at Christmas. "Dances are well documented. Dance masters used to come to houses and teach the dances," says MaryGrace Walrath, a volunteer interpreter. "The type of dance you did indicated your social status. They might have danced the minuet, but that's too intricate for the time we have to spend with groups during the Candlelight Celebration, so we chose the dargasan, a stately country dance."

The clothing is also as accurate as they can make it and much of it is sewn by hand.

"We sew the more simple pieces, like shirts and weskits (a vest) by hand," DeWitt says. "The more complicated pieces, such as top coats, we purchase from people who make period clothing. In 1791, the styles were beginning to change because of the influence of travelers who were bringing in styles that were influenced by the French Empire style. Part of this was due to the French Revolution. After independence from Britain, settlers wanted to distance themselves, and since they were no longer under the 1763 law that prevented people from moving in, the new trends began to show up."

MaryGrace Walrath points out that fashion was also influenced by a person's age. "If you were of my generation, you would probably continue to wear the styles that you were used to rather than try the newer fashions."

Fabrics that would have been available are wool, linen, cotton, silk and satin. They would have dyed some of their own fabric on site and raised plants that were used to make dyes, such as the yellowwood tree which made a citron-colored dye.

Dying fabrics and weaving are just a few of the crafts that are demonstrated at Rocky Mount. Other crafts include basket making, spinning, pewter casting, blacksmithing, tatting, food preservation and cooking, storytelling, corn shuck dolls, quilling (making pens), stenciling and making paper.

"We demonstrate paper making, even though the Cobb family would probably have purchased their paper, because we think it's important that people see how it would have been done," says DeWitt.

The crafts are demonstrated at the time they would have occurred during 1791. So you may see weaving in the spring after the sheep are sheared and food preservation in the fall after the harvest. While many of these crafts, such as basket making, were practical matters, they were also designed to be aesthetically pleasing.

"It's universal that people like things that they appreciate or like to show off to the neighbors," DeWitt says. "They may not always be pleasing to a modern eye. At the time it was popular to have as many different colors or combinations of colors as possible. It was a way of showing that you could afford it."

But many of the crafts, such as woodworking and architectural details, are still seen as beautiful. Many of the details can be seen throughout Rocky Mount, such as in the spindles on the staircase.

The museum at Rocky Mount contains lathes, planes and other tools that would have been used to make architectural details and furniture. The museum is used as an adjunct interpretation of the historic site. Its time line starts pre-settlement of the site and tells the Cobb family's story through its later years, rather than focusing on 1791.

"When we teach crafts we try to talk about how they were done in 1791 and how they are done now," MaryGrace Walreth says.

The demonstrations and teaching are all done "in character," says MaryGrace Walreth who usually plays Mrs. Cobb's sister, and says the interpreters do not consider themselves actors.

"Actors have a script to follow; interpreters improvise while staying in character and remembering historical accuracy. The stories we tell will change depending on the audience and the questions they ask," she says. "We become our characters, and we interact with each other as if we were those characters. The interpreter who plays my brother calls me "sister,' even outside Rocky Mount."

The interpreters range from volunteers as young as 12, who show off their room just like children do in modern times, to adult volunteers and paid interpreters. DeWitt started as a volunteer when he was in high school and says he "got hooked."

Storytelling is not just used to illustrate history; it's taught as an art form during their summer camps. "One year, we used "Aesop's Fables' because they would have been used at the time," MaryGrace Walrath says, "We encourage the students not to memorize the stories but to learn them and then tell them in their own words."

Whether the interpreters at the Muster Grounds or Rocky Mount are using their own words or recreating the words of days gone by, the art of teaching history through storytelling is thriving at both places.

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Justin Starlett looks at the feast prepared at Rocky Mount.