One thread of history is that the past isn’t made up of dates and places as much as it is about the people who made those dates and places historic.
Local history buffs have a chance to weave themselves into that thread during the Living History Cemetery Tour at the Tacoma Cemetery. Each year, members of the Fort Nisqually Time Travelers, a select group of living history re-enactors, collaborate to provide presentations of the lives and thoughts of the historical icons who helped form and shape Tacoma into the city we know and love today. The annual event benefits the Tacoma Historical Society.
More than Storytelling
Karen Haas and Walter Neary are two of the re-enactors who help organize and act out the event. They both love history, they like dressing up in period costumes and they have a lot of fun when they mix the two to benefit the community.
“I’ve always loved history — especially the stories of people, who they were, what their lives were like, how things are different because they lived and such,” Haas said. “I’ve also been a storyteller for years, and a ‘professional’ storyteller for more than 25 years.”
Haas first became interested in reenactments after visiting the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum. “When I was told they could use volunteers, and could either dress modern and say, ‘this is how they did things,’ or dress in period garb and become the people, well, I knew there was no question what I’d be doing!” Haas recalls. “Reenacting is a perfect blend of my love of storytelling and my love of history. I especially enjoy bringing to life those whose voices are usually silent in history, which is often the women.”
Haas has been a cemetery tour organizer and re-enactor since 2009 when one of her friends started a cemetery tour in Port Townsend and shared how successful and fun the event was.
“Luckily, Christopher Engh, who manages the Old Tacoma Cemetery, shares our passion for the stories of the people in the cemetery,” Haas said. “His support and help is invaluable.”
Since the start, Haas has portrayed Thea Foss, the legendary founder of Foss Maritime; Edith May Ferris, who built and ran, with her husband, the first boathouse at Point Defiance; Bertha Snell, the first woman to be admitted to the state bar association; Dr. B. Elizabeth Drake, one of the earliest women physicians in Tacoma; Agnes Huth, wife of founder and brewmaster at Pacific Brewing and Malting Co; and Ada Bel Tutton Gifford, who owned a millinery shop in Tacoma. This year, Haas will bring Carrie Shaw Rice to life. Rice was a poet, teacher and principal and was also the first woman on the Washington State School Board.
Digging up the Past
Each year brings a new person to portray based on the annual theme created through discussions with Metro Parks Tacoma Cultural Resource Manager Melissa McGinnis, Christopher Engh, Tacoma Historical Society’s Jeanie Fisher, and historical gurus at the Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room. Once a theme is selected, they research the history of someone buried at the cemetery that matches that particular theme. They then match the historical figure with a re-enactor willing and able to bring that icon alive during a five-minute monologue during the event.
“Sometimes it’s physical appearance,” Haas said of the ‘matching process’ between icon and living historian. “Sometimes it’s personality. And, yes, sometimes we can’t do a particular persona because we don’t have someone who would ‘fit.’ Though, the talent of our Time Travelers is such that we usually have someone who can rise to the challenge.”
Then the real work begins.
Once a re-enactor is matched with the historical figure they will portray, they dive into historical documents, autobiographies and recounts to craft their script as well as build, borrow or craft their period costume.
“As there are not a lot of people who can do all of these well, we do select from quite an elite group,” Hass said. “As the tour has gained popularity — it regularly sells out — we all feel the challenge to keep the quality high. Standing on a person’s grave is also rather the inspiration to portray that person to the best of your ability! We owe it to them — and it’s an honor, a joy, and a challenge to bring them to life.”
Grandchildren and great grandchildren of the figures the re-enactors are portraying routinely attend the tours to see their ancestors come alive.
“We have been told by many that our living history presentations have made a vivid impression and touched them emotionally,” Haas said. “I’ve long believed that living history can be a powerful tool to teach people about history. This particular event — which takes place in one of the most beautiful, peaceful places in all Tacoma — engages the senses in a way unlike any other I’ve been involved in. The people we portray are not just Tacoma icons, many of them are everyday people. But it’s the everyday people who create a community. Tacoma is what it is now because of these people. Their stories need to be remembered. Each person ends their talk with some version of ‘It is not my time, it is yours. And as you go, never forget that you are the guardians of we who have gone before.’ That’s our goal.”
History Repeats Itself
Neary takes that goal very seriously. The former editor of the Lakewood Journal and former Lakewood City Council member has co-authored two history books about local history. He is currently the communications director for Comcast in Washington.
“I love history and what it teaches us and how history repeats itself — though almost always with some new twist that keeps things interesting,” he said. “I want my audience to remember two or three things about the person and appreciate that their life teaches us lessons today. I would never dream that the audience would remember a list of facts like you’d need to pass a test in school.”
Neary first caught the local history bug by volunteering at the Historic Fort Steilacoom Museum Association, when he portrayed Charles Prosch, who edited a newspaper in Steilacoom from 1858 to 1863.
“I love living history because it’s a classy game of pretend that’s socially acceptable for grownups,” he said. “Plus it’s really rewarding to watch as people learn about history through our characters. By portraying the dead, we bring history to life.”
During previous cemetery tours, Neary has portrayed John G. Proctor, the architect who gave his name to the Proctor District; Tacoma editor and historian Herbert Hunt; pioneer Tacoma City Councilman, pharmacist and historian William Bonney; and H.F. Alexander, a shipping magnate who was one of the original owners of Lakewold Gardens. This year, Neary takes on the persona of Homer Post, a Lincoln High School teacher whose journalism students published one of the best newspapers in the country for more than 20 years and who co-wrote a national textbook on high school journalism.
The trick to portraying someone from local history without the benefit of interviews or movies is to largely match the clothes and the “spirit” of a person rather than trying to become their doppelganger. That rarely turns out well.
“We really don’t get hung up on appearance. For example, H.F. Alexander was built like a tank. I am not built like a tank,” Neary said. “But we needed someone to interpret him. I try to do honor to the spirit of the person, and look as much alike as possible by wearing appropriate clothing.”
This year’s Living History Cemetery Tour takes place Friday, July 15 through Saturday, July 16. Tours take place every 20 minutes between 6:00 p.m. and 7:40 p.m. on Friday, and from 5:40 p.m. to 7:40 p.m. on Saturday at the Tacoma Cemetery, 4801 South Tacoma Way. Tickets are $10 and must be purchased in advance at the cemetery or by calling 253-472-3369.