PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Historical re-enacting is a walk back in time that often requires a step into the clothes closet.
Steven and Sally Nuckles, of Mt. Lebanon, have a 15-foot by 6-foot closet filled with clothes that allow them to do characters from the French and Indian War or sail on the brig Niagara.
“People always say to us, ‘I know where to come for Halloween,’?” says Steven, who has been portraying characters from the past since 1985.
It is a lifestyle that generally emerges from a fascination with the past, but then becomes a job that requires research into clothing, linguistics, even the personal history of individuals who are being re-enacted.
It is a pastime where expenses grow as rapidly as dedication.
Justin Meinert, a re-enactor who also is the living history program coordinator at the Fort Pitt Museum, Downtown, says it is possible to buy a Colonial-era Brown Bess musket “made in Pakistan for $500 or $600.”
But, he adds, if you want a handmade version that “you can depend on working,” it might be more like $5,000 or $6,000.
Meanwhile, he says, the income is lean to nonexistent. Most re-enactors appear as volunteers, but some do get a small stipend if they offer some sort of talent or craft.
Bruce Egli, of Swissvale, portrays characters from Henry Bouquet, who relieved a besieged Fort Pitt in 1763, to the mythical Johnny Appleseed. Gathering clothing for all of those jobs can get costly, he says.
“There are some people who have enough sense to do one thing,” he says.
Yet, re-enactors constantly fill historical sites from tiny Fort Necessity in Fayette County to Williamsburg, Va.
James Dassatti, executive director of the Vermont-based Living History Association, says there are about 100,000 re-enactors in the United States, with about 60,000 of them concentrating on the Civil War.
Alan Gutchess, executive director of the Fort Pitt Museum, says that Civil War dominance sometimes makes it tough for him to find the types of re-enactors he needs.
“Of course, you have big, glossy magazines about the Civil War, too,” he says with a laugh. “You don’t find those about the French and Indian War.”
But re-enactors of the Colonial era take their work seriously.
Jim DiNucci, a plumbing contractor from Shaler, goes to Williamsburg about 11 times a year to do weekends where he portrays a Colonial patriot militiaman.
Egli recently did his Bouquet presentation at Bushy Run Days, where he not only looked like the colonel, but explained in character the reasons for the Westmoreland County battle.
Re-enacting requires research into clothing along with history — and re-enactors can be harsh judges of their colleagues.
DiNucci says he went to the 225th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party in 1998 and was immediately told he had too much of a “backwoods” look. He was given a coat that made him fit into a more gentrified, Bostonian role.
Erica Nuckles, daughter of the Mt. Lebanon re-enactors, started re-enacting with them when she was 2.
She now is director of history and collections at Fort Ligonier in Westmoreland County and uses a professional approach in her re-enacting work. She says she tries to get three sources to support the use of any piece of clothing she uses.
Because photography was not around, pre-Civil War re-enactors spend time examining paintings and tracking down other clues for matters such as what type of shoes were worn by a Colonial frontierswoman.
“It’s a continual process of evaluation,” Erica Nuckles says.
In the late 18th century, she says, clothing styles changed frequently and other re-enactors can tell if a person is wearing a dress from the 1790s while taking on a War of 1812 role.
Erica focuses on a role as a French-Canadian camp follower during the French and Indian War.
Re-enactors often get involved doing a variety of roles that are so broad they demand a wide-ranging wardrobe.
Egli, for instance, does Christopher Columbus; Henry Bouquet; Jean-Daniel Dumas, an officer from Fort Duquesne and the defeat of Edward Braddock; an early 19th century American soldier; Johnny Appleseed; a World War I soldier; and a Swiss soldier from World War II.
The clothes involved in that work have little value in the marketplace. “With a little luck, I could possibly get $5,000 for (the whole collection),” he says.
Because Steven Nuckles has portrayed continental and British soldiers, a War of 1812 Marine, a Lewis and Clark explorer and other roles, the clothing adds up.
How much have they invested in it?
“Probably way too much,” Sally Nuckles says, sighing. She is a seamstress, so over the 30 years of the family’s work, she has been able to make most of the costumes they have.
But costs add up. She says when she was putting together a uniform of Gen. Edward Braddock for her husband, she had to travel to a specialty shop in Gettysburg for some appropriate red wool. It cost between $60 and $80 a yard, she says, and the whole costume totaled about $1,000.
Besides the expense of making period clothes, there is another drawback: wearing them.
Because re-enactors set the bar high for proper appearance, clothing frequently is made of wool and is quite heavy. Spending a day fighting skirmishes at the Bushy Run Battlefield is a sweaty proposition — except for native American re-enactors, of course.
Shaler’s DiNucci says he stays away from re-enactments that demand spending days in costume, sleeping in tents and not taking showers.
“That got old awfully fast,” he says.
In his work at Williamsburg, the foundation that runs the site provides his clothing and even cleans it for his next visit. “All I have to do is put it in a box when I’m done and give it back to them,” he says.
Re-enacting is more than standing around and looking good, though.
Fort Pitt’s Meinert celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh by spending a weekend in his wool, Civil War uniform and being hauled by train to the nearest railhead. Then, his unit did a night march starting at 2 a.m. to the Tennessee battle site.
Steven Nuckles has participated in a variety of re-creations, including a battle on Lake Erie in the brig Niagara and various stages of the three-year re-enactment of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
He was on the first leg of the trip, leaving Pittsburgh on the keelboat that hauled Meriwether Lewis down the Ohio River on his way to rendezvous with William Clark in 1803.
Of course, he didn’t have the total freedom the two explorers had.
“He would join the expedition for a while and then have to come home and get back to work,” Sally Nuckles says. “But he got to spend some time with them in the Rockies and then we all got together at the end in St. Louis.”
Re-enactors talk of their love of history as the driving force of their work. Sometimes, that fascination means guiding events the right way. Egli recently took part in a discussion at Friendship Hill, the country home of Albert Gallatin in Fayette County.
Gallatin was the Secretary of the Treasury for Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and the event allowed visitors to discuss the early 19th century with Gallatin and Dolley Madison, as portrayed by re-enactors. Egli was present in historical garb simply to steer the talk in the right direction if it got off course.
Steven Nuckles says he and Sally got intrigued by history during their years living near Valley Forge before moving to Pittsburgh around 1982.
He started re-enacting after answering an ad for volunteers at Fort Pitt.
“Education is what it’s all about,” he says. “We just want to pass it on.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com