Historic interpreters help make learning about history both fun and interesting

You don’t need H.G. Wells' time machine to find out about life in 18th century Delaware: all it takes is a trip in the family car.

Just a few short miles south of Dover stands Poplar Hall, a three-story brick home dating back to 1740. Standing on what once was a 5,000-acre plantation, the house was built by wealthy Quaker and tobacco farmer Samuel Dickinson, who moved there from Maryland. It later became home to his eldest son John, a man whose intellect helped shaped the American Revolution and who influence at one time was second only to that of Benjamin Franklin.

Visitors to the John Dickinson plantation can wander through the meticulously restored home to see how wealthy landowners, tenant farmers, indentured servants and even slaves lived around the time of the Revolution. And while they’re there, they’ll be guided by historical interpreters dressed in period clothing who take great delight in talking about such things as loom weaving, candle dipping, paper quilling, 18th century food preparation and even the art of decorating for the holidays.

“We’re people who have a passion for history,” noted Gloria Henry, site supervisor at the plantation. “We have a passion for the subject matter and for wanting to share it.”

The plantation is owned by the state of Delaware and operated by the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, which also is responsible for several other historic sites throughout the First State. In all, about 45 full- and part-time personnel and volunteers work at the historic sites.

‘Oh, that’s a job?’

But the Dickinson Plantation is unique in that most of the people who work there would not look out of place if suddenly transported 250 years back in time.

One of them is 35-year-old Chris Merrill, a native Delawarean who goes to work dressed in a white linen shirt, waistcoat and woolen trousers. In the summer, Merrill trades in the trousers for a pair of knee-length breeches and long stockings.

Merrill, however, doesn’t wear the tricorn hat one might expect to see on someone from Colonial times: he prefers a floppy, roundish covering more in keeping with an upper middle class man who may have worked on the Dickinson farmstead.

A graduate of Wesley College, Merrill holds a degree in political science with a history minor. He had other plans when he received his diploma.

“This wasn’t what I intended to do once I got out of college,” he said. “I just sort of fell into it.

“I’m not the kind of person who likes to sit behind a desk,” Merrill added.

Like almost all historic interpreters, Merrill works as a casual seasonal, meaning he’s on the job less than 30 hours a week. His schedule at the plantation can stretch from only three hours a day up to seven.

That allows him more time for his other callings: working as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Smyrna -- he was named Firefighter of the Year in 2011 -- as well as playing trumpet in the Citizens’ Hose Company Band.

Merrill often is paired with Melissa Fitzgerald, 32, who is originally from Camden.

Fitzgerald commutes to the plantation from her current home in Lewes, and admits she sometimes gets curious looks from other drivers. Like Merrill, she dresses for work at home, and so it’s not unusual to see her behind the wheel or pumping gas dressed in a long skirt, petticoat, apron and bonnet.

Fitzgerald holds degrees in illustration and painting from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the Savannah College of Art and Design, as well as a minor degree in history.

“What happened to me is kind of what happened to Chris,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do after college.”

Fitzgerald started working as a historic interpreter at Fort Delaware through the AmeriCorps program, and met her husband, Sean Carrow, while at the Pea Patch Island fort.

When not at Poplar Hall, she teaches at Painting with A Twist in Lewes.

Fitzgerald’s interest in history dates to a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, when she was an admittedly shy third-grader. There, she saw people in costume, working in the stores, streets and workshops of the town’s historic district.

That awakened something in her.

“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a job?’” she said, adding, “When I got out of college, my parents asked me what I wanted to do.

“My first thought was, is there a museum when I can do living history?”

Like all of the historic interpreters at the plantation, Merrill and Fitzgerald portray people who might have lived and worked there during Dickinson’s time, but not specific individuals. They also don’t pretend they’re actually from the Colonial time period, which frees them to talk about how customs and everyday life in the 18th century is reflected in the 21st.

A forgotten Founding Father

John Dickinson actually lived at Poplar Hall for only a few years; the rest of his time was spent in Wilmington and Philadelphia. A lawyer by trade, he was widely influential as Americans sought to cut ties with Great Britain. He was a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses, and helped draft the Articles of Confederation, the precursor to today’s Constitution.

Perhaps because of his Quaker roots, Dickinson favored a peaceful resolution of American complaints against King George III, and declined to sign the Declaration of Independence. This caused him to lose much of his earlier influence and he rarely is remembered today as one of America’s Founding Fathers.

Leaving Philadelphia in July 1776, he enlisted in the Delaware militia under Caesar Rodney, but returned to Congress three years later to represent Delaware. He served as president (governor) of Delaware from 1781 to 1783 and during part of that time also as president of Pennsylvania, until 1785. Dickinson later worked to write Delaware’s Constitution of 1791, in which he wanted to prohibit slavery. A slave owner himself -- several slaves are listed by name in contemporary documents -- Dickinson had manumitted all of his slaves by 1787. In failing health by the 1790s, he retired to Wilmington, dying there in 1808.

Dickinson is buried in Wilmington, although his father Samuel lies within the grounds of the plantation.

Dickinson had expanded the manor house at least twice before it was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1804. Following his death, it remained in the family until the last century, where it was sold a number of times. Poplar Hall and 12 surrounding acres was purchased by the National Dames of Colonial America in 1952, and presented to the state of Delaware. It has undergone several restorations since and now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Educational and fun

Historic interpreters are encouraged to conduct their own research into areas that interest them, and clues found in Delaware’s public archives have led to the reconstruction of several outbuildings on the Dickinson plantation, including a smokehouse and small one-room living quarters. There also was a slave cemetery somewhere on the farm’s original acreage, but its location now is lost.

As a historic interpreter, a typical day might find Merrill carrying wood to the smokehouse, where he actually roasts hams and other meats, as done during Dickinson’s time. Fitzgerald likes to demonstrate hearth cooking using 18th century recipes, building a fire and showing visitors how foods were prepared at the house.

Another interpreter, dressed in Colonial petticoats and a cap, Charolenne Shehorn came to Poplar Hall after working 38 years for Kraft. She was hooked after attending a program about translating Colonial documents.

“I never left,” she said, adding she’d sometimes take vacation days to spend as a volunteer at Poplar Hall. Although now a state employee at the plantation, her husband, Richard, still volunteers by helping with blacksmithing and beer brewing exhibitions.

“Everyone out here has a passion about the history, about the house, about the people who lived here,” Shehorn said. “They just bring you in on that passion, it’s addicting!”

The Dickinson plantation is open six days a week, year-round, and the interpreters are there, regardless of the weather. They must learn about the Dickinson period and be well schooled in how life was lived in Colonial times.

They also have to know about the surrounding area, often giving directions and travel information to tourists.

“We don’t stick to a script,” Henry said. “We do our research and it’s up to the interpreter to give that information in an educational and fun way to our visitors.”

“That’s the key part,” added Vertie Lee, who is the plantation’s historic site interpreter.

“You want to take your love for history and pass that on to an interested audience. You engage your visitors so they can put everything into context.”

Henry agrees.

“You want to be able to find something they’re interested in so they can take it and interest others.”