Walking down the pathway was definitely better than the shuttle offered. I felt we were slipping away from the modern rat race and into a living history.
Before reaching the former capital of Virginia, we stepped off the path to see an outlying homestead. The pause aided the transition to the historically accurate, eighteenth century community spanning 300 acres. Gone were the sounds of automobiles. Here were residents in costume and the original and reconstructed buildings of Colonial Williamsburg. It features some 500 buildings of which 88 are original structures.
Our next stop set the mood and expectations for a day like no other. In the Governor’s Palace, we gathered to hear a story by a young lady who seemed peeled from the history books and presented before us with exuberant life. This was no tour, it seemed real!
War currents swirled in the air. Revolution was on the horizon. And we were part of it. In fact, it was during the Revolutionary War that the capital of Virginia was moved to Richmond.
Marveling at the architecture and gardens as we walked along white picket fences cooled by the enormous shade trees, an unruly gathering occurred in the sprawling lawn before the Governor’s Mansion. We joined the rapidly growing group of tourists and discontents. The plentiful reenactors throughout Colonial Williamsburg worked, socialized, dressed and talked just as people did in colonial times, never breaking character.
Arguments broke out in the crowd. The tension was thick.
“Liberty or death! Liberty or death!” began chanting a young man raising his sword into the air shouting at the top of his lungs.
Within minutes we were swept up in a crowd, nearly trampled, as about a hundred people walked with men carrying muskets and swords while several banged on their war drums. As we approached the Governor’s Mansion, the governor was seen fleeing to the rooftop.
After the crowd dispersed, the unlikeliest of all sites lay before our historic eyes. It was Santa Claus. Well, more like Santa on vacation. With his full white beard and a bowl full of jelly, he also sported bright red shorts. He even laughed like Santa. But Santa on vacation also came with a ball cap, sandals, map and shopping bag.
“Oh-ho-ho,” we definitely snapped a photo of that!
The walk into downtown was nostalgic to say the least. Stylish colonial ladies waved the heat away with their fancy fans. Another lady in a dress sat side saddle on a horse, resting beneath a tall tree at the edge of a dirt road. Laughter from a parked carriage bellowed into the street from a young colonial couple yacking it up with pedestrian friends whose paths crossed by chance. A nearby British flag flapped in the breeze. We continued down a brick sidewalk. A lady came out a front door and beat the dust out of a rug. We were headed to see a fencing lesson.
An elder gentleman gave stern instruction to a younger man eager to learn from the expert swordsman. Both wore knee high leather boots and three quarter length coats. Metal clanged and the crowd around grew larger with each clank of the swords.
Once the streets, sidewalks and storefronts were bustling with intrigued visitors, and costumed colonials littered the crowd, a man on horseback came barreling down the road kicking up clouds of dust shouting for all to hear.
“Blood has been spilled in Massachusetts! British regulars seized gun powder from the magazine in Lexington!”
An ear piercing shriek came from a woman mixed in the crowd, “That’s the same as they did here! It is a conspiracy just as some of us suspected.”
Each actor wore a tiny, nearly unnoticeable microphone that made every word ring with drama that captured everyone’s attention and interest.
A man appeared on the porch of a tavern arguing, “We are only to assume a posture of DEFENSE. Not offense! We cannot be so eager for violence and retribution!”
Later, around a corner, “black folk” were having a conversation. They contemplated what freedoms a revolution may bring them. But after reading more from a bulletin out loud, they realized that any resulting freedoms would not include theirs. The fate of their people was best surmised by a towering man that burst into the surrounding crowd with sudden disgust, “DAMN!”
Our day was filled with such “random” gatherings and outbursts albeit pinpointed by place and time in our visitor’s guide.
After we ate a very tasty colonial lunch in one of the taverns, we explored the courthouse in the midst of a trial. The kids became prisoners in the stockade. We admired the authenticity of those working their trades in shops, including shoe repair, blacksmith, printing, gunsmith, wig maker and plenty more.
A rather elegant carriage led by two horses came to a halt, was tied off and a wealthier looking colonial couple got out to fetch their repaired shoes from inside.
The rows of wood houses were painted in pleasing colors from reds to yellows to whites. The architecture of the old rooftop shingles, wooden shutters and brick chimneys was fantastic. The vastness of the town was quite a lot to take in but we managed. Inside and out, there was constant buzz. The kids stood on a crate to peer into a window here and there. This truly was living history.
Then there was the call to sign up and fight. Young as our children were, they were old enough to enlist. So they signed their names into a ledger and entered an area where there was a gathering of arms. Young men gathered in social circles dressed for war, resting against trees, muskets in hand. Stacks of cannon balls grew next to rows of cannons.
Before there was any bloodshed, we took a few more tours of historic buildings and learned the stories of their inhabitants. And near the end of the return path out of Yesteryear, there was a plaque in the sidewalk that had these words, “What difference will you make?” We put our feet around it and snapped a photo.
Once we were back at the visitors’ center, we noticed the signs for the restrooms were cleverly designed. Each had a colonial person standing, like a woman in colonial hat and dress. It also had a colonial person sitting in a wheel chair. My wife thought it was a photo we needed but every time she snapped the shot, someone walked out the restroom doors, looked startling at her and then behind them, pondering, “What the hell…”
When she finally got her uninterrupted shot, we turned and noticed a trend she started. Other women were also trying to capture the signs with their camera phones. Anyone coming out of the rest room must have felt the Paparazzi-effect – something very un-colonial but always in mind when we reflect back on Colonial Williamsburg.
By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!