October 18, 2021

1890 House takes visitors back to 1864

Travis Dunn/contributing photographer

Julia Adams, left, of Binghamton and Tamara Gates of Owego portray historical characters from 1864 on Saturday at the 1890 House on Tompkins Street.

Doug Weeks of Owego got into this business early. He first started working as a historical interpreter at age 11 at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.

It was his first paid job, portraying “an old time youngster,” he said. He loved it, and that was the beginning of his career.

Weeks and three other historical interpreters endured the extreme heat Saturday in full 19th century garb as they acted out deeply researched historical roles specific to 1864 for visitors to the 1890 House Museum on Tompkins Street in Cortland.

Weeks, the old timer of the group, is the creator of the troupe called Yesterday’s Gentlemen. The lineup has changed over the past few years to include a few ladies, namely Julia Adams of Binghamton and Tamara Gates of Owego, as well as Ed Nizalowski from Berkshire in Tioga County.

Weeks, with a master’s in museum studies from the University of Oklahoma, has spent a career working at museums, but acting out historical characters has gone right along with it.

He’s got the whiskers for it — giant muttonchops that grow right into his mustache, a style sometimes known as “friendly muttonchops.” It’s facial hair made for his portrayal of George Westinghouse, a historical character Weeks happens to match in height, eye color and general build. And, of course, facial hair.

Saturday, that facial hair, a popular 19th century style, was used in the portrayal of Thomas McElrath, publisher of The New- York Tribune, which Horace Greeley founded and edited.

Weeks said the players don’t use a script, but they do spend a lot of time working on their characters. For Adams and Gates, that entails dozens of hours making period appropriate costumes — one dress Adams made took 100 hours to complete. All of them put in countless of hours of historical research, so when visitors talk to them, they can engage them in character.

The point, said Weeks, is to draw people into the historical period they are portraying.

“It’s literally trying to make you interact with history,” he said.

Nizalowski portrayed Hammond Pinney, the leading abolitionist of Tioga County, when Kathy Driscoll of Binghamton walked up to him and Weeks. They conversed, and Weeks, in character as McElrath, complained about the war and the president.

This is one trick to draw people in, Gates said. They don’t get specifically which war or which president they’re talking about, which sometimes confuses people into thinking they mean contemporary events or people.

In this case, Weeks and Nizalowski were referring to the Civil War and President Lincoln.

But when people confuse the two eras, that helps people realize that issues of the past and present are not as disconnected as they sometimes think.

“The more you bring the past to life, it starts people thinking about the fact that we haven’t changed much,” Weeks said.

Driscoll first came to the 1890 House years ago to photograph a wedding.

Saturday, her boyfriend, Aaron Elijah, brought her back as a special treat because she’s such a history buff. They went on a tour and interacted with Weeks and company as an unexpected bonus.

“People say there’s nothing to do,’” she said. “There’s so much to do. And when you’re a history person — of course, definitely.”