While this year’s fifth annual Civil War Days at Gordon Hall is both a fitting end to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and a continuance of the Dexter Area Historical Society’s well-executed effort to put on an event of this magnitude, it’s probably not well known that the effort to pay off and eventually restore Gordon Hall to its mid 19th century glory stands out as a leading nationwide success story.
The community that has grown around Civil War history and reenactment is tight-knit and there is much awareness of the historic assets that have survived the past 150 years, many of which are in need of restoration. So when someone like former Director of the Monroe County Historical Museum John Gibney calls out your historic rescue and restoration effort as the crowning achievement of historic restoration during a five-year remembrance of the Civil War, that means something.
“This is the biggest preservation project that has been accomplished during the sesquicentennial,” Gibney said. “That’s something that most people don’t even realize. The biggest thing on our agenda is trying to save Fort Wayne, and we’re not even close to getting awareness out on that.
“But to have something like (Gordon Hall), which looked like it was impossible to do and have (the society) accomplish it in the amount of time that they’ve done it is spectacular.”
Gibney said that the Dexter Area Historical Society and the members of the public who supported them in paying off a nearly $1.5 million mortgage on Judge Samuel Dexter’s house should all be proud of what has been accomplished, since the property was purchased from the University of Michigan in 2005.
“You seldom see victories like this in preservation,” he added. “But once you get people involved … and they realize it’s important, it’s amazing what can be accomplished.”
Falling in with the crowd
George Till, of Chelsea, is probably one of the better examples of getting people involved in an effort like the one behind preserving and ultimately restoring Gordon Hall, the latter of which will cost at least another $2 million.
Initially he only had an interest in Civil War uniforms, and then his wife convinced him to come with her to the Waterloo Farm Museum, despite his reluctance. “She taught at Eberwhite Elementary School, so she really wanted to go, but I didn’t really want to go. I never had a desire to do any of this whatsoever.”
Going to the museum led to chatting with members of the 24th Michigan Infantry, which in turn led to them loaning Till some Civil War era historical goodies. Next thing he knew, he was hitting the books for research on the Civil War with a passion, and he started going to events (without needing his wife’s convincing).
“I really think one of the reasons I do this is because those guys from long ago are talking through me,” Till explained. “I do a lot of presentations and talks at schools, and whenever I give a talk in Chelsea, in particular, I tell whoever’s listening to go past the high school to Oak Grove Cemetery, which is full of Civil War veterans.
“I always close with, ‘This is your hometown and you need to go visit that cemetery, or if you have an interest look somebody up, and it works. You have to respect that these guys fought for some very abstract ideas, many of which we take for granted today.”
Learning history through prose
Civil War Poet and Bard Jim Ribbe expresses his passion for that period of American history through a love of the era’s poetry, which carried some of the hard lessons that many young men and women learned, if they were lucky enough to come out the other end of the conflict alive.
“I remember a couple of women walking up to me, and so I recited a poem about a mother getting a letter from her son who’s already dead (in the war),” said Ribbe, who is always looking for a way to connect people in the present with what people who live through the Civil War went through and felt as a result of their experiences.
Ribbe takes audiences at Civil War Days and other such events through the chronological progression of the Civil War era using 23 poems for his “An American Iliad” presentation.
“Using the poetry I take people from the very beginning of the war, where guys are afraid that the war is going to be over before they see their first battle, to the end where these same guys, who are coming back as survivors, are struggling to comprehend what they just went though,” Ribbe explained.
Ribbe’s two favorite Civil War era poets are Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, authors who most people are familiar with from lit studies in high school and college, but for their non-war related works such as Leaves of Grass and Moby Dick. The fact that they double as some of the more prolific Civil War era poets stands to exemplify just how much the war permeated every aspect of American society.
“Melville write a book of Civil War poetry … he wasn’t in the war, but he had a feel for what it was about, since he was a civilian at the time and it was everywhere,” Ribbe explained. “One of his more famous Civil War poems was about a couple of guys before the first battle of Bull Run, and they’re real gung ho — ‘Gayly they go to fight, chatting left and laughing right, but it isn’t going to be long before these guys are educated.'”
Ribbe says that he loves sharing poetry with visitors to events like Civil War Days, with the hope that it will spark enough interest to get people involved in the history, maybe even enough to do research.
“I like to think of it as planting a little seed of interest, so when they go back to school, maybe they’ll look for a book that has some poems in it, or maybe even read about it.”
All three men expressed strong interest in continuing to be a part of any future events at Gordon Hall that are similar to Civil War Days.
Below is a photo gallery of the various camps and other reenactment attractions that can be visited during the day today from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.