Eighteen years ago, I sat on the bench you see here for the first time, as an nine month-old baby.
Earlier this summer, I sat on it again as a new high school graduate.
You know, we humans are funny. We go about our busy lives and never stop to think about how God is connecting a bigger picture for us, and how relatively little things can impact us in enormous, positive ways.
This bench, and the place it is located, did that for me. My name is Grace, and this is the story of how Colonial Williamsburg changed my life.
In case you’re not familiar with Colonial Williamsburg, allow me to give you a crash course. Often called the largest living history museum in the world, Colonial Williamsburg transports visitors back in time to an eighteenth century American town on the brink of the Revolutionary War. Entire streets have been reconstructed to look exactly as they did in the late 1700’s, and costumed interpreters stroll the area ready to answer questions about the time period, perform street dramas, and generally be amazing.
Think of it as Disney World–but with history.
Eighteen years ago, my family’s lifestyle looked a little different–we kids were all elementary school age (or, ya know, a baby, in my case 😉 ), and all of us were extremely passionate about history. Lifelong homeschoolers…what can I say? 😉
Around this time, my parents decided to give us the ultimate homeschooling field trip/vacation: a trip to Colonial Williamsburg. My brothers launched into studying the time period even more to prepare, while my mother engaged in a different sort of preparation.
You know how I said Colonial Williamsburg is like Disney World? Well, unlike Disney World, you as a guest can actually wear period costumes into the historic area–it’s welcomed, in fact! Thus, my lovely, talented mum began sewing costumes for herself, my dad, my brothers, and even baby me…and have a look at the results!
I think it’s safe to say my family had a literal ball.
As you can see, my brothers adored the activity where you could march with the militia at the Magazine.
Now, I know what you might be thinking…
“But Grace! You were a baby! I’m sure you can’t remember this experience at all! How could Williamsburg change your life if you can’t even remember the trip?”
I hear you, dear reader. I hear you. 😉
Well, one of my brothers ended up going to college only about an hour away from Williamsburg, when I was around ten to twelve years old. For a few years in a row, my mom and I had the opportunity to visit him at the beginning of the summer and help him move out of his dorm room, while at the same time visiting Williamsburg for an entire week.
Yep–an entire week of eighteenth century bliss. 😉
This was just around the time that I was getting intensively into sewing for 4-H, so the obvious thing to do was sew a new colonial gown for myself…and here’s what we ended up with! I was especially thrilled with how this came out because at the time I really loved American Girl dolls/books and the print of the dress reminded me a fair bit of Felicity, the colonial American Girl. That, and the whole red hair thing. 😉
So off we went, and for about three years in a row, heading to Williamsburg during the first week of May was our tradition. It was truly glorious–we would head to the Raleigh Tavern Bakery and buy root beer, ginger cakes, and ham biscuits, and picnic on the Governor’s Palace Green to eat them. We would take literally every single tour available for every historic building and home, and scurry around the historic area to catch all the street dramas we could.
If you ever get to go to Colonial Williamsburg, I 1000% recommend catching all of the street dramas you can–they usually take place on stages behind buildings like Charleton’s Coffee house and the Raleigh Tavern, and they are absolutely gorgeous. Once, I had the pleasure of seeing a tear jerker about a couple getting engaged right before the boy went off to fight in the war, and another time, I saw one about a wealthy loyalist-turned-patriot receiving fencing lessons from an old pro…complete with–*swoon*–actual fencing!
In fact, that’s truly part of the magic of Williamsburg…it’s almost like a play or movie, except the script is ever-changing and you are a character–and when you wear a period costume, you feel even more like a character, because the interpreters treat you as such. The best way I can think of to describe it is this. When you were little, did you ever wear a princess costume to Disney World? You know how the cast members would go out of their way to make you feel special because you took the time to dress up? Well, wearing a period costume to Williamsburg is sort of like that–except, adults are welcome to do it, too. The interpreters never seem resentful…in truth, I think they’re excited to see people get as immersed in the history as they can!
By the way, if you can’t sew or want to go straight to the source, you can rent or buy costumes from Colonial Williamsburg itself–just head to the Visitor’s Center or one of the shops like Tarpley, Thompson, and Company. They have costumes for kids and adults, in both gentry class, formal looks and more middle class, casual wear.
Speaking of which…on one of these visits, I had the immense thrill of attending an evening event at Williamsburg–a ball at the Governor’s Palace.
I couldn’t have been more excited–I was literally living out the events of the Felicity books/movie! Pretty much everyone in attendance was wearing costumes, and let me tell you, the Governor’s Palace looks very different at night than it does during the day. Dozens of lanterns were lit and placed along the path and steps leading to the palace, and inside, every single candle in the chandeliers and sconces was lit. It was truly a living, historic fairytale, and I honestly felt like I had stepped back in time.
This was years before I started attending local English Country Dances and got into dance calling myself, so I don’t actually remember much about the dancing itself–except for the fact that the music was provided by a lone flute player.
Oh, and that I got to be in the head couple for one of the dances, along with a lovely interpreter, and that he let me have the honor of cueing the musician to play the music. 😉
But wait, there’s more. 😉 After the ball was over, it was dark outside, and we happened upon a very kind interpreter from one of the evening tours in the historic area. Actually, he was waiting on another cast member who would lead the tour up to the palace, where he had some specific lines to say to further the story they were telling over the course of the tour.
And he asked us–me and my mom–if we wanted to be in the story.
That’s right–we got to be honorary cast members in the tour! It was absolutely insane, and probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever had the honor of doing.
Sadly, this is the only photo evidence I have of that story…but at least it’s something. 😉
Unfortunately, those years of visits ended, life got busy, and I never thought I’d get to go back to Williamsburg. My years of elementary/middle school unit studies and field trip freedom ended, and I buckled down on dual-enrolling at my community college. Living history took a back seat to textbooks–although I distinctly remember that during one of my first online college classes, I sort-of-not-really-accidentally made my discussion post about the Revolutionary War 1500 words instead of 500. Oops! 😉
Meanwhile, my sewing projects shifted a little. Colonial Williamsburg had done an amazing thing for me–it made wearing costumes in public seem normal. I wasn’t phased by being approached by people asking, “why are you dressed like that?” and I had kind of already experienced the concept of staying in-character. Colonial people at a ball in 1776 simply don’t talk about certain things–the internet being one of them–and do talk about others, like the Stamp Act.
Thus, when I started making Disney Princess costumes and wearing them to volunteer at community events, going out into public places wearing petticoats, capes, and the like was pretty normal and not weird or awkward at all, and the staying-in-character part was an absolute joy.
Last summer, I had the immense pleasure of visiting Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Tampa, Florida as Rapunzel, along with a truly glorious group of other volunteers–and it was here that something just *clicked* for me. I came home knowing that I wanted to work in a place like that. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a nurse, PA, or even a full-on doctor–but I knew one thing.
I saw that the kids who squealed with delight when they met Captain America, Spiderman, and me were just as thrilled to see certain doctors and nurses. People working in a medical capacity in a place like Shriner’s have the opportunity to light up the lives of children every single day with joy and hope, and I knew I wanted to do that or something like it. Currently, my hope is to go into pediatric medicine, although I’m trying to stay open in case God places a different opportunity in my path.
To be honest, I didn’t really connect the mental dots from Williamsburg to Disney Princesses to my career path until this May, when my parents asked me spur-the-moment if I wanted to go back to Williamsburg for my senior trip. Since we live in North Carolina now instead of Florida, it’s only about a three hour drive instead of a thirteen hour drive, and we already owned all the costumes. 😉
Obviously, I was thrilled out of my mind, but I’ll be honest–I was also a little nervous. What if I had gotten so used to being a princess that being a random colonial citizen would feel weird? What if I had outgrown Williamsburg? Would it just make me sad that I’ve grown up and a place I loved doesn’t feel the same anymore?
Well, my dears, I needn’t have worried.
The second we stepped into the lobby of the Visitor’s Center, I wanted to cry tears of joy. The drum and fife corps music playing over the speakers gave me exactly the same chills of excitement it did when I was ten years old.
When my mom and I put on our costumes and hopped off the shuttle at the Capitol building, it was all the same: the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones, the smell of smoked ham wafting out of Chowning’s Tavern, the welcoming interpreters wishing you “good day!”
My life may have gotten crazy and changed over the past decade, but this eighteenth century oasis hadn’t.
So if you don’t mind, I’d like to take you on a little journey through my trip to Colonial Williamsburg this week. Slap on your tricornered hat, and let’s go!
We hopped off at the Capitol, and here I am still trying to be Felicity almost ten years later. 😉
We slipped into the apothecary to listen to some interpreters talk about eighteenth century medicine, and as always, the interior of the buildings are just as stunning as the outside, with insanely accurate props.
We popped into the Raleigh Tavern Bakery, and discovered that one super cool change has taken place since we last visited–they actually bake the ginger cakes in the colonial area now, and you can purchase them straight out of the oven! Excuse me while I cry more happy tears.
Also, the mossy roofs are incredible this time of year.
While we ate lunch, a colonial cardinal decided to grace us with his presence! Eighteenth century birds are so obliging. 😉
One of the other best parts of Williamsburg is that all of these back gardens and alleys are unlocked–you’re free to wander, and they are truly gorgeous.
Seriously, if you ever need ideas for short stories or even entire screenplays, come to Colonial Williamsburg. There’s a potential story behind everything!
Also, because I’m silly, I thought this was amusing. 😉 This “not open to visitors” door was open! I discreetly stuck my camera lens in and sneaked a picture, and, anticlimactically, the contents were only cases of ginger ale. So much for being a revolutionary war spy! 😉
Some of my absolute favorite parts of Colonial Williamsburg are the shop signs–like this one!
Fun fact…in colonial fonts, a lowercase “s” often looks like a lowercase “f”–and it took me literally years to figure that out. For the longest time, I thought this sign actually said “done in the beft manner”, and that “beft” was some kind of metal working technique. 😛
And this brings me to one of my favorite places, Tarpley, Thompson, & Company! Once again, the moment I walked in, I wanted to cry happy tears. For years, some of my favorite things to purchase here were the soap balls and bath powders, and that same smell greeted me the moment I walked in.
I was, however, thrilled to find something new–colonial sunglasses for only $15 (with a carrying case)! In case you ain’t figured it out yet, I’m a nerd, and these remind me a lot of the glasses they used in National Treasure to read the map on the back of the Declaration of Independence.
You can also buy/rent period costumes here, from children’s gowns to adult riding habits, and even sewing patterns for all kinds of colonial garb, not to mention beautiful accessories.
Even the doors are gorgeous! LOOK at this door! It’s the little things, y’all. 😉
Oh yes, I also have a game now, in case you didn’t know. 😉
Also, I highly recommend memorizing “Language of the Fan” for future reference–you never know when it could come in handy! 😉
Once again, the back alleys are the most gorgeous things ever!
Also, my Newsies-obsessed self absolutely freaked out at this insanely cool, operating printing press. I know, I know, wrong time period, but still! 😉 You can actually buy reproduction prints made on this press, but we’ll come back to that later.
Gotta love ye olde poft office. 😉
FOR NARNIA!! Ooops, wrong time period again. I can’t stick to only one. 😉
I was photographing this beautifully mossy brick wall (what, I’ve got a thing for moss! 😉 ) when a horse and carriage decided to grace the background. ❤
It is pretty accurate to say that this weaver’s shop is what got me interested in textiles and wool way back when…so I also probably owe my love of fiber art to Williamsburg, too!
Just some courthouse artsiness for ya. 😉
Don’t mind this guy, just posing on his cannon before the firing of the noon gun at the Magazine. 😉
….and there it is!
Someone let me live at the Raleigh Tavern, please…or at least let me own this lantern that I think is my new aesthetic.
Colonial teapots, y’all. I love them. Oh, wait…tea tax…no taxation without representation….(patriotism intensifies)….I love pots for holding unspecified warm beverages that are totally not tea! 😉
At about this point, I started actually crying (as did my mom) because the fife and drum corps marched through town. I grew up listening to this music on CDs and it is truly gorgeous–and seals the deal of making you feel like you’re really in the eighteenth century. Also, cute soldier boys don’t hurt anything. 😉
Alrighty, on to Day #2. This brings me to one of my all-time favorite spots in Williamsburg–Charlton’s Coffee House! Here, you can take a tour and learn about how coffee shops have always been the trendiest place on the block, and at the end, drink a cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate with an interpreter! Just a tip…always get the chocolate. Always.
Mr. Charlton out here spilling the tea (literally) about Williamsburg’s elite in his notebook. 😉
This chocolate is literally the stuff of dreams. They make it with a colonial recipe that involves tons of spices, cayenne pepper, and super dark chocolate. Also it’s free, so…why would you not? 😉
Okay, so next up, I’ve got to ramble for a while. In all my years of coming to Williamsburg, every interpreter I’ve ever heard speak has been completely awesome and knowledgeable--but y’all. On this trip, we had the immense pleasure of hearing Young Thomas Jefferson speak, and he was absolutely magnificent.
Now, I say “young” because that’s part of his title, to distinguish from Old Thomas Jefferson, who portrays TJ in his later years. In fact, the amazing actor for OTJ worked there eighteen years ago when my family went and my brothers loved him. 🙂 They’ve just come out with a book about OTJ’s actor, by the way…I read a bit of it in the shops and it looked wonderful.
But back to Young Thomas Jefferson, whom my mom and I quickly dubbed YTJ. 😉 YTJ was insanely fantastic, and talked for about an hour before taking questions from the audience. Everything he spoke about was completely relevant to today’s world, from putting civility back in debating, to why the public needs to take a greater interest in government.
Right from the beginning, I knew it was going to be a fun time, because YTJ declared that he should take a vote as to whether or not we actually wanted to hear him talk. Of course, everyone said, “aye”, and when he asked if there were any “nays”, everyone went dead silent. However, one lone little boy of about eight years old stood up, threw his hands in the air, and yelled, “Of course there aren’t! We’re talking about independence here!” I love that kid. 😛
Another favorite of mine was when someone asked a question and YTJ asked the man where he was from. He answered that he was from Michigan, and YTJ incredulously said, “Sir, I think you mean Michigania. I named it that myself.”
After his allotted time was over, YTJ exited the stage, but continued to talk to anyone who had questions, whilst taking photos with kids and adults alike.
As someone who knows the struggles of staying in-character, I was blown away by how YTJ managed to stay within his persona while deftly answering every single question with grace. He was extremely knowledgable, and also amazingly kind to all the younger kids who wanted pictures.
My mom and I managed to capture some great moments of YTJ talking…allow me to provide commentary. 😉
Also, I have to give a major shoutout to the random bystander who, when YTJ and I got our picture together, said very loudly, “Well, they’re a cute couple!” I love you, random bystander. You made my day. 😛
After this, mom and I hopped over to the Williamsburg Art Museum, where we caught the tail end of a performance by the Marquis de Lafayette and James Armistead Lafayette (the legendary Revolutionary War spy). I wish we had gotten to see this show from the beginning, but what we did see was fantastic. Once again, super relevant topics and incredible cast members!
I got a picture with Lafayette, and he was also, like YTJ, amazing at greeting guests and answering questions knowledgeably. Sorry about the blurry picture…bad indoor lighting!
Notice that at this point in the day, we were not wearing our costumes…that will be significant later. 😉
We then grabbed some lunch at the nearby Mellow Mushroom and changed into our costumes, since we heard that the Governor’s Palace was open for self-guided tours in the evening–perfect for photos!
I won’t bore you with too many, but suffice it to say that this little redhead patriot had lots of fun spying on Williamsburg’s loyalist HQ. 😉
Also…I ruin every dramatic moment because that’s just who I am. Maybe I wouldn’t be such a great spy, after all. 😉
The governor liked to have a constant show of power by displaying weapons…and he certainly had a large decorating budget. 😛
Why do I love colonial people’s desks so much?
Also, all I want in life is to sit in this window seat knitting and talking to my cardinal.
I found a mirror!
Just fulfilling all my Abigail Adams dreams….
….and then ruining the moment, of course. 😉
At this point, we wandered the palace gardens for a few hours, just taking pictures and recalling memories. These used to be some of my all-time favorite places to hang out back in the day–because not a lot of people are aware of these lovely, hidden spots.
Specifically, this hole in the wall always fascinated me when I was younger…I mean, why is it there?! Once again, a potential story in the making!
And here we see, once again, that I ruin literally every dramatic moment. 😛
In case you can’t tell, I’m stepping on Lord Dunmore’s Palace Green lawn in this picture, because there’s not exactly a convenient harbor to dump tea into…so this was the biggest show of resistance I could come up with. Deal with it, tories. 😛
Please hire me for a slightly historically inaccurate colonial romcom, Hallmark Channel. 😛
I call this one, “trying to flee the loyalists’ ball when they find out you’re a patriot spy only to discover that this is not, in fact, a staircase that leads to Duke of Gloucester Street, but rather a staircase that leads to a very small hilltop overlook.” 😛
Future employers, my special skills include looking dramatically into the distance whilst standing on stairs. 😛
I thought it was really interesting how these brick pillars obviously used to hold a gate that has been ripped off (hence the holes), possibly symbolizing something about freedom. That, or maybe I’m just an overdramatic person who reads into things too much. 😉
Also, if y’all ever get to go to Williamsburg, you must check out this gorgeous arbor back in the gardens.
Here’s my daddy holding me in this arbor when I was a baby!
I think it’s super cool how this one location hasn’t changed at all. Seriously, if you compare these photos, the arbor itself is exactly the same.
Also, cool fused trees. Once again–story in the making! See, there are even dozens of scratched initials on these trees! Get on this, writers!
Gotta love angry, colonial ducks.
Adding this “HUZZAH” soap dish to my Christmas list ASAP.
Okay, so here I’m going to insert another picture of the Magazine for two reasons.
Number one: the sky is really pretty.
Number two: something hilarious and mysterious happened at this exact moment involving our old friend, Lafayette.
Okay, so remember how I told you to remember that when we met Lafayette, we were not wearing our costumes? Remember how right after that, we changed so that we could take photos during the evening at the Governor’s Palace, when you didn’t need to have a tour guide to wander around?
Well, this was the next morning, and at this exact moment, we were wearing normal clothes again. Right after I snapped this picture, I heard a very familiar voice loudly talking about the Magazine and leading a tour of about thirty people. They were about to cross the sidewalk that we were currently walking down.
It was Lafayette–and he immediately stopped in his tracks, halting the entire tour, and greeted us.
*Please mentally read this in your best rich, fancy, French voice–think Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast.*
“Well, hello again, ladies! Did I not see you last night at the Governor’s Palace?”
Okay, so at this point, about thirty tourists are staring at us, wondering why the heck Lafayette is stopping the entire tour to talk to a random redhead girl and her mom…so even though we obviously hadn’t seen him at the palace in the evening (we saw him at the auditorium in the afternoon), we of course said something along the lines of,
“Yes, you did!”
“I really must compliment your mantua maker. Well, have a wonderful day!” Lafayette replied before waving, bowing, and continuing to lead his tour down the street.
We quickly leaped onto the magical Google machine and came up with the following, from Wikipedia.
“A mantua is an article of women’s clothing worn in the late 17th century and 18th century.”
Wait…Lafayette was obviously talking about our costumes–but we weren’t wearing them when we met him, and he referenced us being at the palace in the evening, not at the auditorium in the afternoon.
HOW DID HE KNOW, GUYS? Seriously, how?!
My guess is that, 1) he was getting off work and heading to the employee’s parking lot, which I’m pretty sure is back behind the gardens somewhere, and saw us taking pictures, 2) that maybe he was in a different, more discreet colonial person’s outfit and was working at the palace somewhere and saw us, or 3) that maybe some employees were crowded around a security camera monitor laughing at this redhead girl in a costume twirling around while her mom snapped pictures. 😛
That last option is my favorite.
Or, you know, he might simply have spies everywhere, since he’s Lafayette and that’s kind of what he does. 😉
Actually, all the interpreters had gone home by the time we left the palace, and we thought we were locked in for a minute. Reboot of Night at the Museum, anyone? 😛
Once again: I would like to live in Tarpley’s, please. Is that too much to ask? 😛
That day, we stayed for a few hours before we had to start driving home, and I did discover something really cool that I didn’t previously know about…for only a few dollars, you can buy reproduction prints of speeches, handbills, and newspaper articles in certain shops! I found one I really love called “Sentiments of an American Woman”, written anonymously during the war by the wife of a soldier. These are so inexpensive, and I plan to frame the ones I got as cool art pieces…not to mention the words are incredibly inspiring.
In other news, we took the tour of the coffeehouse again, because, obviously, free hot chocolate. 😉
So, in conclusion…
My senior trip was an absolute dream come true. I’d always loved Colonial Williamsburg and thought it would be cool to go back, but until I was actually there again I never really put together the mental puzzle pieces of everything Williamsburg has done for me.
Colonial Williamsburg showed me that my love of costumes wasn’t weird, and neither was my love of history and on-the-spot, in-character improv.
It strengthened my passion for history, and my love of my country.
It gave me and my mom something to bond over that has never lost its thrill over the last eighteen years.
It showed me that everyone, from Thomas Jefferson down to the littlest fife player, played an important role in the revolution.
It showed me that honor, civility, etiquette, and chivalry never go out of style.
It showed me that we can all make a difference, no matter what time and place we are put in…
…and although I came home from Colonial Williamsburg a little tired out physically, I felt emotionally recharged. I felt as though God had given me an enormous gift.
Whether we realize it or not, I think that we tend to subconsciously place ourselves on islands. It is so easy to start thinking that we’re weird for being interested in certain things, or that we’re the only ones who feel a certain way.
Personally, I feel that a lot, especially since moving. I’m not going to lie–I’ve felt pretty lonely more than a few times this year. Our society is one that preaches individuality, but ends up leaning towards conformity more and more every day. If you don’t know what I mean, just walk into a mall on a Saturday morning. The current climate seems to be that it’s great to be individualistic–so long as you do it the right way.
History, costumes, and character acting have been loves of mine for as long as I can remember, but I think in my loneliness I started thinking I was alone in those passions.
One step inside the Visitor’s Center, and that passion came rushing back into me all at once:
I’m not the only one.
There are hundreds of employees who work at Williamsburg because they love remembering and bringing history to life, just like me. Millions of people have visited Williamsburg because they want to immerse themselves in the past, just like me. Williamsburg sells and rents out costumes because there are people out there who want to go all in on the experience, just like me. Odd as it may seem, it all felt so validating.
Looking at the big picture, Colonial Williamsburg quite literally changed my life because it was my first exposure to people who use characters and stories to impact people on multiple levels.
Sure, Thomas Jefferson made some amusing jokes during his speech, and was kind enough to hug little kids who wanted pictures with him, but he also spoke about so many thought provoking topics that I’m certain people remembered long after they went home.
I bet the little boy who stood up and yelled about independence will carry the memory of Williamsburg his entire life…I know my brothers and I did.
The concept of being entertaining in the short term but inspiring in the long term is why I started volunteering as a princess, and it’s what led me to decide that I want to work in pediatric medicine–so that I can positively impact people in my career.
It might seem abstract, but those first years of dressing up are what eventually led me to be as outgoing as I am today. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be the crazy redhead I am today without Colonial Williamsburg.
So, to anyone reading this who has ever worked at Colonial Williamsburg, or is working there currently…thank you, from the very bottom of my heart. You, and the spirit of the time and place you represent, have truly changed my life. You showed me that I’m not alone, and most importantly, you showed me that anyone, no matter how small, can spark a revolution.
Say it with me, everyone…