Learning about history is usually a quiet, educational process. Reading historical accounts, holding artifacts or going to a museum can help us see a picture of the past, but that’s not the same as experiencing it.
Imagine being able to step back in time and become immersed in pre-1890 American history through reenactments, authentic dress, Native American drumming and dancing and artisan demonstrations.
That is what the annual Kalamazoo Living History Show provides — history that feels alive. The March 21-22 event at the Kalamazoo County Expo Center will attract 10,000 visiting war reenactors (from the French and Indian War through the Civil War), history buffs, collectors, craftspeople and dealers.
Such an interactive historical atmosphere connects modern-day Americans to their history, and bringing in so many different exhibitors allows the show to expand into as many American experiences as possible, says Leslie Conwell, the show’s executive director.
“Our shared American history is at the center of the show, and all aspects of that experience make it important,” Conwell says. This is the show’s 40th year.
Conwell says free admission for children as well as a room dedicated to kids’ activities allow the Kalamazoo Living History Show to create a kid-friendly space so parents can experience history with their families.
“One reason we do the kids’ activities is because we noticed that we’re getting more and more young people in, and it’s a great way to engage them,” Conwell says. “We do period activities like putting on spurs, twirling lassos, beading — they are heritage-based and fun.”
The Kalamazoo Living History Show also tries to bridge generations by offering a Kalamazoo Living History Horizon Grant to one artisan under age 28 to demonstrate his or her skills at the show. Discover Kalamazoo funds the artisan’s stay in a local hotel for two nights, and the Kalamazoo Living History Show provides meals and gas as well as a featured spot in the show. This year’s grant winner is Ashley Burton, a young artisan from Indiana who will demonstrate the American art of scrimshaw (engravings and carvings done in bone).
The kids’ activities room, the artisan grant and the expansive list of 270 exhibitors and vendors have evolved over the years, Conwell says. She and her husband, Rick, took over administration of the event in 2008 and have worked to build on the legacy of founders Larry and Carol Coin by expanding the show and moving it to the Expo Center.
The Expo Center location has allowed the organizers to add performance space for Native American dancing and drumming. This year’s show features the Bush Native American Drum and Dance group, the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi Indians and the SouthEastern WaterSpider drum group.
“We’re really excited to continue to be able to offer these groups and these dancing experiences,” Conwell says. “A lot of times the groups will ask the audience to participate, which allows attendees to connect directly with the experience. It’s important that we’re not interpreting Native American culture, but instead we’re allowing them to interpret their own culture.”
Each year the Kalamazoo Living History Show focuses on a distinct period or type of history. This year’s theme is “Rangers Lead the Way — the American Ranger Tradition.” Conwell says to make sure to catch the featured speaker, Lt. Col. Danny Davis, a retired U.S Army Airborne Ranger, who will host his talk, “Rangers Lead the Way — the American Ranger Tradition,” at 1:30 p.m. March 21 and 10 a.m. March 22, and Tim and Terry Todish’s presentation series about French and Indian War rangers, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. and noon March 21 and noon and 2 p.m. March 22.
Everyone participating is encouraged to dress in costume, Conwell says, with those wearing pre-1890 costumes eligible to win a door prize. All artisan, vendor and exhibitor costumes are judged for accuracy, but attendees’ costumes are not. Costume watching is a favorite Kalamazoo Living History Show pastime, Conwell says.
“We had someone who did a great Jack Sparrow impression once,” she says. “It caused quite an uproar. You never know who will walk through the door.”