My Life at Michilimackinac: Confessions of a Costumed Interpreter

This is the final week of classes for many colleges around the state, meaning thousands of students will soon be out looking for summer jobs: waitressing, bartending, landscaping, painting houses—you know how it goes. For one particular born-and-raised Yooper, though, there was only one summer job she dreamed of: to don 18th-century clothing and work as a costumed interpreter at Colonial Michilimackinac—a “living history” village reconstructed on the site of a 1715 fort and fur trading post at the tip of Michigan’s mitten.

Liz Matelski, a writer and professor of American history, kicks off a new intermittent series we’ll be bringing you here on Found Michigan about summer jobs in the Great Lakes State.

During the summer seasons when I was in college, I had the good fortune of working as a costumed interpreter for Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City. I grew up in St. Ignace, just across the Bridge, and ever since I was a little girl, I had wanted to work for Mackinac State Historic Parks. While other schools took their students on field trips to places like Michigan’s Adventure, we took day-trips to our own historical backyard. As a result, I couldn’t wait to turn 18 so I could finally work for MSPH and grab one of these coveted summer positions.

First, let’s get some vocabulary out of the way. What exactly is a costumed interpreter? Aren’t they those weirdos who dress up on the weekends and re-enact Civil War battles?

Here’s your Living History lesson of the day: Costumed interpreters are nothistorical re-enactors. The two terms aren’t interchangeable, and in fact, mistaking an interpreter for a re-enactor and vice versa can turn into all-out gang warfare. As a former interpreter myself, I’m sure I’m biased, but to summarize these two warring factions, interpreters consider themselves to be educators while re-enactors are hobbyists. (Don’t look at me like that; I’ve already admitted my bias.)

At the apex of the summer season, we routinely would be overrun with re-enactor groups camped just outside the Fort walls. Most of the time these volunteers utilized first-person interpretation and simply walked around the Fort as though they actually lived there. It was a nice break from the regular routine of the week, but also unnerving to have so many other individuals in costume tromping around our turf. There always seemed to be a kind of tension between the interpreters employed by the Fort and those visiting re-enactors. It makes sense though: We were getting paid to do what they loved. Plus, don’t forget all those condescending stares from the re-enactors if you happened to have one accessory that wasn’t historically accurate to the time period. History snobs.

Living History Lesson of the Day: Costumed interpreters are not historical re-enactors. The two terms aren’t interchangeable, and in fact, mistaking an interpreter for a re-enactor and vice versa can turn into all-out gang warfare. As a former interpreter myself, I’m sure I’m biased, but to summarize these two warring factions, interpreters consider themselves to be educators while re-enactors are hobbyists. (Photo by Marvin Graves)

Some living history sites like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia employ first-person interpretation. It’s the most demanding—and in my opinion, least educational—mode of historical interpretation. For example, if a guest approaches you with a question, you can’t slip out of character. If they ask you why the carrots in your garden are white, you have to shake your head with confusion: Aren’t all carrots white? What do you mean, “orange” carrots? Or if someone wants to have their picture taken with you, you have to act bewildered as to why they want you to smile at that … what did you call it? A “camera phone”? At Michilimackinac we only slipped into first person during the “re-enactment” presentations scattered throughout the day. The rest of the time we were instructed to utilize third person so we could truly instruct and educate our visitors.

On any given day, I had to dress in multiple layers with my historically accurate apron, skirt, bodice, and chemise to re-interpret what colonial living was like during the 1770s. During this time, the Straits area was a meeting place of cultures—British, French, and Native American—and we strove to reflect that in our daily activities. Male interpreters were British soldiers who demonstrated shooting guns and canons, or they were the French fur trader who sat in his store watching over his wares of trade blankets, tobacco, and tea. We women made fires in the houses with flint and steel, baked lunch in Dutch ovens with hot coals spread on the hearth, dyed wool, made beeswax candles, and embroidered flowery patterns onto white pouches that were the predecessor to pockets. In other words, I’d totally win a season on Survivor.

When I first worked at the Fort, female interpreters were responsible for cooking and craft demonstrations. In later years, when female interpreters outnumbered the men, we were finally allowed to staff the French fur trader post in the role of a Métis woman: half French, half Native American. We were also in charge of the children’s walking tour. I don’t know why it was assumed that female employees were naturally more inclined to lead the children’s tour instead of the men. Oh wait, that’s right: gender stereotypes. Truth be told, prior to working at Michilimackinac I’d never cooked, never sewed—let alone embroidered—or completed any of the other “female tasks” we were asked to do. In fact, I rebelled against the expectation that between the first person performances, I was supposed to be sedentary and sew or knit in my home. I was far happier carving a wooden spoon in the sawpit, letting the sun beat down on my face, or running around showing my elbows and ankles.

Having never babysat during my teens, working at Michilimackinac was really my first interaction with groups of children. On the days I was assigned the children’s tours, I always picked a leek from the King’s Garden. If you’ve never seen a leek straight from a garden, it looks like the grocery store variety, but with a giant green firework at the top. The more curious kids at the beginning of the walking tour would inevitably ask me what it was, and I would reply that it was my Magic Onion Wand; if they misbehaved, I’d turn them into an onion. I’ve since gotten better with children.

Harmless pranks were an all-encompassing part of the job to break up what, by mid-season, turned into the monotony of our daily routine. During the French fur trader stop on the adult walking tour (five times a day, on the hour), we’d challenge whoever was portraying the role of the fur trader that day to say the word “beaver” as many times as possible in the three-minute presentation, a la Super Troopers. You’d be surprised how many times you can unobtrusively slip that word in without it sounding forced.

Or during the French Colonial Wedding (which, at the time, was performed daily at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.), it was our goal to make the “priest” laugh, or trip over his lines since he was the only one facing the audience. We’d embellish on facts like how many languages the groom knew or how wealthy a dowry the bride was bringing with her. Nerdy things like that. And at one point in the 10-minute ceremony, the priest holds out a glass plate for the blessing of the “wedding ring.” The groom would instead slip various objects onto the glass for only the priest to see. An acorn, a rock, goose poop. You get the picture.

On rainy days when visitors were scarce, we’d slip historically inaccurate powdered hot chocolate into our ceramic tankers and sit in front of the fire for warmth between the walking tours that continued, rain or shine. Or we’d slip behind the Plexiglas barrier in the King’s Storehouse and pose like mannequins until a guest would come into the room, and then we’d start moving around.

Lest you think all we did was goof around like college punks, the job itself was actually hard work. You might not think about the physical labor involved in being historically accurate: for example, hauling awkward wooden buckets filled with water to the laundry station, where we hand-scrubbed chemises and vests with caustic lye soap that we made in our down time. And northern Michigan may not experience sweltering summer weather, but try cooking in front of a giant, open fireplace wearing multiple layers. Routinely guests would walk into the reconstructed houses, see us bent over the smoldering coals, and ask, “Aren’t you hot?” Instead of complaining, however, we’d smile and politely insist it wasn’t so bad, all while unattractively dripping with sweat. Such is the price of good customer service.

The job itself was actually hard work. Northern Michigan may not experience sweltering summer weather, but try cooking in front of a giant, open fireplace wearing multiple layers. (Photo by Marvin Graves)

The intellectual demands were rigorous as well. In addition to learning our lines like a well-rehearsed play for the first-person re-enactments, it was also obviously an expectation that you memorize historical information about the time period and the Fort itself. We also had to perfect the skills of living in the time period, such as how to historically cook, how to make everyday necessities for the home, how to spin wool into gold. Okay, I made that last one up. But regardless, it was demanding. A lot of the craft was trial by fire—in some cases, literally —like burning a loaf of bread in a Dutch oven because the coals were too hot. It’s hard to get rid of the smell of burnt toast in a room with limited ventilation. Or like the time I ruined shepherd’s pie when I dumped an entire lid of ash into the mashed potatoes. The birds that hovered in the back gardens ate well that day.

Moreover, in attempts to continue to be fresh and innovative, our daily duties were expanded each summer to offer more entertainment for visitors. They added a stop on the children’s tour to the small “farm” just outside the Fort walls. The idea was that children on the tour could help us gather eggs from the chicken coup. How interactive! What a great memory for the kids! But as we soon discovered, chickens can’t be forced to lay eggs on the hour, every hour, so we’d have to remember to stock the coop with eggs prior to each tour. And I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t at least mention the short-lived “fish filleting” demonstration added to the adult tour, which became more like the fish butchering demonstration.

Regardless of the aforementioned “hardships,” I can’t imagine not working at Colonial Michilimackinac during my summers away from college. Honestly, who would want to waitress, or scoop ice cream, or sell novelty t-shirts when the Fort stood there on the lakeshore? Even now, as a professor of American history, I still remember those summers with nothing but fond memories.

Despite the sweat, the uncomfortable shoes, and the funny tan lines from my costume, when visitors incredulously asked, “You get paid to do this?” I would proudly smile and say, “Yes. Yes, I do.”

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