|April 8, 2004
Volume 34 Number 10
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Reality Hits Home:
Professors participate in PBS hands-on history series
'Colonial House,' with Don and Carolyn Heinz, premieres May 17
How did two serious academics find themselves in the woods on the Maine coast, dressed in hand-woven clothes, eating dried peas and salt pork, and trading beads, fabric, and hatchet heads with the Penobscot for almost five months in the summer of 2003? Donald Heinz, professor of religious studies, and Carolyn Heinz, professor of anthropology, found their way to the PBS Colonial House series via Carolyn's daughter, who recommended it to them.
Since religion was central to the organization of daily life of the Puritan colony, who could be better cast than Don Heinz, a Lutheran minister and academic, as a preacher? And, for Carolyn Heinz, an anthropologist with experience observing and documenting primitive communities, this interesting twist was irresistible.
The Heinzes lived with 22 other "colonists" in a reproduction of one of the first Puritan colonies established in 1628. The production company hired consultants from Plimouth Plantation near Boston, who spent almost a year researching the period and were committed to authentic housing, food, dress, laws, work, economic survival, and religious activity. What the Heinzes began to question weeks into the experience was whether production was equally committed to an accurate portrayal of a historical re-creation. Their fear was that "good TV" would trump historical accuracy.
They will learn the outcome with all other viewers when the show airs in eight episodes beginning May 17.
Who wants to be a Puritan?
Don: There were two major reasons why I thought, OK, let's do this. One was that, as professors who have sometimes lectured about an earlier historical epoch, it seemed like a dream come true to actually go and live in it. In my Christianity class, I lecture on Puritan America, but it had never occurred to me that as a way to get inside Puritan America, I could actually "go back" 400 years and live in it.
It didn't actually turn out that way, but that's what got me into it. Of the 24 colonists at the colony, I would say that Carolyn and I were the only two people who deeply cared about how we were going to get the early 17th century right.
In my case, as a professor of religious studies, I was very intent that they get 17th-century religion right. I thought, well, here's my chance.
Carolyn: As a cultural anthropologist, I frequently go overseas to study other cultures, and this seemed like an interesting variant on that experience. Is it possible for 21st-century Americans to even try this? Also, I wanted to see the inside of this kind of a production. Production will be telling our story of five months in eight hours, which is what anthropologists do when they go abroad. They come back and tell a story of the entire social life of a people.
The difficulties of authenticity
Don: The producers hired a number of expert consultants, which seemed like a good-faith demonstration. When we were not sure whether we were going to go through with it last April, they broke one of their rules and put me in touch with an expert on early 17th-century Protestant America at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Carolyn: It was what we knew about their expert contributions that also made us interested in the project to begin with. We spent two weeks training at Plimouth Plantation in Boston. Plimouth people are the absolute experts on the material culture. They built the houses and provided the food and everything else material, except the clothing. English experts researched, designed, and produced the clothing.
Houses and hygiene
Carolyn: The houses had dirt floors, thatched roofs, or shingled roofs. Very small. One room, whole house, dirt floor, waddle and dab walls, and a teeny tiny window on one side that would keep the weather out. I lived in hill tribe villages in Thailand, for example, and the houses were much bigger and much more comfortable than the houses we were living in or that our ancestors were living in in 1628.
Maybe once every three weeks we'd take a sponge bath. It is amazing how we adapted to not washing. I might have washed my hair four or five times all summer, and then it was with cold water and really awful lye soap. Our hair was so full of smoke from the fire that it didn't feel oily at all.
We had no natural water source. They didn't want us to get sick, so they did drill a well. Our site was on a rocky bluff overlooking an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean outside Machias, Maine. It was a beautiful location, but it actually would not have been a viable site for a colony because there was no source of water. Also, the soil was poor. The only thing that grew there were billions of blueberries.
Don: We ate blueberries every day for months. We did have gardens that had maybe a 30 percent success rate. The colony planted a couple acres of corn. This was, as it would have been in 1628, a collective colony.
Dried peas and salt pork
Don: The food was authentic. There was no possibility to cheat. You only had three cooking utensils, and we only had food that would have been available in the 17th century. We had about 500 pounds of dried peas. And we had six goats, so we all learned to milk. We also had 30 chickens, which produced about an egg a day apiece.
Carolyn: If you left the peas in water, they'd sprout. We made peas porridge: peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, that's what we lived on.
We had a very coarse flour that made wonderful bread. We had a little corn meal; that was a real treat. We had barrels of salt pork, salt beef, and salt cod. Our salt intake was enormous.
Don: The most successful beef dishes meant that the beef was in a pot for as long as 10 or 12 hours.
Carolyn: That meant you had to have serious firewood commitments. Peas porridge takes a heck of a lot of firewood. It had to be chopped, and it had to be dry. It rained all summer, so we mostly had wet firewood. I felt good that I mastered gathering firewood and keeping the fire going. I became an expert on 17th-century cooking. I could live this way the rest of my life if I needed to, even though I would hate to do it.
Economics of the colony
Carolyn: The story was that we were backed by an early venture capitalist effort, a joint stock company from Bristol, England. This was the earliest form of corporation, like the East India Company, founded 20 years before 1628. The joint stock company paid our way, provided us with goods, and supplied us with food. Ships would come in every few weeks.
The payoff for the stock company was that we would develop moneymaking industries in the New World. There was trade with the natives, and there was a great market in Britain for pelts, especially beaver, because hats were coming into style.
Our trade with the Indians was always a disaster. We always got the raw end of the deal; we were no good at trading. We traded with the Passamaquody, who owned the land we were on and leased it to the production team. Other Indian friends included the Penobscot and a group of Wampanoag.
Don: We know that any economic venture from England expected that there would be three kinds of resources: furs, timber, and fish.
Carolyn: Originally, the production company was going to teach us to trap, but in fact, this was another problem with our site -- it had been all hunted and fished out. We never saw any wild animals.
Don: When it became clear there was no significant hunting, furs, or fish, we switched to what we did have, which was lumber galore. There were about 500 or 600 spruce logs, basically like telephone poles that were already cut. The young men and some men in their forties would spend all day cutting or trimming the wood that was already cut to send back (theoretically) to England.
Carolyn: In the five months we were there, our goal was to produce enough goods to send back to England that would pay off 50 pounds of debt. We had about 25 pounds worth of trade goods, things like beads, fabric, trade cloth, hatchets -- heads, not handles, which we had to make -- and some cooking pots. We also had our corn harvest. We got seeds from the Indians because corn is a native crop. We had to raise enough money through these industries to pay back our debts. In the end, we did pay back about 31 of the 50 pounds. As far as we can tell, a two-thirds payback was better than any colony in history would have done in its first five months.
Reading, writing, and religion
Carolyn: The producers originally said no journals and no books. In April last year, we were ready to back out, because we didn't think we could go five months with no books and not even writing.
Don: We sent them an e-mail that said "Thank you very much, but we're out because while we are willing to be true-blue colonists, if you say, 'in addition to that, you can't do this and this' then it's not really that interesting to us." They called back and said, "OK, you can keep a journal."
I wrote on authentic paper that came in huge sheets called "quartos." Each sheet would be torn in fourths. I'm quite the expert writing with a quill pen and powdered ink that I mixed myself. In the end, we did have one book, an authentic reproduction of Captain John Smith's Historie of Virginia, 1624, which lasted me about one-third of the way through the show.
It was expensive, and that was an issue. Every household had a Geneva Bible, which would have been published in 1560, so it was several decades old by 1628. The debate about books went on endlessly.
I think the crew both adored us and also found us trying. What they liked about us was that we were by far the oldest people there, and we gained a reputation for being real troopers. We complained the least, and we adapted the most quickly to the culture. There was a general view that anybody over 50 would be an absolute fool to try to come.
Less charming was the fact that we were constantly complaining, not about the hard life, but about whether they were getting the culture right, or even cared. And we knew from Plimouth that a guy named Brewster, who was the preacher at Plimouth, had something like 200 books in his library.
Religion and conflict
Don: One source of endless conversation, speculation, and abusive criticism of the production team was that they cast colonists who they knew were going to refuse to go to church. The antireligious people insisted that from the beginning, they had made it very clear they were not religious, they had no intention of being religious. The governor and I, who were responsible for making this a true 17th-century colony, kept saying to these people, "You knew what you were getting into. If you were this antireligious, why'd you sign up for the 17th century? Wrong century to sign up for." And they said, "Because people said it wasn't going to be an issue, and we made it clear." Then we would call in the production people, and we'd [all] yell at them.
Carolyn: I think production said, "It's required," wink, wink. I think they knew very well Michelle, one of the antireligion people, was going to make a scene at some point. Everything blew up on the Sunday that production decided, "OK, this is the beginning of Episode 3," the episode about law. It was going to be about enforcing the law that you have to go to church. So the camera followed Michelle down to the creek, and you get to see her pulling her clothes off, her whole rear, whole naked back, diving in. Then you see colonists having to enforce penalties.
She got tied to a stake. But it was a joke -- for two hours, she got tied to a stake in the cornfield. Her husband was responsible for enforcing the law. So he sort of dragged her out to the field and made jokes about it.
Don: Carolyn and I began to ask, "Is this really a good faith effort in the 17th century? Or are the producers willing to do anything as long as it makes good drama?" That is our biggest concern to this day. From a certain cynical point of view, our fear was that they didn't really care if it was authentic or not, as long as it was going to be captivating television.
Religion: Let's talk
Don: The original colonists would have had three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon for their Sabbath services. We knew there was no way that was going to happen. The devout Christians had no more tolerance than anybody else for that much service. We probably did go about two and a half hours every Sunday morning. My struggle was to fill those hours.
I developed a strategy to have "First Hour," which was a discussion group. Even Michelle and her husband quite liked them. I would give out a topic that would have something to do with the sermon in the second half of the service. The topic might be struggling with community or Pilgrim's Progress. I picked metaphors that emerge naturally out of trying circumstances and how you struggle with them. There would be very vigorous discussion among the 24 people. After a break, we'd come back for more formal scripture reading and hymns.
I actually preached sermons that could have been preached then, but also grew out of the experience and the struggles we were having. Our mode was, let's talk about our struggles and see what religion has to say.
Colonial House will air on PBS 6-10 p.m., May 17, 18, 24, and 25. The Colonial House Web site is at www.pbs.org/wnet/colonialhouse.
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