A Multitude of Pondering Counselors..

Published by 2 Comments

Designing a Day in the Country..

My father believed that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, and in some measure I agree with him.  Most creative efforts lose their focus if too many votes are taken, BUT the friends of Riley’s Farm are no ordinary committee, and if The Phantom Menace is any indicator, even great auteurs like George Lucas can use a guiding hand now and then.

In that spirit, I’m giving you a glimpse of our planning process here at Riley’s Farm as we try to design a new kind of day in the country, and a new kind of day in “history.”

I guess I should begin by admitting that, personally, I’m a little picky.  I remember one stifling hot day in August, early 1990s, when I paused–mid-45-minute-line-wait at Disneyland–and I thought to myself, “I don’t care if this is the happiest place on earth, I’m not actually having any fun.”  A patch of plaster was breaking off a wall nearby, and I detected something distinctly unwholesome drying on the pavement beneath me.  It seemed as though the very weight of the crowd was breaking the place apart, and yet — still — people were paying enormous sums to wait in line, get thirsty, and share sunscreen with each other.

When our own place gets crowded — as in the fall — I worry that we’re on the verge of something similar.  I want our place to refresh your spirit, challenge you, engage you, even ennoble you, and I’m pretty sure that’s what Walt Disney wanted too.  Certainly, he achieved it on a grander scale than most mere humans can ever imagine, but I keep thinking that both the living history museum (Williamsburg) and the theme park (Disneyland) may rely too much on the over-powering flash and spectacle of the thing.  We wind up enduring the crowds just to watch our children experience wonder.

At the outset, I believe “spectacle” and “art direction” are hugely important realities.  Years ago, while watching our tavern maids, redcoats, and militia-men walk the grounds as they prepared for the guests’ arrival, I was struck by how magic the moment appeared, and I put it all on YouTube.  Within a few days, we landed a major television commercial and a $15,000 location fee.  Beauty and wardrobe and props are EXTREMELY important.

But when you think of Dorothy and her friends landing in Emerald City, they weren’t just members of the audience.  They didn’t just visually consume the glories of Oz;  they were actually “made new” by it.

“..Pat pat here, Pat pat there
And a couple of brand new straws
That’s how we keep you young and fair
In the Merry Old Land of Oz..”

When all of us Rileys ponder the Oak Glen experience, we come to a common conclusion about what seems to make the place work for most of our guests:  YOU pick the apples.  YOU pick the pumpkins.  YOU square dance with us.  YOU sing Christmas Carols with us.  YOU stand up at the mic and tell YOUR stories about your Mom and your DadYOU get on the dance floor.  (I never got it together, but I wanted to add a “crooning contest” to this year’s Big Band events.  Wouldn’t that be amazing?)  Our field trips are built of the same stuff: Children act out the parts in the Stamp Act Crisis and the admiralty court and the gold fields.

In other words, you aren’t just out there in the audience waiting for the next pop band to rise up out of the ground at Tomorrow Land.  You might just get up on stage yourself.

The Present Challenge

So far, the farm has been successful on three fronts:  participatory dinner theater, field trips, and u-pick harvesting.  Unfortunately, these programs tend to be very seasonal in nature.  It’s much easier to sell dinner theater in the fall than the spring or summer.  Field trips are heavily tied to the academic calendar and, for some reason, apples are the reigning rock star of the u-pick world.  (The other day I caught a small raspberry plant crying over body-image issues; we just can’t seem to interest most of you in berry and flower picking to the same degree you respond to apples.)

The Next Big Thing — “INVASION”

Picture your family on the village common in Chesterfield, New Hampshire, during the spring of 1777.  An express rider brings news that General John Burgoyne is leading an immense army of British, Hessian and Iroquois troops in the direction of Fort Ticonderoga,  some 135 miles away.  He is also rumored to be after the patriots’ cattle pastured at Bennington, Vermont, some three days away.  The town’s pastor, 29 year old Abraham Wood, counsels courage.  One of the town’s selectmen, Ephraim Baldwin, publicly worries that Burgoyne has demanded all New Englanders either surrender their weapons or join the British line.  Still another resident of the town, Abigail Farr, looks pale with fear.  As a child, she lost her entire family to an Abenaki raid.  When slow-witted Jonathan Hildreth begins telling outlandish stories about Hessian soldiers eating enemy children, Abigail stumbles to her knees.  Little Benoni Tisdale, a fifer, is anxious to volunteer among the other young bucks volunteering to engage the British.

You, the Riley’s Farm guest, are in the middle of all this.  The Chesterfield characters are all around you, not up on stage, but right next to you — and they seem interested in your strange clothing and your opinion about the conflict.   Abraham Wood points to a large table in the distance and gathers all the characters and guests around it.  A large map of New England and Canada is unfurled and the fevered arguments begin.

You spend the rest of the day with these characters, who engage in both improvisational drama and scripted encounters with each other.   You also get to try your hand at a number of 18th century skill, craft, and cultural experiences.  At the end of the day, we will see if the town is protected from the wrath of Burgoyne, and we sense that Abraham Wood will absorb some news from the battle front, and conclude the day with a message to the town.

You can be as passive, or as active, in all of this as you like.  You can walk around and watch, spend the whole day in the tavern, or hike four miles across the farm to relieve a fort in distress.

That much we know..

What We Don’t Know

  1. A game, a fiercely competitive game, focuses the mind and sharpens the senses.  We’re thinking about making that central, large map a kind of focal point for a living history game played out across the entire landscape of the farm.  There would be a box full of parchment scrolls, each with a challenge of some sort.  (“Find out how it is Ephraim Baldwin has so many newly minted British coins.”) Does that break the spell, or does it move it along?
  2. Would people prefer competing in groups (as families) or as individuals, or both?
  3. The “craft” challenge.  Should the crafts be easy enough to display and teach within 30 minutes, or should you have the option of spending the entire day with a potter or a weaver? Include “easy” and “arduous” tasks as part of the lineup?  What happens when only three people can take the day long pottery experience?
  4.  Should we allow history itself to be changed by the actions of the participants?
  5. The object of the game and the rules.  A game can’t be so easy it loses your interest or so difficult you give up.  My father once told me that, in baseball, the distance between home plate and first base (90 feet) represents the optimal balance between the batter and the gloved.  I’m actually appealing to my staff, and board-game loving friends, to help us design a brand new kind of game.  What is the object?  What are the rules?
  6. What would you pay for a day like this?  Honestly, it’s moved way beyond the $15 to $20 range.  It feels more like a $70 product.

As always, we cherish your feedback.


From our “inside planning”

Chesterfield in the summer of 1777..

1. I get the sense that these New Englanders were real Yankees, in that they were pretty cheap. They had a hard time agreeing to pay for roads and schools. They had a town meeting every year to pay for Pastor Abraham Woods’ salary. It sounds like it was a bit of an argument.
2. In 1781, they took part in the “Hampshire Grants” war. New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts all fought over a portion of southern Vermont and western New Hampshire. Many of the Chesterfield people, (including our Snow ancestors), wanted to be part of Vermont. Each side picked their own justices of the peace and tried to arrest each other. Some of the Vermont sympathizers savagely beat fellow citizens of Chesterfield who were sympathetic to New Hampshire. Although this happened after our 1777 scenario, keeping track of which people were on which side might help us identify which clans within the town had ongoing animosity for each other.
3. Rural and frontier New Hampshire had lots of distrust for urban/sea cost New Hampshire. When the Revolution broke out, the Portsmouth party proposed a legislature heavily skewed towards coastal representation, effectively demanding a majority against their unwashed frontier brethren.
4. During the early years of the war, I get the sense that many men volunteered without signing the muster rolls, so that they could leave when they wanted or had to.
5. The whole country was paranoid about loyalist sympathizers. “Committees of Safety” were appointed (usually 3 men), to sniff out loyalists. (Potential for drama and comedy there.)
6. On June 12, 1776 the selectmen of Chesterfield reported that 13 Chesterfield men refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Continental Congress and the American Cause. 139 Chesterfield men signed the declaration. This would not include the men who were serving in the army around Boston. Thus (13/139+13) about 8.5% of the town were loyalists. Significantly someone identified as a “Captain” Jonathan Hildreth refused to sign.
7. Early in May of 1777, New Hampshire was warned that Burgoyne’s army was approaching Fort Ticonderoga.
8. On May 7th, western New Hampshire militias were ordered to march towards Ticonderoga. These troops served about 40 days and were too late to assist in the fight to save the fort. Among those who marched off to help was an ancestor of ours – Amos Streeter.
9. Ticonderoga was abandoned by the Americans on July 6, 1777. Among those who had been stationed at the fort were two Chesterfield men – Ebenezer Fletcher and Amos Colburn. (History of Chesterfield, page 100)
10. The Battle of Bennington – August 16, 1777 (details in History of Chesterfield, pages 95-100) Bennington was approximately 48 miles from Chesterfield.
11. A group of Chesterfield soldiers marched off to assist on July 22, 1777, under the command of Captain Kimball Carlton. They would eventually fall in under the command of General John Stark, a New Hampshire legend.
12. At this time, General Burgoyne had ordered Hessian Colonel Friederich Baum to scour the New England countryside for beef cattle, horses, wagons. Receipts would be given except to rebels, from which it could be taken. (It wouldn’t be too much license to stretch the geography here and include some sort of British raiding, or advance party)
13. Stark, aided by Seth Warner’s re-enforcements, captured 700 of Baum’s soldiers along with his artillery.
14. Westmoreland, a town neighboring Chesterfield, suffered the death of a young fifer named Benoni Tisdale (drama: perhaps this young man could be the bad news that arrives home to Chesterfield)
15. One Chesterfield man, John Pierce, captured a Hessian and was subsequently nicknamed “The Hessian” afterwards.
16. The Wife of William Farr, was working in a flax field when she first heard the distant artillery.
17. The wife of Aaron Fisk, walked her house so despondently, during the cannonading that her daughter never forgot the sight of her worried mother.
18. I have not found an account of the Chesterfield men returning home after the Battle of Bennington but a 48 mile walk would indicate 3-4 days? They may have had to accompany the prisoners to another destination.

Categorised in:

This post was written by Jim Riley


  • Misti says:

    I love this idea!.. perhaps you have 4timed specific events they can participate in, but then smaller ongoing events available, laundry, writing calligraphy, playing games of the times ect…and more involved events like , understanding the clothes and if there were things unique to colonies, trade with villages around them , crops grown in the area, cooking food specific to the times, ECT that requires more structure .

  • Peter B Simpson says:

    Some great ideas here Jim. Your writing is top notch. I really enjoy the history as i’m sad to say not enough of this time period of our history was taught to us in my schools, but it’s never to late to learn. I grew up in Montgomery county Maryland.
    See you soon,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *