Waukesha family makes the past its present
Like any family in summer, the Theissens enjoy doing activities together. But unlike most families, their activities involve cannons, hoop skirts and Abe Lincoln.
Jenna Theissen and her husband Jon, a mechanic at Reinders in Waukesha, are founding members of Historical Timekeepers, a group of historical civilian re-enactors that represent the Wisconsin home front during the Civil War. It's a passion that has defined family life for more than 10 years. Jenna, Jon, their two sons (Erik, 12, and Mason, 7) as well as Jenna's parents, Sue and Gary Giese, are all involved.
From May to September this year, the Theissens will participate in 18 reenactments around Wisconsin and Illinois – which evens out to 75 percent of their summer weekends.
"For me personally, it's an all-consuming hobby," said Jenna. "You never stop researching. There has been a book, a pamphlet, a letter – something – written every single day since the end of the Civil War, so you'll never get through every book that's out there! That's what's fun. If you get bored, you can move onto a different topic or area."
Theissen says that the home front is an underrepresented milieu of Civil War reenactment.
"People think, 'Oh, it's about the battles, it's about the horses, it's about the guns,'" she said. "It's not."
As a civilian group, the Theissens show what like was like in Wisconsin for soldiers' families left behind. "The war didn't touch us nearly as much as it did (families) in the South, so life continued and we like to show that. We show what home life was like."
The Theissens began this journey when their son Erik was 2 years old.
"My husband wanted to learn to do blacksmithing. My mother and I began by talking about ladies' fashions and my father would talk to people about life at the time. Our group just blossomed because home life was an area that had been overlooked for so long. Now our unit has approximately 80-100 members, a dozen of which are children below the age of 14."
Theissen always had a passion for history, but it was different for her mother. "She always thought that Abraham Lincoln was the 13th president of the United States, because 13 is an unlucky number." (Lincoln was the 16th president.) "Now she can recite the Gettysburg Address from memory. And my husband is a completely self-taught blacksmith now."
It might be challenging to live life half in the 21st century and half in the 19th, but Theissen considers it her mission to educate others on the history of Wisconsin and the United States and to provide them with information that they might not have understood previously – for instance, the fact that the Civil War helped shape modern Wisconsin as we know it.
"You ask people what's the number one thing you know about the state of Wisconsin – they say we're known as the dairy state," she said. "What people don't know is we weren't known as the dairy state until after the Civil War.
"From 1830-39 we were known as the wheat state. The grounds were perfect for growing wheat and we supplied the country with tons of it. By the time of the Civil War the farmers had burned out the fields; all that was growing was this scrub brush we know today as hay. As the Germans continued to come over, bringing their cows, they knew their cows would thrive on this hay."
Enter dairy farming – and the rest, as they say, is history.
"It took the Civil War for us to realize this," said Theissen.
Instead of inventing an fictionalized historical persona and putting on a performance, Theissen and her family speak and act as themselves – but not to the naked eye.
"I wear period attire," she said. Theissen was sewing during the interview – an impressive show of multi-tasking of which her 19th-century forebears would have approved.
When asked if she wears any kind of modern amenity on her person during her reenactments, Theissen replied: "No! No, no, no, no, no. Everything we wear is period-appropriate. We wear reproduction boots that are historically docuented. I wear a cage crinoline and all of our ladies wear corsets. We can't get the shape of the time period without it. And it also eliminates the weight off of our back and hips caused by hoop skirts and dresses."
So how does she not pass out in the midst of Wisconsin's current heat wave?
"These women (of the 19th century) weren't stupid. By wearing 100 percent cotton or even wool, it's all breathable. Wearing lightweight clothes that cover you completely to make you more modest also keeps the beating sun off of your skin. You can't get that from sports equipment today – nylon or whatever – you may as well wrap yourself in a plastic bag." She claims she is often more comfortable than attendees of the event who are wearing shorts and a tank top.
Next on the Theissens' calendar: the annual Civil War Encampment at Old Falls Village in Menomonee Falls on the weekend of July 21-22.
"We'll be doing a civil war fashion presentation on Saturday and everyone can also get a chance to meet and talk to General and Mrs. Grant."
On June 28-29 they will find themselves at the Pewaukee Historical Society's Living History Weekend.
Interpreting the past may be a labor of love for Theissen as a history buff - but it is just as much a labor of love for her as a mother.
"The kids in this group, they don't rely on iPads, they don't rely on video games. These kids are out there playing with wooden toys, toy soldiers. My son Erik is one of the youngest nationally-certified artillerists in the state of Wisconsin, and he has responsibilities today that most kids his age would never dream of or consent to. These kids appreciate the simpler things in life."
Theissen believes that illuminating what came before will ensure a brighter future.
"Our main purpose is not to glorify war but to educate people on history because I fear that the more we get away from history the more we will repeat it. You have to learn from your past in order to go forward."
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