Emilia Whippie Prior teaches fifth grade at Nelson Elementary School, and her husband, J.J. Prior, teaches fifth grade at Fuller Elementary School in Keene. In their spare time this summer, they are inhabiting the characters of real people who lived in Keene in the 1700s.
Their interpretations of 18th-century life will take place at the Wyman Tavern Museum on Main Street in Keene on Saturday, June 29, at 2:30 p.m. in a program entitled, “Girling of It: Desire and Dating in 18th Century Keene” — as if dating isn’t hard enough in the 21st century.
Later this summer, on Saturday, Aug. 24, they will present, “The Divided States of America: Patriots and Loyalists in Cheshire County.” There might well be something in this we could learn about today.
In the 18th century programs, J.J. portrays Abner Sanger, a day laborer who lived near the Wyman Tavern in Keene. Sanger got out and about to do odd jobs, and he saw a lot of people.
We know this from the daily journal he kept from 1774 to 1794, in which he took the time to write about what he, and everyone else, was doing. Two hundred years later, in 1987, the Cheshire County Historical Society published the journal, masterfully edited by Lois Stabler and illustrated by Arthur Tremblay, with footnotes, glossary, biographical notes, maps and index.
Emilia Whippie Prior portrays two of the women Abner Sanger often wrote about in his journal. She portrays his sister Mary, who married Jeremiah Stiles, a lieutenant from Keene for the Patriot cause. And she portrays Hepzibah Bragg, a single woman who worked as a housekeeper and was the object of a great deal of Sanger’s attention (no spoilers here about how it turned out).
Truth be told, Emilia and J.J.’s 21st-century story is as interesting as Abner Sanger’s 18th-century stories. They have authored a book together called “Patriot Papers,” which is written for fifth-graders and up, and focuses the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The book takes the documents, annotates them and makes them accessible to young people. Emilia says, “The reason we jumped on it was that we couldn’t find other books for young people about the founding documents that included the documents themselves.”
Emilia says her interest in the 18th century “rocketed” when they wrote “Patriot Papers.”
“We did a lot of research about the Revolution and what men and women were doing at the time and the roles they played,” she said. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to keep learning.”
The Historical Society of Cheshire County’s education director Jenna Carroll invited Emilia to volunteer at the Wyman Tavern Festival where she met some 18th-century re-enactors.
“I wanted to figure out how I could travel back in time,” Emilia said, “and still get home at the end of the day.”
Today she is a member of the Col. Ebenezer Hinsdale Garrison Company group of re-enactors. Emilia describes the programs “Desire and Dating” and “Divided States of America” as “interpretations” of 18th-century life based on Abner Sanger’s journal as a source.
“We need to know so much about them to bring them to life,” she said. “It takes a lot of time to learn about the people, what was happening in Keene at the time, what was important to people, what the women thought about. When I read the book, I’m dissecting it. I’m underlining things and post-it-noting pages.
“When we portray the people, we set up a situation, a story line we want to tell, and we fill in all the pieces from the journal and other sources from the time. We try to pull in as many points of reference as we can, such as the phrases people used and what people were doing at the time.”
Emilia will offer several other programs this summer at the Wyman Tavern Museum. On Aug. 15, she will use the brick oven outside the Bruder House to bake colonial breads. This was a typical daily activity in the 18th century, and it is quite a science to make sure the fire keeps the oven at the right temperature.
Then on Oct. 26, she will do hearth cooking of colonial soups. A lot of the things that Abner Sanger was growing will go into the soups – for example, carrots, turnips, potatoes and herbs. The Historical Society of Cheshire County has some raised beds at the Wyman Tavern Museum to provide ingredients.
She is offering sewing classes at the Wyman Tavern on June 28 and Aug. 8 for children ages 5 and up with a caregiver. The goals are to give young people opportunities to do more with their hands and to teach them some basic sewing skills. Children can choose between making a pincushion or an ornament.
The Wyman Tavern and the Bruder House are at 349 Main St. in Keene and are operated by the Historical Society of Cheshire County. The organization has been collecting, preserving and communicating the history of Cheshire County for 92 years.
The Society puts on about 150 programs each year to help people of all ages “find their place in history.” Throughout the summer, the Wyman Tavern is open to the public for guided tours at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. each Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
For a list of special tours and events at the tavern, visit hsccnh.org or call 352-1895.