Teens, 20-somethings keep history alive as re-enactors
Bob Nipar, 70, of Bethel Park has been a historical re-enactor since 1971. He organizes re-enactors for events at Fort Ligonier and portrays a British engineer from the French and Indian War era.
He says his contemporaries, whom he calls "gray beards," sometimes worry that re-enacting will go the way of the powder horn and the musket ball.
"We didn't have cell phones and so many other activities to distract us (when we were young)," he says. "There's so much to do for the kids now that there aren't so many young people taking it up. We can see it being lost."
Nipar might have taken heart at the Aug. 5 and 6 re-enactments of the Battle of Bushy Run, at the battlefield in Penn Township, where a number of teens and 20-somethings were intent on keeping history alive.
Some of the young re-enactors say their interest came naturally, growing up in Western Pennsylvania where historical sites abound. Others say they like the camaraderie of the groups. Others want to learn the basic survival skills associated with re-enacting.
Some feel it's important to remind people of what others sacrificed to found and settle the United States.
For at least a few, it is all of the above.
Growing up in Stahlstown, Brandon Campbell, 25, said his family participated in the Flax Scutching Festival and he went to summer camps at Fort Ligonier.
"I was always a history buff," he says.
Jesse Suppa (left), Josh Melisko and Amber Shambaugh were members of a Delaware Indian campsite at the 254th anniversary of the Battle of Bushy Run in Penn Township
In school, he says he saw the teaching of history "tossed by the wayside. History class was turned into an elective instead of a requirement."
He's now a member of Proctor's Militia, a Westmoreland County-based Revolutionary War re-enactment unit.
Fellow militia member Caleb Holt, 23, of Verona says he had the same experience in school: "I was in AP history with three people in the class."
Holt said his interest in re-enacting was spurred by a visit to Old Bedford Village with his father when he was 15.
"People aren't aware of how hard life was for people on the frontier," he says. "I'm trying to keep that alive. I like re-enacting because it makes you understand the sacrifices and choices people had to make to get their freedom. I feel like the values of our parents and grandparents are going away, like respect for people is going away.
"Some of my co-workers say things like, 'Oh, you're going off to play Pocahontas,'" Holt says. "I think it's sad that people have no interest in the outdoors anymore. I've learned a lot of primitive skills that most people don't know anymore. If you don't know how to survive, when technology goes, you're sunk."
Holt's girlfriend Crystal Stivason, 22, of Kittanning likes the social aspects of the camp weekends.
She went to her first re-enactment with Holt two years ago in Cook Forest State Park.
"I liked camping, so I said I'd try it out," she says. "I'm still learning a lot, but I like the camp life. Everyone is a big family, and people are so nice and helpful."
John Harris, 16, and Emily Liska, 17, both of Harrison City and both students at Penn-Trafford High School, have their sights on military careers.
Harris, who portrays a drummer in the 60th Royal American Regiment and has family members who are military officers, will join JROTC this year and is hoping to attend West Point and "have a long career in the military." Liska plans to go to Virginia Military Institute to major in Arabic to prepare for a career as an interpreter.
The pair say the Battle of Bushy Run hasn't been covered in their high school history classes and they feel the re-enactments help to keep people from forgetting that pivotal point in American history.
"I get mocking from my peers," Liska says. "But I enjoy it so much that it doesn't bother me."
He wasn't at Bushy Run, but Sam Worsham says he and his father turned to re-enacting as a way to "do something outdoorsy and active" together.
The 18-year-old from Oakmont is involved with the Civil War-era 9th PA Reserves, with whom he says, "I don't really play a specific character or role ... I mostly stay in the background as a private and do whatever anyone tells me to do, like thousands of soldiers in the Civil War did.
"Re-enacting helps make history more personal," he says. "When you read about the soldiers in the Civil War, you don't really consider how uncomfortable the shoes are, or how gunpowder tastes in your mouth when you're readying another rifle shot, or what a dog tent smells like.
"Re-enactment helps people not only to better understand history, but to experience it. I don't think any other medium can really do that."
Reminding people of the grittier aspects of American history is important to Josh Melisko, 16, of Belle Vernon. He and his family, who are of Chippewa heritage, travel to various encampments to portray Delaware Indians.
"If you don't remember history, you're bound to repeat it," he says.
"(Young re-enactors) definitely bring energy and excitement, and it's great to see them learning history that is not taught in school, by actually living it," says Scott Henry, unit captain with Proctor's Militia. "They have become so accustomed to our modern, easy life where everything is disposable. When they are with us, they learn what life was like 250 years ago. Nothing was wasted; you were cold, wet, smelly; you worked. They carry wood, build a fire and cook dinner over it, sleep on a pile of straw with just a blanket. They enter into a world that, while uncomfortable, is extremely rewarding.
"Every single older re-enactor loves having new, younger members at events," Henry says. "The sad thing is that there's not enough of them. I worry that all of these events are unsustainable without new blood."
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shirley_trib.