Living History

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, June 27th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: another installment in our occasional series, Living History.

EICHER: This time WORLD Radio’s Laura Finch takes us back to the 19th century to meet Lisa Carpenter, a woman as comfortable shearing sheep with scissors as she is answering sharp questions from curious school children.

AUDIO: Babbling brook underneath, walking, gravel sounds

LAURA FINCH, REPORTER: Lisa Carpenter is still getting used to living in the 1890s.

CARPENTER: It’s super modern! Compared to what I’ve done before. I mean, there’s an icebox in the kitchen.

Carpenter has spent much of her adult life living out American history. She spent seven years in the Revolutionary War era, working at Colonial Williamsburg. Then she grew cotton by hand in 1840’s antebellum South Carolina. Now she oversees all livestock and farming for a late 19th-century living history farm in northern Illinois.

CARPENTER: The 1890’s is like, the height of agricultural technology. So much was developed and perfected in the 1890’s.

The first time I meet Carpenter, she’s in overalls and big black work boots, straddling a southdown ewe, and shearing her the classic way: with a huge pair of sharp scissors.

CARPENTER: I have to say, Southdowns are one of my least favorite breeds to shear, because they have so much wool on their belly, all down their legs, all down their face, to the tip of their nose… 2:25 Even got wool in their armpits. (chuckling)

This wool is not high quality. It might be used to stuff cushions on airline seats. But definitely not for fine sweaters.

CARPENTER: They’re primarily a meat breed. The wool is kind of just, like, a byproduct. [clipping sounds]

As a wave of visitors cycles in and out of the tent, observers ask again and again why Carpenter uses scissors instead of electric shears. Meanwhile, the ewe is getting feisty. She weighs about 165 pounds—definitely more than Carpenter.

At one point she starts to break free, and Carpenter pins her to the ground, like a body slam! But, she calmly. Keeps. Narrating.

CARPENTER: [clipping sounds] I don’t really use electric. I don’t like using them. A lot of people get the idea that they’re somehow safer, but I find that I cut the sheep a lot more. [kerfuffle] With electric shears. [bleat, more kerfuffle sounds]… Alright, girl.

The animals definitely keep things interesting. But the visitors—or more accurately, their questions—are just as demanding.

CARPENTER: I used to drive the oxen at Colonial Williamsburg, and I remember, there were days where it got really old. People thinking the oxen were being mistreated because they had to like pull a cart. 5,000 lbs of ox pulling a cart that I could pull.

Carpenter says there are certain questions she’s used to answering dozens of times a day.

The second time we meet, it’s 88 degrees outside. Carpenter is hoeing a corn field in the hot sun with a couple of volunteers. She’s wearing a work dress, cinched at the waist with an apron, and made from an authentic pattern.

CARPENTER: A really common one at Williamsburg in Virginia was, are you hot in those clothes? That was… It almost became a joke with interpreters, we would just ask each other randomly, are you hot in those clothes, because it was just like, you heard that so many times.

Carpenter is well-qualified for this job. She grew up on a farm in southwest Michigan.

That’s actually rare these days. So rare that Colonial Williamsburg hired her on the spot during her job interview to work with the livestock.

CARPENTER: It’s hard to replace having had direct experience working with large animals, but I’ve done it since I was very very little, so I think that experience on an actual working farm helped me.

Still, stepping back in time took some getting used to.

CARPENTER: I remember my first thought when I got there was—I looked at the fencing, and I thought how in the world do you keep cattle in here. Because I grew up around cattle, and we did not put cattle in an enclosure without an electric fence. So I just didn’t think it was possible to keep them in. We had just a split rail fence… But they stayed in. 

Carpenter has a clear grasp of animal psychology. By the time that sheep was finished with her haircut, she was relaxing on her back, snacking on a little patch of grass within reach.

But Carpenter describes more visitor questions that reveal a modern mindset. Tourists and visitors today tend to compare the livestock to their pets at home. Visitors are often baffled that Carpenter could work so closely with the animals without having a veterinary degree.

CARPENTER: A question that I would get a lot was, when working with draft animals: Do they like working? And then I would always say, well, do you like working? [pause] Yes and no, right? … And the same is true with animals. You could definitely tell a lot of time they were like augh, I would rather just lay out in the pasture. Kinda like us, right, sometimes when the alarm goes off you would rather just lay in bed.

The animals do get modern veterinary care, like antibiotic shots when they’re sick. But as a living history farm, the point is to demonstrate how people would have conducted these daily activities. Like using shears instead of a loud electric razor.

AUDIO: Shearing sounds, crowd noises

So would this be a bad career path for an introvert? After all, some roles, like the blacksmith or the woman working the spindle—are essentially stuck in a cabin while streams of strangers wander through. Hundreds or even thousands of people might cycle through in a day, asking the same questions over and over.

CARPENTER: It’s strange… When it’s your job and you love what you do, it’s not hard to talk to people. To me, if I see visitors, like they are the reason we’re here… The whole point is for people to see it.

So as much as the crops are the job and the animals are the job, the visitors are the job.

CARPENTER: Yeah, most definitely, I mean, the weekend you were here, for lamb and wool, that was a really exciting weekend for us. We had 3,000 people. Like, we love that. That’s a good thing. We want people to come here. I want there to be a reason to shear sheep the hard way.

CARPENTER: (clipping & bleating sounds) Did somebody have a question? I thought I saw one of the young people raising their hand. What’s your question? (fade out while kid asks the question)

For WORLD Radio, I’m Laura Finch, reporting from West Chicago, Illinois.

(Photo/Laura Finch)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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