Don’t you love serendipity? A couple of months ago, my hubby pointed out an article in the Huntsville Times about the June 1 celebration at the Alabama Constitution Hall Historic Park in honor of its grand reopening after a renovation. What made it so fortuitous was the relevance to the book I was writing at the time. I hadn’t heard anything about it until he showed me the article and I looked up more details online.
Included in the day of festivities was the reenactment of the surprise visit President James Monroe paid to Huntsville, a reenactment based on details found in the Alabama Republican article reporting on the festivities surrounding his visit. The present day evening event featured a reception, reenactment of the arrival, and tavern style dinner. Since I was in the throes of writing The Haunting of Fury Falls Inn (available for preorder now before it releases October 1, 2019), set in northern Alabama in 1821, this 1819 reenactment and meal would hopefully provide useful insights and experiences. So despite the significant (to me) expense of $100/plate, my hubby and I decided to attend.
The timing of the celebration was to coincide with the date that President Monroe actually arrived in town. On June 1, 1819, he and two companions, “Mr. Governeur his private secretary and Lieut. Monroe of the Army,” arrived and registered at the Huntsville Inn. Shocked town leaders quickly “appointed a committee” to greet the president and to arrange for an appropriate dinner in his honor for the following day. I can only imagine how a-flutter the town leaders and their wives must have been! To suddenly be faced with entertaining the president. From all accounts, they did the town proud. I’d like to share my observations of the reenactment and dinner with you all.
First off, when hubby and I arrived to enter the grounds for the outdoor reception, the man greeting us was obviously someone of importance. I didn’t know him, of course, since this is not the sort of crowd I usually hobnob with. I noted with a touch of humor how everyone seemed to know him, and he seemed to greet everyone by name. (I even jokingly told hubby we were “the riffraff” since we didn’t know anyone there.) When we finally stood in front of him and he quickly adjusted his welcome. But not before I noted the hesitation as to how to address us, unknowns as we were. (And still are, for that matter!) He recovered quickly and we went inside to mingle. Or rather to wander about, drinks in hand, observing the other well-dressed and/or costumed people. We chatted with a few folks and essentially waited for what I anticipated would be the highlight of the reception: the moment when President Monroe arrived.
The time came and the crowd was summoned to stand by the side entrance driveway. Excitement rippled across the faces of the people, gathering and craning to see the procession. I expected an entourage of some sort. Imagined the President of the United States would have a contingent with him. Possibly security riders, secretaries, scouts. I imagined twenty to thirty men. Horses, bedecked coaches, maybe wagons of supplies? Boy, was I wrong!
In my weak defense, I had not taken any time whatsoever to delve into the history of the moment. Not even a quick internet search. I’d been busy with researching for and writing my book, which occurs after 1819, and not focused on the earlier history to the details of that day. But what I surprise his surprise visit caused for me!
President Monroe only had two outriders with him. A party of three. That was the extent of his entourage. The three men rode about the countryside assessing the “state of society, and of improvement in agriculture, manufactures & c and also to enquire into the conditions of the Indian tribes.” I guess you don’t need a whole lot of folks to do so.
The three reenactors were in approximations of the period attire and horse tack, but of course I’m not the authority so don’t know for certain. Hubby asked one of the riders who said his tack was similar but not authentic. This was somewhat disappointing to me for a moment until I realized most of the folks in attendance wouldn’t necessarily care one way or the other. (I was harkening back to the obvious amount of time and attention the military men and women reenactors, both active duty and civilian, for the U.S. Cavalry Association’s annual competition put in to recreate the most authentic uniforms and harness/tack for their mounts spanning 100+ years of service. But of course, they’re striving to preserve the Cavalry history on an on-going basis, not for a single event, and competing for most accurate turnout, so it’s worth their attention to the details.)
Soon after the arrival of the president, we mosied across the street for dinner inside a large banquet hall in the Early Works Children’s Museum. The tables were elegantly dressed and ready for the large crowd. They even recreated the mismatched dishes and glass ware like the original diners had to use. I did find it humorous that the rest of the “riffraff”—about ten people who didn’t buy entire tables of ten places but only in couples—were all gathered at one long table separated by a “passage” from the rest of the tables.
The menu included some new temptations. Starting with the salad: watercress is not something I’ve eaten very often since moving to this area. Though Alabama is known for its watercress. Each course featured something unique to the area, or at least unique in my experience of offerings from northern Alabama. I was most surprised by the dessert, as I thought the menu listed three options. In fact, all the ingredients comprised one tasty cake!
Open wine bottles on the table enabled everyone to choose to their taste, and then to have something in hand for the series of 24 toasts following the meal. That was yet another interesting note: the toasts came after the meal. In my experience in the 20th and 21st centuries, the toast(s) always come before. If you read the Alabama Republican article, it mentions that “after the cloth was removed” the toasts were made, indicating that the dinner dishes had all been cleared away. All the toasts are listed in the referenced article if you’re curious.
Individuals in the audience had been selected to read a toast and then everyone else would “hear, hear!” I’m not certain if they wouldn’t have said “huzzah” back in 1819 or not. I know in the 1770s the cheer was “huzzah.” After the War of 1812, though? I guess it could easily be perceived that the people desired to separate themselves from anything that smacked of British tendencies.
All in all, we had an enjoyable evening out with a room full of a couple of hundred strangers. Experiencing the food, the music, the attire as well as the language of the speeches and toasts gave me a pretty good feel for what living in those times must have been like. Especially after having tramped all over the reconstructed historic buildings earlier in the day. A kind of immersive experience, I might say.
I’ve noted before, I really enjoy going to historic sites, trying to put myself into the shoes and mindset of people from earlier periods in American history. Heck, in history itself. I also enjoyed seeing the castles in Scotland and the Parthenon in Greece. Trying to understand the cultures and intent of other peoples is something I do. I hope my understanding of past times and events reflects in my characters and the stories I tell, too.
Thanks for stopping by!
P.S. If you haven’t already, please consider signing up for my newsletter, which I send out most every month, including news like new covers, new releases, and upcoming appearances where I love to meet my readers, along with recipes and writing progress. Thanks and happy reading!
Visit www.bettybolte.com for more on my books and upcoming events.
Innkeeper’s daughter Cassie Fairhope longs for only one thing: to escape her mother’s tyranny. But in northern Alabama in 1821 marriage is her only escape. Even so, she has a plan: Seduce the young man acting as innkeeper while her father is away and marry him. He’s handsome and available. Even though he has no feelings for her, it is still a better option than enduring her mother.
But Flint Hamilton has his own plans and they don’t include marriage, even to the pretty temptress. Securing his reputation in the hostelry business and earning his father’s respect are far more important. He did not count on having to deal with horse thieves and rogues in addition to his guests.
When tragedy strikes, Cassie and Flint must do whatever it takes to rid the inn of its newly arrived specter—who has no intention of leaving…