Dear Steve, Here's the latest from the front. Could we post this on the
It wasn’t as easy to go off to the reenactment at Olustee near Lake City
as it has been in the past. Doug, my apprentice wasn’t going with me. He’s
a great help off loading the wagon and setting up camp. Considering the
wagon weighs probably around fifteen hundred pounds, it can be kind of a
challenge to whip that thing into place in and among the thickly planted
The ride up to Olustee wasn’t too bad. There were about three and a half
hours worth of traffic dodging semis and fast moving tourists headed back
to Ohio or where ever.
I pulled into registration and was approached by a fellow named Eric,
who’s in charge of handling the vendors called sutlers in Civil War
terminology. “Where’s your tax number, Fritz? You know you can’t set up
without your tax number.” I had remembered to bring eighty photographic
plates, wooden camera, antique tripod, metal headstand, box of business
cards, assorted pieces of vintage clothing, numerous hats and other
paraphernalia. Yes, somehow or other the tax number was in a book back at
Eric was kind enough to speak to the local sheriff who would have me sit
on the sideline and rot. He said he had the old applications from last
year at home and he would bring the number back that evening. So therefore
I could set up. I vowed to go into town and get a temporary number just in
case he didn’t remember that all important number and did so later.
With the help of veteran sutler, John Bogarty I managed to maneuver the
trailer into tight quarters. The bolts on the trailer gate were loosened
and the wagon rolled with heavy pushes from behind into place. I propped
the trail which Browny, my imaginary horse, would have used to pull the
heavy wagon against the carriage side. Out came the barrel, massive
tripod, table, desk and other camp furniture. It was Thursday afternoon.
The weather was bright and cheery but there were only fellow sutlers to
look at, talk to and complain about the lack of customers to. Why we all
have to be in place two days before the reenactors arrived few can explain.
The next morning I visited the Lake City historical museum. We got to see
pictures of local Civil War soldiers and Yankee rifles which were stolen
by the local Southerners during the army occupation of the town and thrown
into the town lake. There they had laid buried in the muddy bottom for one
hundred twenty five years or so, only to be fished out when the lake was
drained for cleaning and restoration. The rifles were more or less intact
preserved by the mud. I remember when our current senator, Bob Graham,
dressed in Confederate officer’s uniform, presented the rifles cleaned and
restored back to the city. It was a proud red neck moment. Local rebels
had whipped the Yankees one more time.
Friday afternoon I swung from the wagon and set up as usual. The scene
looked much as it might have 140 years ago. The Olustee reenactment is
held on the actual battle field where the Rebels defeated the Federal
forces sent out from Jacksonville in February, 1864. It was a surprising
late war victory for the doomed Southerners. But they whipped the Yankees
fair and square. There’s supposed to be several ghosts still seen from
time to time of fallen soldiers, but so far in the twenty years I’ve been
going to this reenactment, I’ve never seen them, but I have heard their
late night howls.
I bought a marvelous period straw hat from Dirty Billy, the haberdasher
and was proud to sport it throughout the event. I visited with sutler
friends, watched the reenactors coming in, and prayed for good business
along with the other merchants.
Saturday morning I was in camp and up to greet the troops as the marched
to colors. I hold my camera on its tripod by the side of the road. I
hollered out as the troops marched by, “Get your image struck before you
die! Last chance this side of the pearly gates. Pin your name on the back
of your jacket. If any portion of your body is recognizable, I can ship
your image home with the body. Imagine the look of surprise on your
momma’s face when she opens the coffin box to see a picture of you as you
were in life!” It’s gallows humor but the soldiers all love it, and hoot
and holler at me swearing mock revenge. It does however let them know I’ll
be ready throughout the event to strike their image and make a dollar.
Saturday was fairly busy. The customers came steadily, but there was no
rush. I was beginning to think the problems that plagued our economy were
going to hit me as well. Many of the other sutlers were complaining too.
Then we all got slammed. The soldiers returned from the commemorative
parade in town, and customers came forward all wanting to have their image
struck with their comrades and pards. I did individuals, duos, trios and
in fact, whole companies. I posed them formally and informally, with
weapons, their children, their wives and sweethearts, all in traditional
poses. My camera was smokin’! When the sun finally set that afternoon, I
had gone through an entire box of plates and knew I would sell out of all
my plates once again.
Sunday morning was more of the same. Following colors. (the flag raising
ceremony), fellows came from the Confederate camp to help me carry my box
of plates and other materials into their camp to do more unit pictures.
Posing them in camp is so realistic looking. It is what inspires me to
keep taking pictures. The work is hard because each soldier needs to be
posed precisely as the original soldiers used to appear. It means I really
have to have studied the ancient images in order to do the set ups
quickly. Modern reenactors aren’t as patient as the soldiers from days
gone by. They want the job done quickly and efficiently, but also to
perfection. Again, Doug’s assistance was missed. He knows how to pose the
men almost as well as I do, and is usually there to help get the job done.
During the afternoon, soldiers came with wives, families and sweethearts
for their portraits. The camera continued to focus in on these people
until an hour after the battle was over. Then came the job of packing up.
Getting the van with the trailer back to where the wagon was ensconced was
a trial, but was accomplished with greater speed than anticipated. A
horrible moment came when the wagon was being hoisted back onto the
trailer. The cable pulling the wagon snapped and the wagon rolled quickly
back to the ground! I anticipated having to spend the night on the field
until I could go into town and get another cable and some wire cutters.
Fortunately I know the park ranger. A passing police officer on a patrol
bike radioed him, and Frank, the park ranger, brought a device known as a
“come along” to the rescue. It took some struggling, but the old wagon
finally was coaxed and pushed into place. By five thirty I was on the rode
back to Safety Harbor. I was tired but happy. The weather had been
perfect. I sold out to the last picture frame I had, and my wallet was
full. Exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep, I pulled the covers
over my head around 11:30 that night, satisfied that another Olustee
reenactment was behind me. That’s all the news from Sunny Florida.