The Fritz Kirsch “What’s It Wagon” never looked so good. It has been
totally rebuilt by Matt McGarr and Doug Tittle. The amazing thing is
these wagon masters are all of age 17 and 16, respectively. Already, they
are careful craftsman who took a great deal of time and energy to do the
job right. They took the old carriage’s flaking paint down to bare wood
and filled in the cracks and holes. Then they applied a lustrous black
New signs neatly hand lettered in yellow antique script by Gabe Costello
completed the job. The total new presentation had that new wagon smell
like you get at fashionable upscale carriage shops.
With the wagon in tip top shape, we headed up the highway to Lake City,
Florida, site of the 1864 battle. There was a rumor that the NAACP might
be picketing the Olustee Battle and parade in Lake City. At least, that
news was reported in the press. Little came of the demonstration. There
were about twenty protesters the day of the parade, most of them white,
Green Peace members. Thousands more came out to join in the community’s
Battle Festival which commemorated the brave soldiers, black and white,
who stood up for the causes they believed in.
Doug Tittle, my young apprentice and I, took our spot toward the back of
sutlers’ row. It was a spot I have now occupied for twenty years. I have
been offered Homestead Papers on this location. The park service has
preserved the old fence gate I have used in so many images. It was very
kind of them to remember me that way. All the old cattle fencing other
than that gate have been removed.
A sutler named, Heidi set up across from us with aromatic soaps. No matter
how smelly we would become, the air was perfumed with the fragrances of
her products. What a blessing!
Thursday is always a very slow day for sutlers. It is a time to set up
their tents and reacquaint themselves with old friends. We visited Ben
Gormley, the Santa Claus look-alike who writes such moving poetry about
the events 140 years ago. His wit and charm even effected my apprentice
who I thought was only taken with the lyrics of country music and rock and
roll. His poem about Marry Todd was a riot.
Friday, the school kids attended from the surrounding counties. One adult
sponsor who has a problem with dates and time sequences insisted I must
have fought in the real Civil War as I was old enough looking to have been
in it! I’m sure she meant no discourtesy, but it was damaging to the ego
to be thought of as such an old fossil.
By Saturday morning all the troops were in camps. The bugle sounded at six
A.P. for reveille. When they marched by I greeted them with the old chant,
“Get your image struck before you die!” as well as other taunts. There was
the usual banter back from the soldiers. Some even asked if I was the
local undertaker as well, but at least they knew I was there.
The weather in Florida in February is variable. Thursday and Friday were
warm and sunny. Friday night a cold front rapidly galloped through
christening us with a bit of rain. Miraculously, for the second time since
I have owned the wagon, it did not leak! Luxurious living was at hand. The
thermostat headed south. Temperature dropped. By Saturday night and the
ball, it was around the lower forties and damp. Still, it was marvelous to
look up in the sky and see the stars shining brightly. For those of us who
live in the city this is a rare sight. The ladies still looked fetching in
their ball gowns, the soldiers dashing in their best uniforms and sashes.
The brass band filled the night air with waltzes and mazurkas as the
dancers did the Virginia reel and other more challenging steps. Doug
charmed a lady in the hat dance. She was an older lady as he reported, in
her forties. (My goodness, I didn’t know humans could live so long!) The
object of the dance is to win the lady over with fancy words. One soldier
told the waiting lady he had a fine wagon and a good horse. Doug promised
her he had a good heart and was honest and brave. His smooth words won
out. The other gentleman had to be content to dance with a battered old
Sleeping that night was hard for some since the temperature was so low,
but the wagon holds heat and one lantern keeps me from freezing. I suppose
it could catch fire easily, but it hasn’t thus far, so God must be
watching over me.
Sunday morning business picks up to a frantic nature. Seventh Florida,
Company B wanted their company picture as usual. Last year I was able to
get them featured in the reenactor’s magazine Camp Chase Gazette. The
previous year’s image was very casual. This one was more formal with
officers seated and the enlisted men standing with fixed bayonets.
Afterwards we slipped back to the edge of the Confederate camp. The 39th
Georgia Regiment was camped there deep in the pines and palmettos. They
are a ragged rough and ready group with deep accents reminding one of
their ancestors who fought on this same battle field well over a hundred
years ago. Their camp was minimal. They slept mostly on the ground with
one “A” tent and a shebang. Their beards were long and their faces lean.
They looked like the real McCoy. An officer rode by who looked like Lee
on Traveler. He stopped long enough to ask, “You boys spend the night all
right?” They answered affirmatively, and he galloped off without further
ceremony. It was a simple moment but seemed so real it made the hair stand
up on my arms since there were no spectators around to spoil the moment
and intrude into this moment from 1864.
When we returned to the wagon we saw we were down to our last few plates.
First there were many, and then there were none. Four handsome black
soldiers came up and wanted their image taken. Sadly, there were no more
plates left, so I sent the troopers over to my good friend, Wendel Decker,
another wet plate artist. Maybe next year.
When the battle opened we frantically packed our belongings. As soon as we
were allowed to bring in our trailer we scurried around and had the
trailer and possessions in place in just under a half hour, a new record
for us. Olustee had come and gone one more year.