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Rural Missouri Magazine
Bringing history to life
Mexico's 'Walk Back in Time' festival puts
a face on the past

by Bob McEowen

Visitors to “A Walk Back in Time” stroll past a replica Confederate Army camp during the candlelight tour portion of the living history event held in Mexico, Mo., in September. The festival included historic camps, which recreated eight periods of American history.

Imagine a scene where a blacksmith steadily hammers red hot metal against an anvil. Nearby, a weaver repeatedly pulls on a loom as he crafts a rug. Across the way, an American Indian plays a mournful tune on a traditional wooden flute while a mountain man chips away at flint to make an arrowhead.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur chats idly with Gen. George Washington. Confederate soldiers and cowboys bedecked with spurs and six-shooters wander among rows of vendors while a squad of World War II-era GIs toting M-1 rifles slips through the crowd.

No, this is not the back lot of a Hollywood studio. Welcome to “A Walk Back in Time,” a living history festival and country fair sponsored by the Audrain County Historical Society.

Ginny Blankenship of Rosebud demonstrates an American Indian drill for a group of students who attended the event as part of an educational program sponsored by Consolidated Electric Cooperative of Mexico.

The fifth annual festival was held Sept. 22-24 on the grounds of the society’s museum complex in Mexico. The unique event presents American history through reenactments, demonstrations by traditional craftsmen and historical camps arranged in chronological order to provide a walking tour of America’s past.

“We have eight time periods represented. It goes all the way from the Korean War back to Colonial times,” says Dana Keller, director of the society. “All kinds of people have Civil War reenactments or World War II reenactments but it’s rare that you have this timeline. It’s so unique.”

On any day, Mexico’s 12-acre Robert S. Green Park offers a treasure trove for history buffs. The 1857 Graceland mansion provides a glimpse of 19th century life among the gentry class. A restored country church and one-room schoolhouse allow older visitors to relive their youth, and the American Saddlebred Horse Museum delights equestrian enthusiasts.

Cadets from Missouri Military Academy in Mexico learn about weapons used during World War II.

But for three days each fall, history comes alive in Mexico. Visitors to A Walk Back in Time immerse themselves in the past as each few steps leads to another era.

“We want visitors to follow the timeline,” says Paul Baum, a historic reenactor who first proposed the idea of a living history festival in Mexico and today recruits most of the participants. “They start out right over here with the 1950s, the Korean War. Then they’ll go back to World War II, then back, back, back, back.

“As they go, they get deeper and deeper back in time. They’ll get the feeling of the passage of time,” says Baum, who dressed as an American Indian for the event.

While adults find the displays fascinating, the event’s organizers give special heed to attracting children. The opening day of the festival is Consolidated Electric Cooperative Education Day. The cooperative’s event brings nearly 500 students from area schools to the site to tour the exhibits and learn about history.

Reenactors portraying a Confederate artillery unit fire a cannon during a simulated battle. Each day of the festival spectators watched recreations of battles from the Civil War, World War II and the 1880's cowboy era of the American West.

“It’s amazing what it does to spark the interest of kids,” Keller says. “For a child to walk through the steps and know the chronological order of things makes such a huge difference. “It makes so much more sense than when you give them bits and pieces in some random order. It just puts it all in perspective.”

Plus, the event is exciting.

On both Saturday and Sunday, combatants take positions beyond the park’s historic buildings to engage in a series of simulated battles. The Army of the North advances on a bedraggled unit of Rebs while the acrid smell of black powder fills the air and the percussion from a Civil War-era cannon sets off car alarms on nearby streets. Later, a convoy of World War II vehicles rushes onto the grounds with automatic weapons rat-tat-tatting a steady beat of suppressing fire. Even the cowboys get in the act, recreating the gunfight at the OK Corral.

The staged battles are especially effective in conveying the excitement of history, something often lost in traditional lessons, says Baum, a retired school teacher and a member of the Audrain County Historical Society’s Board of Directors.

David Maupin of Solon, Iowa, portrayed Gen. George Washington. Bill Hobbs of Columbia, appeared as World War II Gen. Douglas MacArthur

“It’s very dramatic,” he says. “We take these things right out of the pages of the history book and off the chalkboards. They just come alive.”

Dressed in buckskins and wearing a coyote pelt on his head, Gordon Welch represents a less violent time in American history. An 1830s mountain man reenactor, Welch says these events convey history in a way that books and lectures cannot.

“Growing up, history just seemed to be a whole bunch of dates about wars and facts. I didn’t understand the adventure of history,” he says. “With reenactments you almost feel like you’re back in history a little bit.”

The Mexico event, which also featured an 1860s-style vintage baseball game and a “human jukebox” performing 19th-century songs, brings a span of history together in one place like few other festivals.

Gary “Bear” Wilbur pitched for the St. Louis Unions, an 1880s vintage baseball team. Kristyn Watts of Powhatan, Ark., dressed as a member of the Women’s Army Corps.

“I do a few of these. But this is one of the biggest and best ones I’ve been involved with,” says Welch of Wichita, Kans. “I’ve always been surprised that a town of this size has this.”

The fact that Mexico’s event attracts nearly 12,000 people — roughly equal to the town’s population — is proof the community is dedicated to preserving history.

Each summer the Audrain County Historical Society hosts a weeklong history camp for school children. The society’s mansion, historical records library and related museums are open six days a week, 11 months of the year. In fact, the museum complex is actually a city-owned park.

“We’re able to accomplish an amazing amount of activities because of the support we get from the city. It’s just incredible,” Keller says.

Although the historical society has a paid staff of five, Keller says the group’s success is due to the efforts of history-minded members of the community. “We have a great board of directors and the caliber of the people who volunteer here is just amazing.”

Visitors to the festival walk past Graceland, an 1857 mansion that is the centerpiece of a museum complex operated by the Audrain County Historical Society.

For Baum, the festival is a fulfillment of the group’s mission. “We’re a historical society. We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” he says.

Keller, the society’s director, says events like the Walk Back in Time are vital if the society is to continue connecting the community to its past.

“As a community, we’re a little less interested in history than we used to be because so many things compete for people’s time. Hopefully, we are presenting history in a different enough manner to draw them back into it,” she says.

“It’s just those kinds of things that will keep us alive.”

For more information, write the Audrain County Historical Society, 501 S. Muldrow, Mexico, MO 65265; phone (573) 581-3910; or log onto www.audrain.org.

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