Researching 1800s Grove City, OH

20140607 Century Village Primer
A Union school primer to learn your alphabet

Over the past couple of weeks I discovered somewhere between 100 – 230 men from the Grove City (or Jackson Township) area signed up for the Union Army in the Civil War. Janet Shailer, one of the authors of a book I’m using as primer for all things Grove City, gave me names of local historians who could go into more detail about that; I haven’t contacted them yet.

And then of course, there’s the Century Village in Grove City, OH. It’s a sort of living museum exhibit, a first-hand glimpse at how families living in 1850s-style log cabins and barns might have lived. This is an excellent little plot of land mostly intended for school field trips, but once a year they have a Civil War enactment day, and I was lucky enough to be in town this year!

It was a fantastic little field trip for me! Here are some pointers for those of you also working on in situ research…

Chat with the historians

Jones Log Barn - This small barn is exactly the size my characters need
Jones Log Barn – This small barn is exactly the size my characters need

Each building in the Century Village had hobby historians who were trained to tell you all about the building. However, once one of the historians realized I was interested in the Civil War and Grove City, and not just 1800s old stuff in general, she launched into a fascinating tale about how her husband’s grandfather was a Union soldier. She told me I’m researching the wrong part of Ohio, that I actually want southern Ohio because of the skirmishes and Underground Railroad.

I thanked her for her opinion, and was ready to tour the old school house until she stopped me to tell the anecdote about how a handful of men went to answer the Union call up in Columbus… but when they got there, they were told to go home, they had enough soldiers! And then came the second call, when the war refused to end… and then Grove City men refused to answer the call because they’d wasted their time before!

Moral of the story: Your elders have all the interesting stories the books don’t have time to tell you about. Collect on their knowledge.

Take more photos than you think you need

1850s log cabin with two rooms; my characters have a four-room house
1850s log cabin with two rooms; my characters have a four-room house

I took 41 photos in 45 minutes, and I regret not taking more! You might only have one opportunity to see your landscape / building / what-have-you, so take advantage for all its worth. Take photos of corners, and stairs, and how furniture relates to one another. Don’t EVER use flash photography unless told you can, because you don’t want to be kicked out. So you might want to bring a real camera, if your phone/tablet doesn’t handle low light very well.

That said, I used my phone to take pictures, with and without flash,  to show the difference between today and yesteryear. The upstairs of the log cabin was SO DARK, and it took me a while to realize because the only window on the second floor faced north, I believe. If it had been southern-facing, there might have been light all day (since I’m in the northern hemisphere). It’s little details like that which just seem to make the period come that much more alive for me.

Moral of the story: Take a picture, it lasts longer than your brain memory.

Obviously these are two quick hits in terms of insights, but honestly, this is my first time traveling to a location to study for one of my historical fictions. Previously, I tried to do everything via Google Earth, and the internet in general. It was really cool to stand in a bedroom/kitchen where they served hardtack and Johnny Cake, or in a barn where they were drying out corn. A patchwork blanket was strung in a wooden frame to hold a bed mattress, and an empty horse stall was the exact size to hide my character.

Go to your story’s location, if you can, and absorb whatever details resonate with you. This is the stuff of fiction.