The Heartbeat of the Past
By McKayla Hoffman
Often, the first impression that guests at Coggeshall Farm Museum report is the wonderful smell of the fire in the hearth. Every time I hear that, for a brief moment, it’s perplexing. I hardly smell the fire burning in the hearth anymore. I wonder if those living in the farmhouse during the 18th century would have said the same thing.
In the morning, when I work to get the fire going (not always an easy task), I’m thinking about all the chores to check off my to-do list. Meanwhile, a fire burns in the same hearth that sustained many tenant farm families for over 200 years. That hearth—the heartbeat of our old, beautiful house—continues on.
We work side by side with guests collecting firewood of all shapes and sizes, pitching hay into wheelbarrows for the cows and hanging sage to dry in the kitchen so we’ll have it all winter long. Some days, caught up in the minutia of our day, we may temporarily forget that those who lived so long ago survive through us, dwelling in the meeting place between our modern hands and their methods.
My senses are never dulled to the curiosity and awe of our visitors. Sometimes it’s surprising, being on the other side of their thought-provoking questions. It’s akin to someone walking into your house and studying the way you pour a bowl of cereal or turn on the television with a remote control. “Where did you buy your remote? Where did you get that milk?”
We can honor the lives of past people by wearing their carefully layered clothing, by practicing their craft, by tilling the land as they did. However, there is something else, something remarkable, about this type of experience. There is an awe that can’t be replicated when one is afforded the chance to see and touch something that someone of the past created with their own hands. Whose hands were those? What world did they reside in, help create, sustain?
Many of these experiences that capture the imaginations of our guests (and, let’s be honest, us too!) involve not just what we do, but what we use to do it: a whisk made from a bundle of twigs, a large pot speckled with patina, a creaking saw horse, a split hay rake.
A pre-industrial craftsperson used tools differently than most people living in 2016. For the average person of today, if you want to repair your roof, you hire someone or you buy what you need at the hardware store and do the rest. If you want to hang up a picture frame, you search through your garage, grab a hammer, get a nail in the wall, hang up the picture, and you’re done. The hammer goes back into the tool kit or drawer and is forgotten until the next project. But if this tool were your livelihood, it would have become an extension of your body and mind.
When it comes to most of the work we do on the farm, this reality exists for us, too. While we’re shaving a shingle blank, for example, our minds and senses are entirely consumed by the task. But when it’s done, we’re left with the tool in our hands and the product before us. For that small, fleeting moment, we forget where we are, even when we are. We could be alive in the 1790s or 2016 and it would make no difference.
There’s something haunting about the essence that remains of those who used these tools, eternalized in the use wear on a blade, the name etched into the wooden handle, or the company name stamped onto the haft.
We are the collective stewards of our past. Preserving the past doesn’t just mean curating artifacts in a temperature and humidity-controlled facility, nor does it end at museum exhibits. It means, most notably for a living history museum, continuing processes of the past. It means that each guest at our farm can experience the past with all of their senses engaged. They can plunge into the past with their whole selves. They can immerse themselves in a life that seems worlds apart from their own but, in many ways, is just as rewarding, heartbreaking and wonderful as the present day.
Getting nourishment from the same land as those who came before us, baking our bread in the same oven, laughing and debating over our meal in the back parlor… in these moments, there is a heartbreaking fondness, a quiet celebration of the gloriously ordinary lives of these farm families. All the while, the house and the land hold us carefully and patiently, nurturing their continued heritage.
Many lines of my ancestry are Coggeshall lines, and I am, genetically, more Coggeshall than anything else, being my own cousin a bunch of times over. Maybe some of you, working there at Coggeshall farm, are cousins and actual descendants of the Coggeshalls who lived there. At any rate, ALL of us have ancestors who lived this way, so it is not REALLY foreign to any of us. No wonder it pulls at some of us so strongly.
Wonderfully written, I can smell and feel the hearth from my home!