Crowds return for annual GermanFest at Old Stone House

Published 12:10 am Sunday, September 18, 2022

SALISBURY — “Ich bin ein Berliner,” would have been just as effective a statement Saturday as it was when President John F. Kennedy spoke those same words in 1963 in West Berlin.

This weekend, everyone was a little bit German at the annual GermanFest at the fully restored Old Stone House. The weekend gives visitors a chance to experience first hand the history of Germany and German immigrants via re-enactors and demonstrators, and to tour the restored house and garden. The house was built by Michael Braun, an 18th century German immigrant who, with his newfound prosperity, completed construction by 1766 of what was then a large plantation.

Saturday, a clear, sunny, lightly breezy day lifted the smell of woodsmoke and a bit of bubbling apple butter on that wind across the field to the parking lot, which for most of the day was full.

“I am considered a back country surgeon because I use herbs, whereas a city surgeon uses pills, that are hard to get right now because of the British blockade of our imports,” explained Bob Cook to a group of rapt onlookers. A math teacher Monday to Friday, Cook was Saturday’s surgeon who regaled visitors with explanations of how different ailments would be handled. In the 1700s, there was still a “humoral” approach to medicine, but there was nothing funny about it. It was the belief that illnesses had natural, rather than supernatural, causes, and that the fluids in the body were the determining factor in illnesses.

For instance, a red humor meant one had too much blood.

“Which meant blood letting,” said Cook. For men, a slender knife was used to cut open a blood vessel “in the muscular areas of the arm or leg, because some locations would have been too hard to control the blood loss,” he noted. For women, leeches were used “because, vanity, you know, no scars.” A surgeon would take no more than two pints of blood from a patient in one week’s time.

He explained the use of numerous herbs as well, cloves for tooth aches and white birch bark for pain. Ipecac powder, used to induce vomiting when needed, was hard to get because it only came from Africa and those English ships were still blocking the deliveries, so, said Cook, he would have given patients apple seeds, which contain both arsenic and cyanide — but which were a substitute to bring on throwing up. They just had other side effects that were not yet clear.

Cook said he got interested in participating in events when he would go as a young man with his mother to help her set up for her own participation. Over the years, he developed an interest in surgery in the 18th century, did a lot of reading and talking with actual surgeons, and has been pleased when people approach him these days and ask if he’s an actual surgeon.

Kendall Pressley, who brought two-year-old Theo Butsch to the event “just to check it out,” said she was having fun with her family. Her step-father, Lee Madden, has been a militia re-enactor for years, which led him to participate in Saturday’s event as a sheep and potato farmer who was also a militia member. He had both a rifle and a shotgun on display that he pointed out he would have used for different purposes. The shotgun would be good for shorter distances, hunting included, while the rifle would be what he would have taken into battle.

“You can’t attach a bayonet to these, though,” he said. “Which is why you hear that the militia ran. When the British strapped bayonets onto their rifles, we could not fight that.” He explained a military tactic that did work, though. Soldiers in the Revolutionary War set up in layers when the ground allowed, having a front militia row that would fire then drop back, and a second row would then fire on the advancing British, drawing them forward. The third layer would be a horseshoe formation that would surround the British as they were drawn forward by the first two rows of militia.

Bethany Graybill and a crew of enactors were demonstrating what a military camp kitchen would have been like, with a cauldron of apple cider bubbling away, rendering down so apples could be added and cooked, then sugar for the last hour of constant stirring, to make homemade apple butter. Meanwhile Diane Dworek was kneading the dough to make pretzels, though without the lye that was used hundreds of years ago.

Vince McHenry, who along with his wife Ruth, is a wood carver and said his organization, Triad Woodcarvers, was approached about participating by Randy Lassiter.

Lassiter is the director of GermanFest, despite having “not one drop of German blood.” His love of Rowan County, including its German heritage, means he is determined to make sure the community knows its own background. He praised the garden behind the Old Stone House and the grounds and the house itself for its resilience and strength.

“I mean look at it,” he said. “Still perfectly straight, in incredible shape. They knew what they were doing,” He said he was “very pleased by how busy we have been, how many people have come out,” and how many different participants there were to show all the different aspects of life so long ago.

Netra Bollinger of Rockwell, now retired, has been making baskets since she was a child, and is adept at re-caning chairs as well. She said it takes her “a few hours” to make a basket, she is that competent, and she does do new chair seats in her “everyday” life as well.

“I did the one here with fabric instead of wood because if the fabric starts to sag, you just untie the knot and pull it tight, then tie it again,” she said.

Every participant in the event was incredibly knowledgeable in their field, and visitors often stood, listening intently, to the information provided, woven into stories. Re-enactors take on the lives they have created at events like GermanFest, which does make it feel like people have truly stepped back in time.

Even if it means scratching a pig’s belly or a baby goat’s head, it was all a part of seeing how farmers, and Revolutionary War soldiers, lived.