Living History by Greta VanOsdol ’16 Posted on October 15th, 2015 by

Gustavus Greta VanOsdol '16

Greta VanOsdol ’16 at Fort Wilkins, Michigan Photo Credit: Barry James

I have spent the past three summers at a historic military fort in Copper Harbor, Michigan, acting as a costumed interpreter. Fort Wilkins was built in 1844 as a response to the need for policing in a newly thriving copper mining area. It was occupied for two years until 1846 when the soldiers left the fort to fight in the Mexican-America War. It was reoccupied in 1867, and the Army stayed there until 1870.

There are four total actors who portray people who lived at the fort in the summer of 1870, as part of the Army’s Company K, 1st Infantry. I portray “Kate Holmes” a company laundress who really lived at the fort from May of 1869 to August of 1870. We do what is called first person interpretation, which means we forget about all modern slang, inventions, and people. Instead, we act as if we were still living in 1870, and interact with people who come visit the fort, doing things like chopping wood, washing clothes, promenading the porches, and “drilling” on the parade grounds. We have to have a good knowledge of the history of the fort, of our characters’ lives, and of the main historical events of the time.

Beyond interacting with visitors, I was also in charge of conducting inventory of the buildings and artifacts, cleaning and restoring artifacts, and maintenance of the Copper Harbor Lighthouse, another site in the area. I was able to learn a lot about how a historic site and a state park are run. I have always been interested in museums and history, but I had initially considered a career in teaching. Thanks to my position at Fort Wilkins, I have realized that I want to pursue a career in public history because it gives an opportunity to educate outside of the traditional classroom environment, and I can teach people of all ages from all walks of life. Working at a site that has so much history in and of itself means that visitors are often already interested in what it has to offer.

Working at a state park and historic site has also allowed me to hone many skills. I’ve improved in things like public speaking and communication, writing, research, conducting inventory, handling artifacts, and supervising other workers. I found the position through visiting and being a part of workshops there through high school, but the position is also found through the State of Michigan’s employment website. If you’re interested in costumed interpretation at historic sites, there are many around the United States, such as in Minnesota at Fort Snelling, Old World Wisconsin, or Mackinac Island in Michigan. I highly recommend it!

Submitted by Greta VanOsdol ’16, from Marquette, Michigan.

Fort Wilkins Historic State Park

Fort Wilkins Historic State Park

VanOsdol_Fort Wilkins Historic State Park

Fort Wilkins Historic State Park Photo Credit: Greta VanOsdol ’16



  1. Greg Kaster says:

    Great experience, Greta. And your point about educating the public beyond the classroom about history is so important. Some have observed a kind of paradox among Americans of historical ignorance mixed with intense interest in public history sites. Proud of you!

  2. Gayle van Osdol says:

    Love it! Great blog post!

  3. Lois says:

    I don’t do museums, but I would visit this one!! Good job, Greta.