History comes alive
Voices from the Past teaches students, residents about local history and those that helped to shape the city
Voices from the Past began in 2011 during Recreation Program Coordinator Stephanie Baumann’s first year with the Westfield Parks department. The program is a unique way to learn about Westfield’s history through the lives of former citizens.
“It was done in my hometown. I shamelessly stole the idea,” she said. “We have the locations and cemeteries and information started. It’s a great way to share history with the community.”
The event combines the parks department with volunteers from its Heritage Committee, Westfield Playhouse and Westfield-Washington Historical Society.
“We couldn’t do the event without either group. It’s well received and grew from year one to year two and we’re hoping to see it grow again as well,” Baumann said. “People would say, ‘I didn’t know that about Westfield.’”
This year’s characters include Dr. Jacob and Jane Plaff, John and Louann Rhodes, Asa Bales, Samuel Pittman, William Vestal Wheeler, Asaph and Sarah Hiatt and Oliver Morton Carey.
Westfield has two historic cemeteries located within its parks. Baumann said the Old Friends Cemetery in Old Friends Cemetery Park and Anti-Slavery Cemetery in Asa Bales Park were created one year apart in the mid-1830s. Old Friends Cemetery Park was established in 1834 and is the site of the first cemetery in Westfield.
Westfield-Washington Historical Society’s Bruce Hansen said differences in ethical beliefs on how to approach slavery caused some local Quaker churches to split, including Westfield’s. Asa Bales and others formed the Westfield Friends Anti-Slavery Society, built a separate meeting house and set land aside for a cemetery.
“Each year we’ve had some people who are buried in the two cemeteries. It’s really unique. History comes to life. Seeing someone tell that story at the gravesites – this person really existed. It provides connection to the cemetery,” Baumann said. “It’s a neat way for us to tell Westfield stories and program at private pieces of our parks system.”
Hansen is tasked with creating the script each year and finding new people to profile that are buried in the two cemeteries.
“Some people with the same last name don’t know who they are,” he said. “We feature three to four persons of historic interest in each cemetery.”
Creating the script of each “character” is quite time consuming. Hansen said he spends much of his time researching the history. If possible, he uses a journal or time period writings of the people. When those are not available, Hansen uses all resources available and researches similar people.
“I find people of the same era and chronological events to accurately portray them,” he said. “You just have to piece it together.”
Hansen said scripts are based on when people are born, where they lived, what events occurred in their lifetime, what they did and who they were associated with.
“I create a story from historical points. The context is historically accurate,” he said. “Some of the people we try to tell in a humorous way. Some are an emotional or serious way.”
Main Street Productions/Westfield Playhouse President John Sampson, who will portray Dr. Jacob Plaff, said after the success of the first year, the organization decided to continue participating each year.
“The actors were willing to help Main Street Productions the first year and after the pleasure they had, many have asked to be in one again,” he said. “After the success with the schools’ attendance, even more actors have heard of what we are doing and are eager to be involved.”
Sampson said the actors dress in outfits similar to the time frame and take time off work to be out interacting with students and the public.
“By doing three different performances (last year) the attendance sky rocketed and this year promises to be even bigger,” he said. “This cooperation has been a win-win situation for all and Main Street Productions will be there as long as it goes on.”
Baumann said this year’s Voices from the Past will have more exposure as four Westfield Washington Schools groups are taking field trips on Sept. 13. She said second-graders from Maple Glen and Carey Ridge elementary schools and fourth-graders from Monon Trace and Washington Woods will be in attendance.
“We’re really excited to be able to do that,” she said. “It’s a really good way to show Westfield history to those students. They’re so interested and engaged. It’s a great way to get kids excited about history.”
Hansen said seeing the reaction and involvement of students to the program last year was a highlight for the historical society.
“Local Westfield history has never had an audience like that before. They were learning about actual people living in their community long ago,” he said. “Who knew a simple walk in the park with some actors could interest people thoroughly?”
Guided tours run every 10 minutes from 6 to 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 13 and 1 to 3:30 p.m. Sept. 14. Tours will begin at the east entrance to Asa Bales Park, 211 N. Union St., and last approximately one and a half hours with approximately 35 minutes of walking. To reserve a tour, call 804-3183.
Tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for students. Tickets are available for purchase online at www.westfield.in.gov, at the Westfield City Service Center, 2728 E. 171st St., or at the event. Proceeds benefit the Westfield-Washington Historical Society and Westfield Playhouse.