by Tiffany Hyman
Load your cannons, aim and fire. The 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 is quickly approaching.
The Marble Orchard theater group, sponsored by Lewiston Council on the Arts, is putting on a production Saturday, July 23, and Sunday, July 24, to commemorate the war.
The play includes a talented cast that will tell its dramatic and inspirational stories from a sad time period. From the chief of the Tuscaroras to an orphan to a redcoat, "Spirits of 1812" covers every side of the war.
"The play brings history to life because history is sometimes just a word in books," said LCA Artistic Director and "Marble Orchard" play co-author Eva Nicklas. "Adults, children and the elderly will get a taste of what really happened during the war. It's all about personal connections."
"We've got it all covered," assured Tim Henderson, artist-in-residence with the LCA and creator of the "Marble Orchard" play. "We left no stone unturned."
Nicklas and Henderson take narrating to a whole new level. With their combination of commitment, passion and creativity, it is no wonder why the play is extraordinary and unique.
Henderson's great-great-grandmother, Mary Dunmead, played by Bonnie Clark, was one of those fortunate enough to survive the war.
Dunmead escaped a near-death experience as an Indian broke into her home. She escaped through the rear door. She also managed to rescue her husband, "Canada's finest horseman," at a later time during the war. Dunmead was well known because she cooked for the troops, and even the prison's guards who set her husband free.
"The prison guards loved my huckleberry pie, too," Clark joked.
She died at 96 years old.
The play has been in production for about a year by Nicklas and Henderson. Volunteer actors have dedicated their time to rehearsals for more than six weeks. It is not a re-enactment and not necessarily told from the year of the war, but is instead a story from the greatest local characters from the mid-1800s.
"We're telling the stories in retrospect," said Nicklas. "Canadians' stories will be told, too, so we cover both sides of the border."
The War of 1812 was a military conflict between the United States, the British and Indians. It started on June 18, 1812, and lasted until Feb. 18, 1815. Lewiston marked the site of the first major battle of the war, which the U.S. lost. On Dec. 19, 1813, the British retaliated against the U.S. and burned Lewiston down and killed many innocent civilians. The Tuscaroras rescued some of the village people and helped them escape the brutal attack.
A few of the notable characters in the play are Agnes Barton, Catherine Hustler and Sparrow Sage.
Sue Campbell, editor of the Niagara-Wheatfield Tribune and board member of Lewiston Council on the Arts, plays Agnes Barton.
Campbell usually plays Lucy Williams Hawes as part of the LCA history and ghost walks, but is delighted to play the role of Barton.
"I have become so comfortable playing Lucy over the years," said Campbell. "Agnes is a different role - she is a busy mother and gracious hostess."
Barton had 11 children with husband, Benjamin. He built Barton Hill for his wife before the British burned it down in 1813. After the war, it was rebuilt and remains a private residence today. The Barton Inn Hotel has been built just below on First Street.
"Barton Hill still stands on the bluff today, and the willow tree still grows on the site that Agnes planted her willow switch," Campbell added.
Before the British burned Lewiston, Barton buried her jewelry, silver and grandfather clock in the garden where she believed the British could never find it and, indeed, they never did. The Bartons were both buried in the Village Cemetery. Benjamin died in 1842 at the age of 71 and Agnes died in 1858 at the age of 84.
"The neat thing is they're real people from Lewiston's history, and many of them are buried in the Village Cemetery," said Campbell. "As you portray them, you wonder what they'd say if they were actually there in your place."
Catherine Hustler is another unique character. She is played by Kathryn Serianni, a local entrepreneur. Serianni is thrilled to play a character with personality traits so similar to her own.
"Catherine is great," she said. "We relate to each other because she was a small business owner in Lewiston and I am a small business owner in Niagara Falls."
Hustler owned a tavern, and became famous for inventing the first cocktail. Her generous, outgoing personality made her tavern successful and profitable. When the war broke out, Hustler was just in her 50s. She died in 1832.
"I put myself into my character," said Serianni. "It makes it really believable."
Sparrow Sage is played by retired Niagara University professor and chair of the Education Department at Medaille College, Dr. Jerry Mosey.
Mosey is excited to play the part of Sage. He describes his character as "humorous" and "earthy."
Sage built a house and tavern at the base of Indian Hill. The Brits and Mohawks burned Lewiston and chased the residents out of the village, but his tavern was spared. Sage's wife was kidnapped by an intoxicated Mohawk, and he "flew" into fury as he attempted to save her. Sage died in 1850.
"Sparrow was one of the first settlers in Lewiston," said Mosey. "He was a nice man and a product of his time."
Other local actors and actresses in the play include:
Even at rehearsal, these actors and actresses gave it their all. From hearing the inspirational stories by Miles, who distracted the Mohawks from killing his father and ended up being scalped, to hearing details how her son was scalped by Nancy, to hearing how Chief Sacarissa traveled to Canada to beg for peace, emotion was tense and passion abounded.
Perhaps the most powerful line came from Nancy. She was absolutely devastated she lost her son. Lewiston already suffered a great loss during the war from the damage to businesses and homes, but losing loved ones is far worse.
"You can replace homes and buildings, but you can't replace children," she said.
Lewiston Council on the Arts is grateful to Michelle Kratts, a genealogist from the Lewiston Public Library. Thanks to Kratts' extensive research, each of the characters is portrayed accurately and genuinely.
Nicklas, Henderson, Campbell, Serianni, Mosey and the rest of the cast encourage all to attend the production.
"The audience will laugh, cry and get a taste of Lewiston's history," said Nicklas. "The play will feature music, theater and storytelling on different levels."
"Eva and I are really proud of the play," said Henderson. "It's a mix of humor, sadness and everything in between."
"The Marble Orchard brings history home to Lewiston, and even if you didn't like history in school, this puts a personal aspect on it," said Campbell.
"My grandson calls history dry. That was, until he watched the play and saw kids his own age acting and sharing their experience," said Serianni. "It brings stories to the forefront."
"It's a way to convey a message to the people," said Mosey. "It makes history credible and is a good way to educate people what happened in Lewiston."
The free event starts Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Hennepin Park Gazebo, Fourth and Center streets. Donations are greatly appreciated.
For more information, call 754-0166 or visit Lewiston Council of the Arts at http://www.artcouncil.org/.