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Interpreters bring history to life at Rocky Mount

Karen Troxel Borrelli • Oct 26, 2012 at 11:19 AM

Her voice is low and conversational as she describes her daily life. She talks of things like the children going to school at the Methodist Minister’s house and the recent tragedy of a woman getting scalped at the Sinking Creek Baptist Church.

Wait a minute? A woman? Scalped?

At Rocky Mount Living History Museum in Piney Flats, visitors are transported back to 1791 when cars, cell phones and computers weren’t even dreams. Rocky Mount’s interpreters, who give first-person depictions of life on the frontier, allow visitors today the opportunity to receive more than another dose of history.

"We try to stick to the truth," said Emily McClellan, a retired Washington County teacher who has been playing Mrs. William Cobb for 40 years.

They’re called interpreters rather than re-enactors according T.J. DeWitt, the museum’s education director who says, "we don’t re-play an event or battle. We are interpreting what daily life was like here for the Cobb and Blount families, their friends and neighbors."

Rocky Mount (http://www.rockymountmuseum.com/) is the only Tennessee historic site doing daily first-person interpretations. Tour hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

For McClellan, it is more than a job.

"I came here after the death of my husband (ETSU professor David McClellan)," she said. "It was a wonderful way to be another person in another place that didn’t remind me of what I’d lost."

Robert DeLozier, who interprets many figures, agreed.

"When I’m here, I can’t answer the phone, can’t be bothered. It makes me take a break from the real world," said DeLozier, who is also a realtor and co-owner of the Murder Mystery Caravan.

Because the interpreters don’t follow a script, they spend a lot of time studying about life in 1791. Often, questions that visitors ask will start a research session.

"You’re always learning something new," DeLozier said. "That’s the biggest challenge. We have a great library here and you can start with the Internet, though that’s not always reliable."

Life in 1791 was different than today, culturally and socially, but the interpreters don’t shy away from tough questions or situations. Take Starlet Williams, who is the cook. In 1791, the cook was a slave. Having retired in 2011 from teaching at University School, Science Hill and the Veterans’ Upward Bound at ETSU, Williams is very much a black woman of today – until she dons the costume of the past.

"It is what it is," said Williams. "I show a cook, a woman who planned the meals, who ran the kitchen. I’m portraying a woman who knows what she was and has no issue with the Cobbs. We are playing people who lived in this time and a black woman in this time would have been a slave. It doesn’t change who I am, the person I am. I always address the issue. I talk about the way life was in 1791 for a black woman."

She says there have also been some humorous things happen.

"I had an elderly gentlemen who didn’t ask any questions but, after his group left, he offered to take me to Greeneville and buy me a refrigerator," Williams said, with a laugh. "If I’d been a cook in 1791, I might have taken him up on the offer."

For retired engineer Dana Hewitt, who often portrays cousin and blacksmith Arthur Cobb, the lure is the history and the interaction.

"History has always been a favorite subject of mine," said Hewitt as he worked with pewter to make a small toy soldier. "Out here, I get to meet a lot of people, get to talk about things that happened in 1791 and do the crafts."

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