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After Work: Slogging Through The Florida Swamp In 1883 With Captain Pierce

Dona Gibbs tells of a fifth generation Floridian who has turned himself into a living, breathing history lesson on Florida’s early settlers. Marty Baum spins a story that in its short version is 40 minutes long and in its fuller version runs about an hour.

To read more of Dona's journalism please click on After Work in the menu on this page.

The past has a powerful hold on us.

Reflecting on history can cause us to chew on past mistakes, turning them over and over, wishing there had been a different outcome.

We can whitewash it, cover the flaws, spackle the cracks.

We can embellish it, adding a spurious detail here or there, if that makes the story better.

Or we can revel in getting all the details just so, even if it’s uncomfortable at times.

But what causes a man to get up one morning and say to himself, “ I’m going to be my own great, great grandfather”? “And what’s more I’m going to dress like him, talk like him and even grow a moustache.”

That’s what Marty Baum of Jensen Beach, Florida has done. This fifth generation Floridian has turned himself into a living, breathing history lesson on Florida’s early settlers. He spins a story that in its short version is 40 minutes long and in its fuller version runs about an hour. He’s an affable man and prefers the longer version.

When he’s not being Captain Hannibal Dillingham Pierce, he runs a tile and marble business.

“Open up any Florida magazine and you’ll see my work, “ he says proudly.

Most times he’d rather talk about the advantages of a palmetto roof and how to pick one’s way through the Everglades in a shallow-draft boat. According to Baum, it was a float a- ways, drag a- ways slog.

He takes the listener on a trip back in time to the pioneer days of Florida when the best way to travel was by boat and shipwrecks made for better shopping than the trading post. There were the famous barefoot mailmen who walked along the shoreline and delivered mail to the settlers up and down the coast. Marty Baum had another relative who held that post.

He wears what looks to be a homemade shirt, pants with suspenders, a slouch hat and boots

He doesn’t deliver his history lesson in a Florida drawl. No, that wouldn’t be authentic. Captain Pierce was born in Maine, lived in Milwaukee and made his way down to Florida with his family by sailboat, railroad, ox team, Indian canoe until they reached the Jupiter inlet.

As he tells it, it was a hard, mosquito-infested life.

He takes his facts from a book, “Pioneer Life in Southeast Florida” and over 24 pages worth of letters he recovered from a contemporary of Pierce’s, William W. Butler, who was trapping Florida wildlife as specimens for research at universities.

He gets caught up in his story and so does the audience.

When he talked about hunting a bear, one older woman was so into the narrative that when he described shooting, missing it and then being chased, she hissed, “Serves you right.”

Enactors fascinate me. The best ones, like Marty Baum, can plunk you right back into the past. The not-so-polished ones, usually docents dressed in period costume, can give you a stilted tour of some historic house or other. Mostly, I get the feeling that their real job is to make sure you don’t wander past the ropes and palm a candlesnuffer.

In the United States we’ve got all kind of enactors. Some have made name and career for themselves. Think Hal Holbrook and his portrayal of Mark Twain There are an abundance of Abe Lincolns, it seems, if you broaden the definition to include impersonators. Right now there’s a play, “The Bully Pulpit”, billed as “quality time with Teddy Roosevelt”. It was written and performed by Michael O. Smith.

There are whole villages of people assuming the roles and identifies of people from the past. Williamsburg gives thousands of visitors a year an insight into Colonial America and Plimouth Plantation presents an up-close and personal encounter with Pilgrim and an outlying village of Wampanoag Indians.

Enacting something or other also is a popular hobby. In the United States the Revolutionary War and the Civil Wars are big favorites. Getting the uniforms just so is an obsession for some. Camping out is the big draw for others. Military history attracts the war buffs. Gas station attendants, teachers, insurance salesmen alike are bitten by the enactment bug.

I once heard one enactor explain what some truly hardcore participants do.

“They make their own uniforms by hand. Even the brass buttons have to have an authentic patina. To get them right, they soak the buttons in urine. Knocks the shine right off them,” he explained.

He shook his head in disbelief, “Little too hardcore for me.”

I checked the Internet. There are enactors for almost every war you can recall. Fancy a plumed hat and tight pants, then the Napoleonic Wars groups are for you. Would you like to clank around in a heavy helmet, breastplate and sandals join up with the Romans. There are groups for those with a Celtic affinity. You’ll probably be facing off with the Roman before you can say “next weekend.”

The enactors complain that a lot of people are drawn to the hobby because they want to be a general on the proverbial white, stallion and not one of the ill-fed, ill-clothed enlisted men. Wearing inauthentic garb can get the hapless slapped with the epitaph “farb.”

This term entered the enactor vocabulary in the 1960s. Some say the derivation comes from “fake” plus “garb.” Others maintain it has its history in an expression, “Far be it from authentic” or “Far be it for me.”

Enactors think of themselves as living history lessons. And if any observers should think of them as big kids playing an adult version of cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers, I’d advise that those onlookers should keep that sentiment to themselves. Enactors take themselves seriously, very seriously. And remember, they do carry weapons.

Note: Tony Horwitz’s book “Confederates in the Attic” gives an insight into hardcore Civil War enactors. The book also captures the poignancy, humor –and scary – aspects of the diverse attitudes of contemporary Southerners.


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