By Tim Preston - CNHI News Service
July 24, 2013 — Sam Plummer of Olive Hill will spend this week living in two different eras.
Plummer will guide visitors through a historical tour of Saltpetre Cave, teaching about the importance of a mineral for the war effort in 1810, as well as disinfecting the shoes of his guests to prevent the spread of a modern consideration within the cave systems.
“This was not a very pleasant job,” said Plummer after introducing himself simply as “Col. John” and providing a step-by-step guide to refining saltpetre from the guano-laden dirt in the cave for use in making black powder, or gunpowder.
The first step, Col. John explained, was gathering the cave's dirt and removing all rocks before adding water to create a beer-like liquid called “liquor.” The liquor was hauled out of the cave/mone and further processed before being shipped to Portsmouth. Once there, it was used as one of three crucial components, along with sulphur and charcoal, for gunpowder.
Conditions in the cave, which remains at a constant 47-degrees, were rough for the 30-plus men who used picks, shovels, buckets and wheelbarrows, he said, pointing out one room in the cave which served as sleeping quarters for the saltpetre miners during winter months, or when they were simply to tired to hike out to the cave opening.
At the end of the approximately 90-minute tour, Plummer asked his guests to lift their feet to allow him to spray the soles of their shoes with a disinfectant solution aimed at preventing the spread of spores carrying White-Nose Syndrome, which threatens the park's population of Indiana bats.
At the top of the steps leading into the cave, Mike Little sat on a bench and sharpened a fixed-blade knife while awaiting the group's return for a black-powder rifle demonstration, also part of the ongoing Pioneer Life Weekend, which continues through Saturday.
Little, along with his wife, Sue, are among the event's veterans, and several other volunteers credit the couple with getting them interested in the old ways of life in America.
Little said he will tackle many tasks during the week, from the muzzle-loading demonstration to the history of buffalo in Kentucky, in hopes of passing past knowledge along to the next generation.
“I hope they get a little taste of history – smell and touch,” he said.
Among the volunteers in authentic period costumes and clothing, Rachel Hatfield and Amy Hall, both of Grayson, kept a close eye on their troop which included one-year-old Sophia Hatfield, Nathaniel Hall, 4, Izora Hall, 3, Tyler Horsley, 9, and Donnie Blevins, 13. The ladies will be participating in, or teaching, classes about pioneer life skills including “child rearing, wool spinning, cooking and needle work,” amongst other topics.
Hall said she enjoys watching the children absorb information about days gone by.
“I like just watching the kids learn life skills that most children nowadays don't know,” she said.
Hatfield, the daughter of one of Pioneer Life Week's founders, retired gunsmith Griz Hatfield, echoed her friends sentiments.
Retired cave guide Kenny “The Real” McCoy said Pioneer Life Week draws visitors from “two, three, four, five states away,” noting guests from Michigan, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia “and even from Pennsylvania and New York.”
McCoy said he appreciates the authenticity of the clothing worn by volunteers who work hard to bring history back to life.
“All of their attire is the type they would have worn in that period, which was quite different than today,” McCoy said. “They did have any entertainment like we do, and there were no comforts. They were totally dependent – for food, clothing and everything, on Mother Earth.”
Pioneer Life Week continues today with an ongoing encampment area, as well as hands-on opportunities for visitors such as laundry chores, making walking sticks, household tools and accessories, lessons about the “War on the Frontier,” powder horns, the reading habits of Daniel Boone, making marbles for children, a canoe excursion and cultural exchanges between the people of Virginia and members of various Indian tribes of the Ohio Valley.
Tuesday's lessons about gunpowder making and black-powder rifles will be repeated Thursday, along with lessons about what it was like to be captured by Indians, crafting and throwing a tomahawk, flashlight tours of X-Cave and Cascade Cave and frontier stories told by the campfire.
Friday's activities and events include a pioneer fashion show, as well as a buffalo buffet at the restaurant inside Caveland Lodge, a lesson in coil pottery and a dance at the park's shelter house.
Saturday is County Fair Day, with additional activities including wheel-thrown pottery, frontier art, whittling and wood carving, frontier foods, pioneer writing, a dsiplay of handmade flutes, salt making, flint knapping, textile studies, open-fire cooking, seed spitting, canoe trips and nature walks as well as a pie auction.
For more information about Pioneer Life Week call Carter Caves State Resort Park at (606) 286-4411.