Spinning Folktales

Traditional crafts come to life at the Mercer Museum Folk Fest.

By: Jodi Thompson
   Fifty-one years ago, a gray-haired woman sat at a spinning wheel during the Kutztown State Fair and unknowingly introduced an 8-year-old girl to a lifelong passion. The spinner captivated the imagination of Rena Goldhahn, who promised herself that she would one day learn to spin wool.

The 6th Pennyslvania Regiment will provide the opening and closing ceremonies for both days of the Mercer Museum Folk Fest.

   Ms. Goldhahn will demonstrate the craft that ensnared her so completely as a child during the Mercer Museum Folk Fest in Doylestown, Pa., May 11-12. The two-day fete brings the Mercer Museum displays to life with re-enactors and craftsmen.
    Henry Mercer collected the stuff of everyday life in colonial America: spinning wheels, cooking utensils, blacksmithing tools, even a whaling boat. He amassed discarded Americana, including the presumably rarely used vampire-killing kit. The Bucks County Historical Society maintains the 40,000 artifacts from 18th- and 19th-century life in the museum.
    "Even if you’re not interested in Colonial things, you should see how this country was built," Ms. Goldhahn says. "The Folk Fest is part of the basis of Bucks County."
    To the Churchville, Pa., nurse, student and grandmother, learning about early American life is rewarding. It is her connection to the people who founded our country. She feels camaraderie with the women who spun the wool sheared from the sheep they raised.
    "Grandmothers were highly rated then," she says, "not only for watching the little ones but also for their weaving ability. That’s how people kept warm. They had to have enough (wool) to clothe a whole community.
    "Every time I sit at my wheel, I feel a connection to them. It wasn’t fun for them. I’m sure they felt a pride in keeping their community warm. It’s patriotic."

"It’s funny how many times people come to Folk Fest and say, ‘Oh, look, there’s a museum inside that building,’ " says Mercer Museum’s Karen Benson.

   Ms. Goldhahn says that although wool has been spun since Egyptian times, she has her own theory about its origin. She tells children that, in her mind, the process must have been invented by a child who first began twirling bits of wool between the fingers. The process makes the fiber strong. The woven or knitted material produced from the yarn is warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and durable.
    "The sweaters I’ve knitted will be here long after I’m gone," she says.
    Besides her enthusiasm for wool, Ms. Goldhahn enjoys sharing her obsession with children.
    "I love to teach kids," she says. "I don’t know how many kids have walked away feeling how I did at Kutztown. My dream is that I’ve influenced just one to feel as I did (as an 8-year old)."
    Unlike in the old days, when women did most of the spinning, Ms. Goldhahn says that today there are many men in the art community who spin wool. Regardless of gender, there will be plenty of activity for the traditional boy and rough-and-tumble girl. The fete demonstrates many skills vital to Colonial living. Blacksmiths and leather carvers will be working in period garb. Wood workers, glass blowers and potters will demonstrate their crafts, while doll makers and basket weavers keep busy alongside cobblers, who will measure feet and make shoes.
    Molly Lowell, associate director of the Bucks County Historical Society, says all the activities have a direct connection to what’s inside the museum. "Each crafter’s booth has a card that identifies where that craft can be found in the museum," she says. "We expect our crafters to demonstrate and explain how the tools are used to make the craft."

At this year’s Mercer

Museum Folk Fest children can enjoy a hayride (above) or a spin on the new carousel, pulled by either a
horse or mule.

    This year’s museum display, In the Spirit of Tradition, highlights ironwork. Among other curiosities, the indoor exhibit includes the lowly toaster, in which slices of stale bread are crisped near the fire, along with lighting devices and ornamental hardware.
   Outside, a blacksmith will operate giant bellows to fashion similar pieces. The pewter maker will produce useful dishes and frivolous miniature soldiers, while life-sized soldiers stage a Revolutionary War encampment. The 6th Pennsylvania Regiment will provide the opening and closing ceremonies both days, complete with flag raising and musket firing. In addition, the re-enactors will cook over campfires and engage in discussions with curious festival visitors. The soldiers’ campfire cooking can be compared with open-hearth cooking by women in the log cabin, an authentic reproduction of early American dwellings.
    Certainly the soldiers and homemakers will vie for attention with wandering entertainers such as the Give and Take Jugglers. The Main Stage will host Daisy Jug Band, Charlie Zahm and other performers. The Children’s Stage will welcome Ed and Geraldine Bernbaum, who provide interactive entertainment with washboards and spoons. Erica and Kent Courtney will play living-history music. There’s plenty of action outside and inside the Mercer Museum. Admission to both is included in festival tickets.

The soldiers and homemakers will vie for attention with wandering entertainers such as the Give and Take Jugglers.

   "It’s funny how many times people come to Folk Fest and say, ‘Oh, look, there’s a museum inside that building,’ " says Mercer Museum’s Karen Benson. Funds raised through the Folk Fest contribute to educational programs sponsored by the Bucks County Historical Society, which administers the Mercer Museum, Fonthill Museum and Spruance Library. In addition to educational programs, the proceeds are occasionally used for museum maintenance, such as the 1977 eradication of powder post beetles from the Mercer Museum collection.
    The annual event is a fitting tribute for Mother’s Day weekend, honoring American mothers yesterday and today. Forgetful fathers can bring their little ones to make a last-minute gift or card. Children can try their hand at quill pens, ink stamping and a printing press. Thoughtful dads can busy their brood with a visit to the farm animals or dress them up in Colonial costume for photographs at Granny’s Trunk. Children will enjoy the hayride or the new carousel, pulled by either a horse or mule.
    Don’t be surprised if children develop an interest in glass blowing or some other craft. They might find their next obsession, but don’t fret. Ms. Goldhahn insists that spinning is the most relaxing thing you could do for yourself.
    "You have to relax for the flow of the wool," she says. "It takes you away from the everyday stress. It’s better than any Prozac you could take."
    She insists it is a wonderful thing to appreciate, as is all of the work it took to sustain our pioneers. Ms. Goldhahn is amazed by the intricate work that was just another part of Colonial life.
    "I can’t think of a better way to spend Mother’s Day than spinning," she says. "We’re trying to make it as authentic to the time so people can see what life was like then."
Folk Fest will be held on the grounds of the Mercer Museum, 84 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Pa., May 11-12.
Hours: Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $8; $6 for ages 6-17; $20 for families with children
(ages 6-17); children under age 6 are admitted free. Bucks County Historical Society members receive a $2 discount
for adults and $5 discount for families. Free parking is available at Fonthill Park, Route 313 and Court Street.
Shuttle bus service to Folk Fest every 10 minutes. For information, call (215) 345-0210. On the Web: www.mercermuseum.org