Captain Ralph Lay adjusts his frock coat and looks at his surroundings. His canvas tent is holding up nicely against the constant onslaught of the vicious wind. His companion sits near the camp fire, eyes squinted, focusing on readying their noon meal. It has been a long day already. Setting up this camp has been no easy task.
The cast iron cooking pots, the tin eating dishes, the wood for the fire: none of this is light. Just hauling it to the campsite has weighed hundreds of pounds on mule and human muscles. Though tired, Captain Lay keeps his coach gun at the ready and keeps himself busy making rope, but his eyes remain fixed on the horizon. He must always be ready for unexpected visitors.
Here’s one now. “Who are you supposed to be?” asks the visitor. A passerby from the looks of it because he keeps moving. Ralph answers, “I’m Captain Lay, and I’m bringing law back to these parts now that the Civil War has ended.” Satisfied with the answer, the visitor smiles broadly and starts to walk away. Ranger Ralph looks around. This is the perfect moment, he decides. No one is looking.
The Ranger reaches for something from his belt. Time seems to slow as he furtively reaches back, then quickly draws…
…his smart phone. Ralph has been dying to check the text he knows he’s received from his wife, Suzette. He must be careful that no one sees him because he’s in character as a living history re-enactor, called a First-Person Impression among the crowd in-the-know.
“Captain” Ralph is actually our very own Ralph Lay, Building & Grounds Supervisor at the Cibolo Nature Center & Farm and retired 20+ year school teacher. When Ralph was just a young teacher, he remembers visiting his brother at Princeton University. A highlight of the trip included trips to 15 different Civil War battlesites.
At the Battle of Vicksburg site, Ralph ran into some folks in Confederate-issue uniforms, seemingly manning a cannon. “How long have you guys been here?” asked Ralph, expecting them to answer in terms of the afternoon, but the boys in gray answered, “About two weeks. We’ve been waiting with our Colonel for the battle to begin.”
In that moment, history came alive for Ralph, both literally and figuratively. His interest in history has bloomed ever since.
Ralph has participated in many reenactments for local organizations such as the Alamo and the San Antonio Living History Association. Once you meet Ralph, it’s clear to see why he’s in such high demand. His gleaming white beard and deep Southern voice fit exactly with one’s idea of what a pioneer law or preacher man should be.
For some, such as Ralph, history is always riveting. But others have a hard time relating to the trials and tribulations of people from long ago. To help folks understand the importance of learning from the past and to make the events of the past more relevant to our modern lives, historical reenactments provide a connection that feels more real than traditional methods of learning about history.
To quote “Captain” Ralph, “History is not just a bunch of dead guys in a book.” That never seems more true than when one is watching the famed Buffalo Soldiers come back to life in the present. Or when viewing the items in Captain Ralph’s camp and realizing how different life was back in the time when all of history’s answers weren’t available with a few touches of a phone.
While most of us have had the traditional education of American history in a classroom, or even Texas history, the true stories of the locals is not always known. We rely on local storytellers to clue us in on the hometown tales. Increasingly, our modern lives separate us from those community foundations. Understanding the lives of those who came before us in the same place can help us understand our own journey better.
On November 16th, the citizens of Boerne will get the rare treat of having a chance to visit Ranger Ralph’s very own camp. The Cibolo Nature Center & Farm is hosting a “Living History Festival” at the Herff Farm to celebrate the history of our region.
This area of Texas is full of rich history. The Herff Farm has played quite a role in the history of Boerne ever since Dr. Ferdinand Herff emigrated from Germany. He started the Christus Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio, later becoming Boerne’s premier pioneer surgeon in 1850.
The stories from the Farm sound like they came out of an epic movie! For instance, Dr. Herff performed sight-restoring surgery on a local chief, White Feather, who then spared the lives of the Herff family during a later Native American siege on Boerne. Also at the Herff Farm, Mr. Jacob Brodbeck took flight, however briefly, in a mechanized “air ship,” decades before the Wright Brothers.
During the Civil War, the Farm was used as a Civil War camp by the Confederates. Later, the original 2-story house “mysteriously” burned to its foundations.
Luckily for us, Dr. Herff had the pluck to pull up his britches and build an exact replica of the original house! This history is OUR story, and the citizens of Boerne should know about it. The Living History Festival will bring our story alive for us to make it easy to understand, relevant, and, of course, fun.
Native Americans, the first inhabitants of the area, will provide traditional story-telling; tours of the Herff House will be going on all day; herbalism and natural medicine will be elucidated; and traditional gardening methods will be explored.
Agriculture has always played an important role in this area of the Hill Country. One of the organizers of the Living History Festival, Ben Eldredge, Director of Adult Education & Citizen Science Research at the CNC & Farm puts it this way: “Historically, no one has settled anywhere unless they can produce food in some way.”
While our forefathers may not have had much of a concept of sustainability, or Living Lightly in the Hill Country as we like to say, Ben notes that “Sustainability isn’t just about basics such as rainwater harvesting so we can water our own gardens, but how we can utilize our resources in such a way as to respect our neighbors for mutual benefit.” And that’s just what the Herff Farm is morphing into today: a learning center for how to have a healthy community, one vegetable garden at a time.
As Captain Lay prepares his camp for November 16th, we hope that you will join us, meet the Captain in the flesh, and take a step back in history. It may just be the best way we can all prepare to step forward together!