Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Place is the Hero: Plattsburgh’s Historical Pageant of the Champlain Valley

The early 20th century was the great age of historical pageantry. In communities all over the United States, and especially in the northeast, people came together to portray their towns’ histories in elaborate performances combining drama, music, and dance. Like proponents of the Colonial Revival movement, pageant organizers and creators hoped to use history as a tool for understanding the present. Pageants were usually held to mark an anniversary of the town’s founding or a significant event. And in doing so, pageants attempted to present a community’s past, present, and future as a coherent whole.

Official Program of the Centennial Celebration
Residents of Plattsburgh and surrounding areas participated in this trend when they performed the “Historical Pageant of the Champlain Valley” in September, 1914, as part of the Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Plattsburgh. This was an enormous undertaking, involving 1,200 performers, a chorus of 400 voices, and a 40-piece band. The Plattsburgh Sentinel estimated that about 5,000 people braved the chilly fall weather to attend the first performance (one of four), which was held on the parade grounds at the Plattsburgh Barracks.

Program for Margaret MacLaren Eager's Pageant of Utica
The Centenary Commission hired Margaret MacLaren Eager, a professional pageant director, to create and organize the pageant. Eager was at the peak of her career in 1914 and very well known in New York; she had directed the Pageant of Saratoga in 1913, the Pageant of Utica in the Mohawk Valley earlier in the summer of 1914, and would go on to direct the “Historical Pageant of Newburgh-on-Hudson: A Pageant of Peace and True Patriotism” the next year.

While Eager’s pageant incorporated people and events specific to the Champlain Valley, the general structure of the program would already have been familiar to audiences. The pageant was organized around a series of episodes depicting key historical moments, performed in pantomime, interspersed with symbolic interludes of music and dance. For example, in the “Pageant of the Champlain Valley,” Episode 8, depicting “The Coming of the First Settlers to Plattsburgh” was followed by an Interlude in which “the little wood creatures”—children dressed as butterflies, frogs, and crickets—“come out from among the trees, and glide stealthily about.”

In the northeast, the historical episodes tended to follow the same pattern, regardless of town: Indian life, discovery/exploration, early settlers, the Revolutionary War, 19th-century life, the Civil War. The “Pageant of the Champlain Valley” generally followed this model, though it was unusual in that concentrated on early history and skipped entirely over the 100 years between the battle and the present day—not surprising, however, given that the larger purpose of the celebration was to commemorate the Battle of Plattsburgh.

Ross Platt Lobdell as Judge Levi Platt
When casting roles in pageants, organizers loved to have descendants of key historical figures play their ancestors. This was thought to heighten the realism of the portrayal as well as make clear the connection between past and present. As an article in the Plattsburgh Sentinel reviewing the pageant put it, “The history of Plattsburgh and Clinton county is no longer comprised, limited, to the printed sheet. It is real and living and the grand-children of the grandparents have enacted the story.”

George MacDonough and his wife as
Commodore and Mrs. MacDonough
The Finale of the Champlain Valley pageant brought together past, present, and future. All of the actors from the historical episodes returned to the stage, and then were joined by residents of the towns of the Champlain Valley. “People of different and groups enter[ed], representing the various activities for good in the valley today.” Finally, the Spirit of the Mountains and the Spirit of the Valleys and the Waters entered, “form[ing] an aisle through which the Standing Army of the Future rides, led by the Angel of Peace.”

In September 1914, the war that had just begun in Europe was very much on people’s minds. Though the United States would not enter the war until 1917, Americans were concerned about the possibility, and Plattsburgh would soon become the center of the Preparedness Movement. While some Americans thought that pageants could act as a substitute for war, by providing a peaceful way of satisfying people’s needs for excitement and drama, others saw pageantry as an extension of military preparedness. Historian David Glassberg thinks that pageants “implicitly ‘prepared’ Americans for war through scenes that depicted past generations as at their best during wartime, exhibiting ingenuity, courage, solidarity, and a spirit of self-sacrifice.” This was certainly true in the 1914 pageant, with its emphasis on the Revolutionary War and, of course, the War of 1812.

Benjamin Mooers as General Mooers
We don’t know for sure if Alice Miner attended the pageant, but I like to think that she did. Certainly the ideas about history, community, and patriotism expressed in the performance aligned quite closely with her own values—the values she would express ten years later with the opening of her Colonial Collection.

Brief Outline of the Program for the Historical Pageant of the Champlain Valley

Prelude: The Face of the Waters and The First Indian
Episode 1: Discovery and Naming of Lake Champlain
Episode 2: A Party of French Soldiers and Long Sault Indians on an Exploring Expedition are attacked by Abenakis and Algonquin Indians
Episode 3: The Coming of William Gilliland’s artisans to Make a Clearing at Willsboro, May 10, 1765
Interlude: The Appeal of the Pines
Episode 4(a): The Coming of the Gilliland Family
Interlude: The Spirit of War
Episode 4(b): The Forming of the First Company in the Valley before the Revolution—Visit of General Gates and Benedict Arnold
Episode 4(c): The Arrest
Episode 5: Battle of Valcour
Episode 6: General Burgoyne Addresses Indian Tribes at the Falls of Boquet
Episode 7: The Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette—Departure of Peter Sailly for the United States
Episode 8: The Coming of the First Settlers to Plattsburgh
Interlude: The Creatures of the Wood
Episode 9: The Building of the First Sawmill, called “The Glory of the Saranac”
Episode 10: Market Place on Court Day—Peter Sailly appointed Collector of Customs for the District of Champlain—The First Trip of the Steamboat Vermont
Episode 11: The War of 1812—Arrival of Courier Announcing the Declaration of War—The Essex Company
Episode 12: Murray’s Raid
Episode 13: Macdonough and his Bride on their way to Burlington
Episode 14(a): The Approach of the British
Episode 14(b): The Town of Plattsburgh Honors Commodore Macdonough
Finale: Enter Heralds of the Past, Present and Future on Horseback

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