It’s not something you see every day on West Main Street in Oyster Bay — at least not in the 21st century. Two men, dressed in Revolutionary War-era uniforms, loaded their muskets, took aim and fired. The flash of fire and white smoke cut through the rain as one observer, 6½-year-old Michael McLaughlin, marveled to his mother, “They used gunpowder.” Indeed they did.
The demonstration on Sunday was part of the fifth annual Colonial Day celebration at Raynham Hall Museum. The event, billed as a “family-friendly afternoon for history lovers” with costumed re-enactors,” brought the 18th century to life with period music, papermaking demonstrations and more musket firings.
Though rain forced most of the festivities indoors, the event lived up to its promise. As visitors wandered through the museum, they learned about life and war during Colonial times. Some even took selfies while dressed in Colonial costumes provided by the museum. According to Claire Bellerjeau, the resident historian and director of education, events like these are important, because legends are dispelled, helping people learn the real stories, which are always much more interesting.
Raynham Hall was once the home of Robert Townsend, a member of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring during the Revolutionary War. The house has undergone many modifications over the centuries, but parts of it have been painstakingly restored to reflect its original Colonial appearance.
On this soggy Sunday, re-enactors — including volunteers from the Huntington Militia, founded in 1653 — dressed in period costumes and told meticulously researched stories about Colonial times. The volunteers were welcoming, enthusiastic storytellers who clearly loved engaging with visitors.
Volunteer Patrick Mantle has been obsessed with the Revolutionary War since he was a little boy. “I was just 3 years old when I got my first tricorner hat,” he said. The fascination never faded. After graduating from college in 2013, Mantle became a “commander” of the Huntington Militia, taking part in re-enactments all over the area, including Sunday’s.
In addition to taking part in the shooting demonstration, he set up a musket table in the museum and told visitors a bit about military warfare during the Revolutionary War. Muskets were better on the battlefield than rifles because they were fast, he said, at least by Colonial standards, and a proficient soldier could get off three shots per minute. He also explained that if a musket ball wasn’t tamped all the way down, it could turn the gun into a pipe bomb that exploded in the shooter’s hands.
Being a re-enactor, Mantle said, allows him to see and feel history in a way one can’t experience from a book. The only downside, he said, is that it’s an expensive hobby. His period-correct uniform was created based on careful research, and the jacket alone cost over $300 to make.
While he talked to visitors about the military side of the country’s early history, another volunteer, Patricia Roos, reflected on more practical matters, like what it was like to make paper during Colonial times. Formerly a second-grade teacher and a librarian, she is a re-enactor with the Huntington Militia. Sitting on a small stool in the Victorian kitchen, she demonstrated how to make paper — using water and flax. “Back then people would save their old clothes,” she said, “then sell them to papermakers.” The papermakers took the linen rags and put the fibers through a soaking and screening process that helped them create paper.
The chance to explore new things is what led visitors Michael Carne and Kristin Kustek, of Garden City, to Raynham Hall for the first time. They had no idea that during the Revolutionary War, a spy network was operating on Long Island — until they watched the AMC series “Turn: Washington Spies.” Then they did some additional research, which led them to Raynham Hall. “The fact that this was happening in a pivotal time and we didn’t learn much about it is why places like this are so important,” said Carne.
Colonial Day also included storytelling and a musical duet peforming traditional Colonial dance music, while volunteers helped children make arts and crafts. Even though the rain stalled the outdoor activities, it couldn’t put a damper on the fun inside the museum. Visitors clearly enjoyed themselves, and as they asked questions, they also marveled at how people lived so many years ago.