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Wednesday, July 16, 1997
Franklin, New Hampshire
By Gwen Filosa, Concord Monitor Staff

Living history program created


Sharon Burnston loves living in the past. Her longtime study of life in the late 1700's has taught her well.

"It gives me a feeling of self-sufficiency," she said. "If I had to, I could produce a garment starting with the sheep."

Burnston's desire to learn and teach about last 18th-century rural New Hampshire has prompted the creation of a living history program at the Daniel Webster Birthplace state historic site.

The Project has volunteers dressing in period clothing - handmade by Burnston - and taking part in such fabled skills as spinning wool and hearth cooking. Backed by the Franklin Historical Society, Burnston's dream of making history live and breathe was realized this month.

"For years, we've wondered what we can do to enhance the site," said Mary Goodyear, program specialist at the New Hampshire Parks and Recreation Department, who helped Burnston develop the living history program. "This gives people an opportunity to come in and visualize better what life was like in the 1700's," she said. "When you actually see people in the period attire, it brings history a lot closer to us."

"This is a big part of the history of Franklin that a lot of people are missing out on," said Norman Bushman, president of the Franklin Historical Society, which donated $2200.00 in seed money to the living history project. Donations and pledges have upped that figure to $5,000, which will help furnish the home with replicas of period furniture.

Last Sunday, Burnston spun wool on the lawn of the Daniel Webster Birthplace, joined by her daughter, Adah, 9, and volunteer, Jayson Andrews, all dressed in white linen caps and long cotton and linen dresses. The peaceful, bucolic homestead features the two-room house where Daniel Webster was born in 1782.

Webster's father sold the farm three years later to Captain Stephen Sawyer, who built a large square farmhouse, moving the Webster house across the road and attaching it to his new house to make a shed. The house was restored in 1910, and in 1917, was deeded to New Hampshire along with 155 of the farms original acres. Today, the Webster house sits on the same lot as the Sawyer home. The birthplace and Elms Farms were incorporated as a part of Franklin in 1828.

The legendary statesman's birthplace was tremendously popular in the early 1900s, but that slowly diminished, according to Burnston. "Ten thousand people a year came here when there were no cars or paved roads," she said. For Burnston, the site is one of New Hampshire's best kept secrets that is now being rediscovered. Two Sundays ago, 25 visitors stopped by. She believes that number will double by summer's end.

Burnston's has been working with living history for more than 20 years. She holds two degrees in anthropology, was an archaeologist for 19 years, and is currently finishing a book on 18th century clothing, due out next spring. She runs Mill Farm Patterns, a mail order company that sells 18th-century clothing patterns, out of her Epsom home. Before moving to New Hampshire a few years ago, she was a 12-year veteran of the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation.

Jayson Andrews, a volunteer in the living history program, plans to major in history at Plymouth State College and continue through a master's degree. "I've sort of fallen in love with the attitudes that the New Hampshire colonists had... the whole revolutionary spirit," she said.

Burnston plans to have the site open to schoolchildren by next May. She envisions a hands-on historical site with hearth cooking, colonial crafts, toys and games. As for long-term goals, Burnston always thinks big: a kitchen garden, a working orchard, even special crops in the surrounding fields. But for now, she will be satisfied with a small, successful plot.

"My commitment is to authenticity," she said. "The goal is that everybody that comes here goes away learning something."

The birthplace, a half mile off Route 127, is open to the public on weekends and holidays throughout the summer months. The project welcomes volunteers. The group requests 10 hours each month, May through September. Call 736-8938.