Baking at Daggett Farm. / Photo courtesy Cindy Melotti
Recently, I sat down with Master Presenter Cindy Melotti, house lead at the Ford Home, to chat with her about 17 years at The Henry Ford. In the first installment of that interview, Cindy talked about her teaching background, her work at the Ford Home and other Village buildings, some of her favorite interactions with guests, and more. In this second installment, she offers insights about how historic cooking in Greenfield Village is far different than modern cooking at home.
What was it like cooking in the village? Did you notice any difference cooking at Daggett, say, and cooking at home?
When I first started as a presenter, I had never baked bread or made a pie before. I was a working mother, so I didn't have time to play around. I used the typical shortcuts. So it was a shock working that first season at Daggett [Farmhouse] and baking loads of bread and pies. Placing these on the table for us to eat for our 1760 mid-day meal and having guests come in and say it was the most beautiful pie crust or bread they’ve ever seen—I experienced such a sense of accomplishment.
I would go home and brag about making the most wonderful loaf of bread, a pie, or a tart. So, I decided I was going to make these same recipes for Thanksgiving dinner at home. I made the pie crust, and I made wheat bread and… I need to tell you that my husband is still living. Because he said: what was so special about them? Sadly, they didn’t turn out the same. Making bread or a pie in a bake kettle on an open hearth, it's not the same product you get using the same recipe in modern oven.
With the bread and pie baked in the modern oven, I couldn't taste all the flavors. I didn't get the flakiness, and it just wasn't the same. There are some things that you can make in a modern oven, and there's no problem. But there are other things that—you know, when you roast something today, you're actually baking it, right? At Daggett using the open hearth, when you roast something, it's on the spit or the small game roaster that you place against the fire and keep turning it. You can’t get that same flavor. When you go from the open hearth, to wood, to coal, to gas, to electric, and to microwave—every time you go up that ladder, you lose flavor. So, your best flavors come from open hearths or open-air cooking. That's why camping is so much fun.
I think part of it too is the cast iron, like at the Ford Home, where we use cast iron pans and pots that are very well seasoned. We do have a couple of cast iron artifacts that we use there. I mean, it takes 100 years or so to get it that seasoned. You can't buy one off the rack. You can’t get the same flavor. And it might have something to do with the moisture and wood smoke that gets in, because it's not hermetically sealed off like a modern oven is. There's no question many of the recipes cannot be duplicated. They’re good, but they're not what it's like when you're there at that table with the ambience of the time period.
Do you have any further observations about the differences between historical and modern recipes and cooking methods?
Yes, guests might think that because a recipe is from a long time ago, from Daggett in 1760 for instance, that it’s easier to make. That recipes are more complex now than they were in the 1700s. But they’re not. For example, our recipes at Daggett are written in the hand of that century, where they use the long “s” that looks like an “f.” And they use such odd quantities, you sometimes have to have a group discussion to figure out what they're trying to tell you about making the recipe. So recipes at Daggett are very often much more difficult than ones at the Ford Home from 1876.
Of course, it’s difficult at the Ford Home making special recipes for Holiday Nights [in Greenfield Village]. But your everyday dishes for 1876 are pretty basic and easier to make. There isn't a tendency in the 1800s to use a lot of herbs, for instance, as they did in the 1700s. So even for your meat at the Ford Home, you basically use salt and pepper, and there's a lot of lard to flavor it. The food is good, but it's not using difficult flavorings like rosewater and all these other things we use at Daggett or the Giddings [Family] Home. Recipes from the 1700s are much fancier than what I put on my own table.
Also, cooking methods in the 1700s had more challenges in the kitchen. In the Ford Home, we have a better understanding of what measurements are needed. In Daggett’s time, they're making huge amounts of food as opposed to what a family would need in the 1800s. For instance, they did all their baking in one day, and they didn't bake more until they needed it. When you’re cooking on the open hearth or with a wood or coal burning stove, how do you know when food is done? Can you talk more about how to cook using these methods?
When I talk about cooking with guests, what they really want to know is: “how can you successfully cook like this?” And it's not hard, but you need to use all your senses, unlike how we cook today. You feel the temperature of the stove or bake kettle radiating on the skin of your face and your hands. This gives you a hint about the temperature and when you need to add more fuel to the fire. On the hearth, you can see it. But with the wood burning stove, you feel when you have to put more wood in.
To find out how your food is cooking, you use your sense of smell, and you can look and see how something's cooking. But your ears help too, because you can hear if something is over boiling or if it's boiling at all. There’s even a recipe for something that says: cook until you hear it sizzle. That was part of the recipe, to listen to it. Of course, you taste it to see if it's done. So the biggest difference with cooking in a historical kitchen is that you are actively engaged with all your senses in the process. We don't do that now. We set timers. We walk away because we can.
It's fun as a presenter to do on a daily basis. But would I want to do it every day again? I don't think so. And it's also fun for us to cook because we have guests coming into the homes. And we share what we're doing, how we're doing it, and why. I get the best reactions from guests when we have difficulty with something because it's not common to what we do. They love to see how we solve these problems that we've never faced before, because we don't cook like this all the time.
Holiday Nights in the Ford Home, with a Charlotte Russe dessert on middle-right side of table. / Photo by Ken Giorlando
What is the most difficult recipe at the Ford Home?
Charlotte Russe is probably the most difficult thing to make. We display it on the dining room table during Holiday Nights. It’s a sponge cake that you cut into strips, and you line the sides of a mold with the strips. And then you place raspberry or strawberry jelly or jam at the bottom of the mold. Then you make homemade custard and put it in the center and let it firm up.
It's a tricky little recipe to get to turn out right and come out of the mold. We finally figured out after all these years a good way to do that. We flip it over onto a plate and leave it out for a while. And once the mold is off, we put it back in a really cold place. So it stays firm as we display it on the table.
There are other recipes from the Ford Home that are my favorites. Of course, there's the pumpkin fritters that are just to die for.
Frying pumpkin fritters on the set of Live in the D on WDIV Local 4 in 2017. / Photo by Jim Johnson
Speaking of pumpkin fritters, I remember you appeared on a local news show where you made them in their studio kitchen. Can you tell me more about that experience?
Ah, yes. That was so fun. It was Fall Flavor Weekends in 2017, and the first weekend was already over. It was a Monday afternoon, and I was working at Daggett with two of our other talented presenters, Kellie and Erica. And Mary Weikum, who manages domestic life, stopped by and asked if I wanted to be on television the next morning at 10 a.m. on WDIV Local 4. She suggested I make the pumpkin fritters from the Ford Home with some extra batter we had. So, I agreed to do it.
Recipe for Pumpkin Fritters (1890)
One pint of flour, one of buttermilk, half a teaspoonful of salt, one of soda, half a cupful each of molasses and stewed pumpkin, two eggs. Fry quickly in plenty of lard. Serve hot with sugar and cream.
And then I looked at Erica and Kelly and said: “what have I got myself into?” They both encouraged me and said: “Cindy, you do this 1,000 times in a day, just be yourself.” I thought, I can do that. But then again, it was difficult having to think through all of the preparations. We had to get the ingredients, and the appropriate historic utensils and bowls. To think of all those things, then be down there by 9 a.m. and then cook on television, it was daunting. Fortunately, [The Henry Ford staffer] Jim Johnson came with me, and kept me calm.
One of the funnier parts I remember was making a reference to lard and emphasizing that’s how the pumpkin fritters are made. Two of the show’s hosts went into an uproar about how they can’t eat lard—yet they obviously wanted to try some. I mean, they were just going on and on about lard when we were not on camera. So that's why I make this little reference on camera to say, yes, we fry them in lard! And then later on, I could hear them hollering “lard” across the studio while cameras were rolling. Oh my gosh!
Tati Amare, a Live in the D host, made more batter while we were frying them in the studio kitchen. After the hosts tried them, they wanted more. Eventually, the people in the control room sent down a plate so they didn’t go without. Tati and I took a picture together, and she said I was her new BFF. It was just a wonderful experience.
Amy Nasir is Digital Marketing Specialist and former Historical Presenter in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
Cooking in the Ford Home. / Photo by Ken Giorlando
Cindy Melotti is currently master presenter and house lead at the Ford Home, which is often considered to be the intellectual center of Greenfield Village. I had the honor of working alongside her in the Ford Home and Daggett Farmhouse in 2012. Cindy captivates guests with her energetic and authentic storytelling, and I’m delighted to chat with her about 17 years of adventures at The Henry Ford.
What did you do before you worked at The Henry Ford? And why were you interested in working here?
I worked at Wyandotte Public Schools as an elementary school teacher for 35 years, mostly in the upper elementary grades. Not surprisingly, I taught language arts and social studies. It was interesting in that we didn't really use textbooks. We, like Henry Ford, thought history should not be just about memorizing generals, dates, and wars. So I taught my social studies classes in a more contextual way. We learned about people in the times that they lived, and how they lived, not just timelines and titles.
I had always wanted to work at The Henry Ford. After retiring from Wyandotte Public Schools and taking a couple years to think about it, I decided that I was going to try and get a job here. So I went to a job fair. I didn't even tell my husband and my family that I was going, because I was afraid I wouldn't be accepted. This was actually the first time I wrote a resume. And it was the first time I applied for a job since I got my teaching position, which was when Lyndon Baines Johnson was president! I was as scared as a 16-year-old sitting there waiting to be interviewed. Despite there not being any historical presenter positions open, [The Henry Ford staffer] Mike Moseley recognized that I had the potential to be a good presenter. Thankfully, I got an interview with Cathy Cwiek, our former manager of domestic life. I got the job and was in training within a week.
Do you have any highlights of your teaching career or adventurous experiences that you’d like to share?
Well, a person of my age very typically followed the dictates of society at that time. I always wanted to be a teacher. I was fortunate to be able to go to Wayne State University. My parents were a one-income family, and we didn’t have a whole lot of money. So I considered myself lucky that I got hired by the school district where I student taught. I worked there for 35 years.
The brightest highlights for me are the memories of the children and their families. Some I still associate with and frequently talk to. I am still delighted to find out that I had a really big impact on a former student’s life. Once I became friends with a woman whose best friend from college remembered me from the fourth grade. She said that her friend had broken her arm near the start of the year, so she wasn’t able to write. This student was already ashamed of her handwriting, as she had been previously criticized in another class. She was telling our mutual friend that she had been so tense about this issue. And she said that I saved her life by suggesting she use a typewriter!
After all this time, this former student was so encouraged by my advice, she was still talking about it as an adult to her best friend. To think that I made that much difference in this this child's life! It was so wonderful that this story got back to me.
And in another instance on Facebook, one woman made a comment to me: “I just wanted to let you know that you were the most important teacher I ever had.” Never would I have expected that. It's amazing. Now, it was hard work. It was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed myself, but I never really thought about the impact I had on people's whole lives.
But those are the kind of things when you asked about adventurous experiences, that was the adventure. I guess the adventure was working with people and hopefully making an impact on their lives and making their lives better—making them better to fit their lives.
And of course, there's part of that that goes into presenting at The Henry Ford too. Because every guest that you interact with, you want their experience to make a difference. You want them to be different and more open to our stories when they leave, than when they came in.
Which historic homes and what programs have you worked at?
When I started in 2005, everyone in domestic life started at Daggett Farm. You also worked in uniform at the Noah Webster Home, Hermitage Slave Quarters, and the Mattox [Family] Home. You had to work your way into the Susquehanna Plantation and the Adams [Family Home]. Well, I never quite got to do that before they made me the house lead at the Ford Home, which was I think was 2007–2008. I eventually presented at Susquehanna Plantation. As I became a master presenter, they could schedule me in any home, really. I always wanted to work at Adams House, and I never got in there before it was closed for renovation. I can work at Firestone Farmhouse. And I’ve worked at the Edison Homestead.
I’m trying to think of the clothes I have in my closet, which period clothes are hanging there? So, it's Daggett, Edison, Ford Home, and Firestone, which are the buildings where we dress in period clothing. And then I wore the field uniform at Webster, Hermitage, and Mattox. I have also worked on a number of programs with the Henry Ford Academy.
Preparing food at Daggett Farm. / Photo by Ken Giorlando
What is your favorite home to work in?
I've been house lead at the Ford Home for over 10 years, so that’s a contender. I’ll always love Daggett Farm, and I’ll always say, once a Daggetteer, always a Daggetteer. But I really can’t say what my favorite building is.
Now with the Ford Home, people think it's strange when I'm elsewhere in the village besides the Ford Home. I'm like a fence post almost. I put in a lot of work at that house when they made me the lead, and I’m seen here most often.
The Ford Home was categorized differently over the years. It was part of the Ford Motor Company group when I started as a presenter. And then it went to the domestic life group. So the story of the home needed a little extra attention by then. We needed to work on the stories, and make sure they were authentic and correct. So that's when Cathy Cwiek asked me to upgrade the presentation at the building.
For about three or four years, anyone who presented there, if they were asked a question that wasn't in the manual, we wrote it down and researched it. That's why the manual is now very thick. Because when guests go into the Ford Home, they're not just asking about Henry Ford growing up in the house. There are so many different aspects of that house that are asked about and you want to be able to answer. Ford Home certainly demands a lot of work. But as much as I love Daggett, I really cannot pick a favorite.
Front of Ford Home. / Photo by Ken Giorlando
What is the relevance of the Ford Home within the village? I’ve considered it to be the intellectual center. Do you see it this way as well?
Well as Cathy Cwiek said when I became the house lead, the Ford Home is the cornerstone of the village. We needed to tell a more full story. We really want to have the best stories told there. In one perspective, Henry Ford restored and saved his childhood home to memorialize his beloved mother. His home played a big role in eventually developing the village and the museum itself.
And then there’s the perspective that you have this space that when you sit in it, you must realize the brilliant ideas that bounced off those walls from a little boy who eventually used those ideas to change the world. And when you think of that, it's awe-inspiring. The key for every presenter in any home is that it isn't about the house—it's about the people who lived in it and their ideas.
Presenters only have so much time to try and tell these stories as guests go through the house. You just never know what's going to interest the guests as they come in. You must have your background and information ready for basically any question. Plus, in many cases, the Ford Home is the first house that our guests visit. As they enter the village, they either go to the left to Firestone Farm, or they go to the right to the Ford Home.
A good presentation can set the tone for every guest’s entire day, especially for those who have never been here before. They’re not always aware of the scope of our campus. They might say: I have an hour, what should I see? In many ways, we are the ambassadors for the whole village at that point, and we can set the tone for an international guest or someone from out of state. We can set the tone for their whole day. We want to make sure the tone is one of positiveness, curiosity, interest, and amazement of the stories we have to share.
I know you have a lot of favorite stories about what you most like about working here, but perhaps you can pick one right off the top of your head?
If I can pick out a little snapshot, it would be during Holiday Nights [in Greenfield Village] in the Ford Home. I was in the dining room in the back, and a three-generation family came in. They were in the parlor up front where we've got the tree up with music and lighting, and I'm listening to their 10-year-old boy who’s giving my presentation! And he is spot on!
When the family came through the house to me, I said to the boy: “wow, you really did a good job telling our story.” He said: “of course, I was here on a field trip this year.” I love to tell this story because despite this kid having access to all the bells and whistles of electronics and technology—this kid learned it from our field trip program. I’m proud to say we’re still reaching an audience and, yes, we have a future and a purpose. This little boy is telling the story, and his whole family is interested.
There are so many instances when I’m very happy to see guests leave the building with a look as if they’re saying: “wow, I need to think about this.” I try my best to encourage them to understand that, as much of what we thought was true in history, there are preconceptions that aren’t always true, and you need to think in terms of the time and the setting of the place to understand what was going on.
This leads me to my cheese straw story. Before it was closed for renovation, the Adams House made these cheese straws, which were a specific recipe for that house. They could not be made at the Ford Home. When they closed Adams, we were now able to make them at the Ford Home. I had heard how good these cheese straws were and I was excited. We made the first batch, and after they came out of the oven, we just kind of sat there and looked at them. They were these flat, long things. I thought they were going to turn out puffier. They didn't rise at all. We realized that they were named, not after a modern sipping straw, but after actual straw from a field. We were completely off the mark.
When we look back at history, we need to ask ourselves: if my modern perception doesn’t allow me to understand what a cheese straw was, how can I use my modern perception to say, understand our Civil War? How do we understand a single event back then when we’re looking through our modern eyes and not going further? We encourage that “aha” moment that opens your mind for the stories that are accurate, instead of stories based in preconceptions or fantasy.
Spinning wool at Daggett Farm. / Photo by Ken Giorlando
What skills have you picked up and learned how to do and demonstrate at the village?
Well, there are textile skills like carding, spinning, and dying wool that I’ve done at Daggett. I did do some weaving on the big old colonial loom when that was set up inside Daggett. But I only had a little experience on that because I was so short. I had to jump down to change the bottom pedals, so it would take me an awfully long time. But I did work successfully on the treadle wheel that you pump with your foot. That's very difficult to do, as I was spinning with linen. Linen is a whole different process compared to wool.
Also, during the first year I was here, we had candle dipping over in the Liberty Craftworks area, near where the Davidson-Gerson Gallery of Glass is now. We wore field uniforms. We were considering it to be a craft at the time, as opposed to it being part of a culture or time period. That was my first experience with it. Candle dipping was a lot cooler in period clothing and more fun to set up under the trees next to Daggett or the [William Holmes] McGuffey Birthplace, where the activity fit with the history of the building.
Screenshot of 1876 centennial program at the Ford Home for WDIV.
Along with this WDIV segment, and a previous video promoting Fall Flavor making an 1860s apple cake, you were most recently involved in a video celebrating the Fourth of July in 1876 outside the Ford Home recorded during the pandemic. Could you tell us how this came about?
Yes, it was 2020 during COVID, and we were unable to host Salute to America. Over the years, we had developed a Fourth of July program specifically for the 1876 centennial at the Ford Home. And I was asked if I could do a video presentation of this program. I didn’t know what the filming was for at the time. I thought it was for a kind of video that we do for in-house purposes.
We filmed this on June 16. We didn't open the village up until July 2. And I came in early to work to do the video. It was basically a sample of the program we would do for a Fourth of July holiday at the Ford Home—a few of the games and the food that we’d make. So it was fun.
It wasn't until after filming that I learned that this was not being used for our website. I learned that it was for a WDIV Fourth of July virtual celebration! It was a surprise for sure, but we are presenters. And just because there's a camera there doesn't change the energy and information you give. You know, it's what we do.
So WDIV aired this the following Friday night at 8 p.m., and they broadcast snippets of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra playing, along with my Ford Home centennial program. It was hosted by Tati Amare, who I met previously. Of course, they filmed theirs, and I filmed mine, and it was only on television that we met, so I couldn't say hello again. But they pieced it all together as a virtual presentation for the holiday on WDIV. I was honored to be a part of it.
So you’ve been in many pictures and videos. Can you think of any other fun or unusual stories regarding getting your picture taken?
When I was going through training in 2005, and we needed to sign the waiver to give permission for The Henry Ford to use our photographs, guess who said: “why would anybody want to take my picture?” Ironically, my picture has been in so many places. It’s been amazing. I knew within a month that I asked this that I had made a silly statement, because I realized that guests are taking our pictures all the time and sending them all over the world. Presenters are world travelers in that way.
I remember presenting at Edison Homestead one day during our noon meal, and an Asian guest came in and he wanted his picture taken with us. We handed him a cup to hold, to make it look like he was having a meal with us. A young couple also came in and they graciously took this photo of us. I turned to the gentleman and asked where our picture was going. And he said it was going to Beijing, China. Well, I didn't want the young couple to feel left out, so I asked where they were visiting from. The young man said Wyandotte, Michigan—and then he said that I had been his teacher! This is the experience of presenter. You can have a visitor from Beijing, China, and also someone that you knew years before in your classroom. Like, how does this happen?
Did you have any experiences at the Ford Home of guests reaffirming stories of Henry Ford’s life? Any other surprising interactions with guests?
When I first started working at the Ford Home around 2007, I used to get guests who had firsthand memories of the Fords, just little stories. People who had funny interactions with the Ford family, for instance, neighborhood kids who would be playing on the farm, when it was in its original location, and they’d get caught.
I remember there was an elderly man who would take walks in the village in the morning, and he told me once that he used to drive by the Ford Home every day on his way to work when it was located on Ford Road. And sometimes he’d see Henry Ford walking around. He’d be picking vegetables and fruits to put in baskets that would be placed on the porches of neighbors who didn’t have enough food. I heard stories like that all the time. But all of a sudden, kind of recently, I realized those guests are gone, that generation is gone.
So the guest in 2009 who was 78 years old when he told me this story about getting caught by Henry Ford—he said it was actually his brother's fault. He also told me about the time the Ford family was moving the house to the village, and he got on his bike and followed it down the road. I have a pile of stories that were told to me. You come to think that after hearing the same story over and over again, that there is truth to them, and that's exciting.
I have at least twice had guests tell me stories that I've read in my research, which is amazing. There’s the story of the Vagabonds—Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs—when they were driving around Kentucky or Tennessee. There were no roads, so they had to follow river beds and try to find open areas to drive. They were scouting and looking for forests and sources of wood, because they needed wood to build Model Ts. Henry Ford owned many forested areas for that purpose.
And to paraphrase a story, the Vagabonds were driving through the wilderness, and their car got stuck. A farmer came by and used his horse to get them out. As the story goes in the research that we have in our Ford Home manual, Henry Ford introduces himself to the farmer. Thomas Edison introduces himself to the farmer. Harvey Firestone was there, and he introduces himself. And then John Burroughs who has this long white beard, right? He says: “well, you know, if you want to believe those guys then you can believe I’m Santa Claus!” Now, there are other ways people have told this story, of course.
Back to the Ford Home, I’m presenting and there's a three-generation family who comes in and we're talking about the house and the history, and the man said: I have a Ford story. He said: “my great grandfather had one of the first Ford dealerships (around Kentucky or Tennessee) and my grandfather told me the story about how Ford and his friends got stuck in a riverbed and one of our local farmers with horses pulled them out.”
The guest went on to explain that it wasn't long after this incident happened that a Ford tractor was delivered to the dealership to be given to the farmer who had helped them out. Isn't that amazing? I was delighted then to tell him and his family about the Vagabonds introducing themselves to the farmer. So where else could you ever present where you hear a direct story from a family that you had read about in a book as part of your research? You know, what's not to like about that?
One of the most emotionally powerful days I ever worked in the Ford Home was on the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's death. In the museum, they took Lincoln’s chair out and put it up on a platform behind the cornerstone. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see it. However, there is a connection to Lincoln's death at the Ford Home. We have a photo in the sitting room of Barney Litogot, Henry Ford’s uncle on his mother, Mary Litogot’s, side. Barney was in the 24th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, part of the famed “Iron Brigade,” serving as an honor guard on the train carrying Lincoln to his final resting site in Springfield, Illinois.
I told Barney’s story to the guests who had already been to the museum and seen the chair. I really wish that I could have had a camera taking pictures of people’s expressions, because they were so moved, even crying. The museum exhibit, along with Barney’s story, was so emotional. It was just so special to be a part of that immediate tie-in to that event in our country's history, and I don't know that you could have felt too much closer. Presenting an artifact, a story, an emotion—that is what we do best.
I really love the story of Barney, and I’ve visited his burial site at Sandhill Cemetery on Telegraph Road near the I-75 ramp in Taylor, Michigan. And I always wave as I drive by and say: “hi, Barney”!
Yes, I do too! My husband doesn’t even think I’m weird anymore, he’s used to it! I always say hi to Barney. Speaking of the Litogots, the Litogot family had a reunion in the village a few years ago. They visited the Ford Home, and I got to talk to them for about 10–15 minutes. And they were talking about Uncle Barney as he was a true part of their family. It was really cool. You just never know who's going to walk through the door.
I've had fun remembering all these stories and experiences, and it's really hard to rank anything when you've been doing it for so long. But every experience and interaction deals with a relationship with guests and co-workers, and that's where the good stuff comes from. When you look over everything that goes on at The Henry Ford, it's a wonderful job, and it's why people get hooked.
Amy Nasir is Digital Marketing Specialist and former Historical Presenter in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
Guests of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village have been captivated by our various dramatic programs for decades at The Henry Ford. And Anthony Lucas’ performances as an historical actor have been essential in bringing our stories to life throughout many time periods and historical contexts. I had the honor of sitting down with Anthony, 2010 winner of The Henry Ford’s Steven Hamp Award, to chat about his 20 years of theatrical work at The Henry Ford.
You’ve been performing at The Henry Ford since the fall of 2000. What was your first project here?
I started as a replacement actor when another actor was out sick, and I performed in a program called “Gullah Tales” near the Hermitage Slave Quarters. After this, they called me back to do more performances.
How did you get into acting and what inspired you to act?
My interest to become an actor goes back to when I was five years old, believe it or not. I used to watch a gentleman named Bill Kennedy, a local TV host in Detroit who would show a lot of black-and-white Hollywood movies on Sunday afternoons. I would watch actors like James Cagney, and I said in my mind: “Wow, I want to do that!” I have a lot of favorite actors, but James Cagney was the first one because of his energy and his versatility. He could play a lot of different roles other than playing the bad guy. All the movies I watched on Bill Kennedy at the Movies were very entertaining, and they made a big impression upon me, including all the musicals and the films that starred Shirley Temple, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and Bette Davis—the Golden Age of Hollywood.
What were your first theatrical roles and when did you perform them?
I really didn't get the opportunity to act until at the end of the 11th grade in high school. The following year, I did two plays. One was kind of a historical play dealing with Black history. It was called “In White America,” and it was a series of vignettes and monologues about civil rights and the Black struggle for freedom in the United States. And the other play was a kind of comedy farce called “Day of Absence.” The story took place in the South, and it dealt with what would happen if one day all the Black folks had suddenly disappeared. My performances took place in the early 1970s. We were coming right out of the sixties with the civil rights movement and the Black power movement. And so that was my start. I went on to study theater at Western Michigan University and performed in various shows with Detroit Repertory Theatre and Plowshares Theatre Company.
“Elijah: The Real McCoy” program in the museum. / Photograph by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)
You’ve performed in several programs at The Henry Ford, which we’ll get into in a moment. But first, which one stands out as your favorite?
I love all the shows that I do, but one of my most favorite programs is “Elijah: The Real McCoy,” which I performed in both the village and museum. Elaine Kaiser, who has since retired [as Manager of Dramatic Programs at The Henry Ford], wrote it brilliantly. She wrote it for me to perform at Discovery Camp. Every show was very rewarding, and I just loved working with the kids during camp and seeing them at shows. The story starts with Elijah McCoy as a young kid, and the scenes travel through his achievements and struggles until he reaches his success as an inventor, and then into his old age. I loved to perform each stage of his life and see the kids’ reactions.
Photograph by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)
Have there been any challenges you’ve encountered while performing?
Well, here’s a story that’s kind of funny. One summer in the village, I was very busy. While I was at Town Hall doing a couple of Elijah McCoy shows, I would need to change into a different period costume and get to Susquehanna Plantation to do “North Star Tales” as fast as I could. And then I would hurry up and go back to Town Hall, change, and do another Elijah McCoy. Thankfully, Elaine Kaiser loaned me her bike, so I could ride it between shows. So, it was quite exciting!
“How I Got Over” program at Susquehanna Plantation. / Photograph by Roy Ritchie
I’ve attended your performances at Susquehanna Plantation many times and have always been inspired when participating with other guests as we jumped from the porch steps yelling, “Freedom!” How long have you been performing at Susquehanna, and are there any other similar programs you perform in?
There were a few different shows we did at Susquehanna, and they go back to 2003, right after the renovation of the village. There is “How I Got Over,” “Tally’s Tales,” and a newer version called “North Star Tales,” which were all themed around the stories of slavery and endurance on the plantation. Last year in 2021, I narrated the North Star Gospel Chorale’s performance on the porch of Susquehanna as part of Salute to America: Summer Stroll. That was the first year, and it was really a great experience. We really enjoyed that. It's really a powerful show and I was happy to be a part of that. The Chorale also performed in the museum in February 2020, right before the pandemic, which was livestreamed on Facebook.
You are also a big part of the “Minds on Freedom” program in the museum. When did that start and how did it develop?
Yes, this program started in 2004, and it was a combination of two shows—a musical act, and then a dialogue part about the Civil Rights Movement. It was merged into one show called “Minds on Freedom,” which was performed in the museum around our Celebrate Black History program in February. There was also our special celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in June 2011, which I enjoyed being a part of. And during the National Day of Courage, celebrating Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday on February 4, 2013, I performed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve Seen the Mountain Top” speech. That's always an honor any time I get a chance to express the words of Dr. King. He was a great man, a great orator, a great minister, and a great leader. And he gave his life for us to believe them. So any time you try to deliver his speeches, you’re never going to be like Dr. King. But I use my own approach and try my best to get the spirit across.
“Elijah: The Real McCoy” program in the museum. / Photographs by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)
Many guests are familiar with your performances at our Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village and Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village events. How and when did these roles begin?
Oh, yeah, performing “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe goes way back with me, because it was one of the first dramatic readings I recited in high school. My mother coached me. I think if my mother had pursued acting, she may have been a pretty good actress. She helped me bring the story to life. Around 2003, Elaine Kaiser asked me to dramatize this short story for Hallowe’en from the point of view of a murderer descending into paranoia, haunted by the thumping sound of the murdered man’s heart. The program is different from Holiday Nights, because I have set times for shows. So I usually don't have a chance to interact with the audience in-between shows as much as I would like. Interacting with the audience afterwards whenever possible is a special part of being there. I'm not there just because I'm an actor to do shows. I'm there to be a part of The Henry Ford and to interact with the guests and help create that experience for them. It’s very special, unique, and moving to interact with the guests. So that's how I approach it.
I started performing at Holiday Nights just before I performed at the Hallowe’en event. Initially around 2003, I was working with a few other actors, and we were moving around the village doing a variety of poems and Christmas carols. And it was around 2004, I performed Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nick,” which we generally call “The Night Before Christmas.” I performed it as a solo act and was relocated outside of Town Hall and later to a warming fire. It’s developed into a very special event because of how guests react. There was one guy who proposed to his girlfriend at my warming fire. There are so many people with stories of their own, making Holiday Nights and the village a big part of their lives. Holiday Nights is a whole story in itself. I started adding an introduction to the performance rather than just solely dramatizing the poem. I started talking about Christmas in early America. And then I would ask guests about all the different holiday foods and dishes they like, and finally I would ask: Do you like Christmas cookies? I would then ask the big question: Do you have any with you tonight?
After this, guests started bringing me Christmas cookies every year. I come home with all sorts of cookies, sugar cookies, and chocolate chip cookies and all. Oh, yeah, it's funny. But it's great, though, because people come year after year and sometimes they tell me they used to bring their children and now they're all grown up. I'm like, wow, this is a reminder of how long I've been doing it. And it's so rewarding; sometimes I look out and see people that are moved. They get emotional and so it's wonderful. And the children are the best, they can just make you feel like a million bucks. In December 2020, I recited “The Night Before Christmas” for a video during the pandemic. That was a real different take on it because they had me come in and sit down and have a storybook in my hand. So I had to rework it so it could fit that format. And I like that too. It was very comfortable and warm. That was a real nice change of pace.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” program at Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village. / Photograph by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)
Do you have any other stories about interacting with guests you’d like to share?
Sure. I was performing Elijah McCoy at the Town Hall one day, and there is a point where I would walk up the steps of the stage. I was playing the elderly Elijah, and I asked for volunteers from the audience to help me up the steps. So, this one little girl came up to me and she said: your tie is crooked. And she starts straightening my tie. Sometimes you just have to roll with it. That was a beautiful moment.
Another time, there was this couple that followed my shows. They took pictures of me performing Elijah McCoy in the village and “Minds on Freedom” in the museum, and other performances. The wife put together a scrapbook of their photos, and it had all these pictures and a beautiful cover. They gave it to me as a gift. I was just so speechless, you know, that they took time to create it over several months, putting this book together. I was very moved by it.
Amy Nasir is Digital Marketing Specialist and former Historical Presenter in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.