THE WEEKLY - Local history: It's a living thing

Volunteer actors breathe new life into the Valley's past.


To Paul Franzmann, history is not so much a timeline of major events as it is a compilation of people's hopes, dreams, fears and the day-to-day adventure of living.

"What is interesting about history is the people, the stories," said Franzmann, Fort Walla Walla Museum's communications manager. "The interesting stories that get garbled up with dead presidential history. There's so much more to history than what's in the history books. All the fascinating personalities, all the lost stuff."

And it's our story, as the years go by. But while there's plenty to learn from people of the past, there's caution as well.

"It's dangerous to see history as a road map to the future," Franzmann said, adding that there are two ways to observe the past: learn about ways people lived and coped with challenges, or learn from uninspired teachers how not to do something.

Franzmann, as a member of the museum's Living History Company, breathes life into his alter ego -- John Colter, mountain man and member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that President Thomas Jefferson sent forth in the early 1800s to explore, map and note the fauna, flora and native people of the West.

"He got to go along with one of the best American adventures," Franzmann said. Before the explorers returned to St. Louis, Colter received permission to leave early to join fur trappers.

"He was one of the early mountain men," Franzmann said. "He was the first Euro-American to see Yellowstone. When he got back, nobody believed him that there are pools of boiling mud and water that shoots into the air. 'Right. Sure, John.' They used to call it 'Colter's Hell.' 'Sure John, you've been nippin' at the jug again.' He had a short life but a happy one."

Like Colter, some personalities are remembered long after their earthly lives have passed.

"Very young countries tend to glorify these figures, young countries need instant history. It's a natural thing," Franzmann said. "Women's history got no coverage at all until modern times. There's so much that we know about our past because of the women who wrote letters and journals."

It is such lessons that Franzmann and the Living History Company brings to the community and schools in 40 performances in period costumes during a typical season.

"To do it for the kids is so fun," he said. Recently he was a guest performer in Fort Walla Walla's "Night at the Museum."

"The lights came on a bit and I stepped out. One little girl said, 'Are you real?' It was a total hoot," Franzmann said. "And kids ask you the most interesting questions. They knew many of the individuals in the expedition. You just wing it .... Did they shave as military regulations would have or was it like boys on a camp out?"

A lesson Franzmann likes to teach about history, and specifically about Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, include that perseverance pays off -- and perseverance requires dedication. Also, that tactfulness and diplomacy are better than confrontation and violence.

"People seeing (the explorers) with Sacajawea and her baby, it was obviously not a war party because the war parties didn't travel with women and children," he said of the Shoshone woman who served as guide for the expedition. "It was also about team work and staying on task."

History also teaches that societal problems of today aren't necessarily new. Franzmann said there is some debate that Lewis suffered from bipolar depression and used alcohol to self medicate. At least once, he had been reprimanded for being drunk on duty and details surrounding his death ¬?-- a murder or a suicide? -- remain inconclusive.

By portraying a historical figure, Franzmann said, "You can really dig into an individual. As you get older you can see the continuity in your family, the generations, and get a broader picture of history."

Although thoroughly involved in reenacting Colter, Franzmann started with no acting classes or theater experience. Quite the opposite.

"In my first college career, I had trouble talking in front of a group." To learn, he said, he watched movies. "You just watch something and you learn how to do it."


The Fort Walla Walla Museum's Living History Company holds more than 40 performances over the season, from April through October. People interested in getting involved are welcome to come to performances and see how they are done, then perhaps participate in next year's events. Company member Paul Franzmann advises people to thoroughly research their character, and often enactors portray member of their own families. "We have a number of consistent people and there are so many characters from Walla Walla's past," he said. For information, call 509-525-7703.

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