Once upon a time, about twenty years ago, I entered a beauty and talent contest. Just like in Toddlers and Tiaras.
Except I was ten years old, and it wasn't really a beauty and talent competition. It was a dress-up in historical costume and memorize facts about the Civil War competition, which is the only reason I had a chance of winning.
The problem was, I was competing against my brilliant best friend and the ONLY way I could hope to outshine her in this competition was to (1) wear a hoop skirt and (2) get my straight hair to curl in ringlets. We were pretty sure that one of the two of us had a good chance, since our July birthdays kept us in the "Little Miss" instead of "Princess" category. This meant that we were two of the older girls in the group. No way the littler girls would have a chance of knowing their civil war facts better than us. Plus, we were going to be certain that our costumes had real historical authenticity.
But let me back up a little. If you're not familiar with Bushwhacker Days in Nevada, Missouri, it is an annual festival in which we celebrate the burning of the town during the Civil War.
OK, not exactly. I think the purpose is to celebrate that the town survived after it was burned to the ground. Naturally, we celebrate this achievement the good ol' fashioned way--with a parade of fire trucks, pooping horses, and baton twirlers, as well as some people in period costumes. There's a death-defying carnival, a quilt show, a lip sync contest, a country singing showdown, a toddler swimsuit competition, and some other live musical entertainment, plus various craft booths and plenty of BBQ and fried food for sale around the town square. Festivities also include some potentially offensive displaying of confederate flags, and a rather shocking number of super-sketchy people wearing far too little clothing while sitting on hay bales to watch the live entertainment. (Here's where that country song, "That's where I come from..." starts playing in my head.)
Anyway, as we all know, during the Civil War, Missouri was a boundary state that never took sides, but was divided throughout. Kansas City and St. Louis were Union strongholds, but the southern half of the state (including Vernon County, and its county seat, Nevada--pronounced Nuh-VAY-duh) were Southern sympathizers.
Since Missouri never officially joined the confederacy, many men (and a few women) were not interested in signing up with the confederate army, even though they supported the Southern cause. And who could blame them for avoiding the army? Hot wool uniforms, out of date weapons prone to misfire, scarce quantities of canned food that gave people lead poisoning...
Anyway, some of these people who sympathized with the Confederacy but weren't interested in serving in the army ended up running around the Ozarks like a bunch of
These folks were known as Bushwhackers, because they hid in the bush and jumped out and whacked people. Seriously. This was a clever strategy, but considered cowardly by some who felt that they should be marching in line with the army, not skulking around and taking people by surprise. So Bushwhackers got a bad name with the Union sympathizers.
The Bushwhackers had no official military organization, but they shared a common goal: fight the Jayhawkers (pro-Union folks from Kansas). Nevada sits less than 20 minutes from the Kansas border, so the "border war" was right on home turf. (The source of the Jayhawker nickname is unknown, although the Jayhawk is a nasty bird that fights other birds and steals their eggs. Of course, now it's the KU mascot and a nickname for anyone from Kansas--which includes David! Gasp! We are indeed a border-war love story.)
So the Bushwhacker Days story goes that one weekend in June of 1963, Jayhawkers rode over the Kansas border and into town and announced to the people of Nevada that they had ten minutes to gather their children and their possessions and get out of their homes because the Jayhawkers were going to BURN DOWN EVERY BUILDING BIG ENOUGH TO HIDE A BUSHWHACKER!
And then they did.
Oh, except for the jail. And I think maybe the Episcopal church?
So I had to study up on that story (and honestly, I think I'm remembering all that correctly, but it has been twenty years, so who knows? Nevada historians, former Bushwhacker Royalty, anyone else who knows, please feel free to correct/clarify in the comments).
But even more interesting than the idea of an entire town getting burned to the ground was the fact that I got to wear a fancy dress up dress. With a hoop skirt! Dress up clothes were my favorite toys as a kid and period costumes were at the top of the list. I could not WAIT to in on that action--and have an excuse to wear it out in public.
|In full costume|
The long-sleeved "under-dress" was made of unbleached muslin and was very practical--in the 1860s, I would have had a few of these dresses to wear around the house. It had pin-tucked gathering for decoration across the front, and horizontal growth-pleats so that it could be let out as I got taller. It was totally authentic--no zippers! It pulled on over the head and fastened at the neck and at the wrists with a loop of string around a vintage button.
We went to the Bushwhacker Museum (for more research) and the sweetest little old lady who worked there had some buttons from the Civil War era that had been her step-grandmother's (or something like that). We chatted with her about the contest and she actually gave us buttons to use for my dress! (Of course I mentioned that to the judges when describing my costume.)
She also was kind enough to lend me a for-real antique petticoat from the mid-1800s. (It smelled weird, but I wore it anyway). It had hand-crocheted lace around the bottom of it. It had been a woman's petticoat so it fit over my hoops, but I don't even think we had to take it in at the waist because in the 1860s, women's waists were evidently the size of ten-year-old girls' waists in the 1990s.
The purple pinafore was the best part of the dress. It was made from EIGHT YARDS of material. That we bought at Wal-Mart. But we shopped carefully so that it was a simple, cotton, calico print (terms I was familiar with from my voracious reading of Little House on the Prairie). It was dark purple in color, with tiny white dots on it. I loved the dark purple color, but mostly I loved the full skirt and ruffles. Also, the sleeves of the pinafore were SUPPOSED to hang off my shoulders, I explained haughtily to someone who was assisting the photographer and tried to yank up the little shoulder-ruffles. It looked just like the picture in the book, except that dress had the entire skirt ruffled and my mom decided that (1) we didn't need that much volume, given the hoops, and (2) we didn't have enough fabric. In the back, it had those four vintage silver buttons going up the back of the dress, and a sash that tied in a big bow. We pinned an antique cameo brooch on the front that we borrowed from one of my great aunts.
My dad made my hoopskirt, which was NOT constructed of whale bone, but of metal. It was super heavy and dug into my hips (kind of like the dresses the girls wear in My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding). But I didn't care because it was a hoop skirt! The hoops were attached to one another by strips of muslin, which my mom then sewed to a muslin band that buttoned around my waist. It swung when I walked and took up entire doorways and I freaking loved it.
The judging process was called the "Bushwhacker Tea" and it took place at the community center. You went and drank punch and cake while waiting to get called in to speak with the judges. I got-my-hair-did that morning (hot rolled and carefully arranged into the ringlets I craved). The smell of Biolage hair spray STILL takes me back. Man, I loved those bouncy curls. Between swinging my curls and swishing my hoop skirts, every one else had to keep a wide periphery.
I don't remember much about the interview itself, except that I explained how my dress had four layers (hoops, petticoat, muslin dress, pinafore), and long sleeves to protect me from the sun, and I talked about my vintage buttons and hand-crocheted lace and I also carried a hand-crocheted lace hanky. I told the judges that as a girl living during the Civil War, I would have had a few muslin "everyday" dresses with aprons, but the pinafore would have been for very special occasions.
I answered their questions about dates and history, but then the judges asked me the name of a female Bushwhacker and I couldn't think of one. Total blank. At that moment, I was sure that I had lost the crown to my friend (her memory and recall skills are seriously amazing). But then they tossed me a softball question, asking what I would have wanted to be when I grew up if I lived during the Civil War. I said, "Well, I know I would have been expected to be a mother and a wife, but I would have also wanted to be a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse!" I could tell they liked that answer. Or maybe they just liked the way my ringlets bobbed as I talked.
Ironically, my friend feels that her one flaw in the interview was her reply to the career-question. She said that she would have wanted to be a "milliner."
Now, the fact that a ten-year-old knew that a seamstress who made hats and clothes in the 1800s was called a milliner, and that it was one of the few career paths open to women should have been impressive and probably should have won her the crown. But it's possible that the judges had no idea what a milliner was, or maybe they just preferred ruffles and hoopskirts over the practicality of her long skirt and jacket. She also had the disadvantage of a short, non-Civil-War-era haircut... No bouncing ringlets for her, I'm afraid.
At any rate, after the tea they lined up all the contestants for a picture.
|You can't miss my dress, right? My hoops take up the room of three little girls. My best friend (the milliner) is second from the left.|
It really seemed like a toss up. I knew she was the most deserving in regard to knowing her Civil War facts (after all, she could name a female bushwhacker--and I guarantee that if I called her up right now and asked her, she could STILL tell me the name of a female bushwhacker). But I was also pretty confident that my costume was the best. I was jealous that her escort (her cousin) was taller than she was and looked cute in suspenders.
So when they announced that she was FIRST RUNNER UP, I went ahead and started grinning. Because--obnoxiously confident ten-year-old that I was--I knew that meant that I had snagged the tiara!
And sure enough, seconds later, I was crowned Little Miss Bushwhacker! It really was a thrilling moment for me.
|Trying to look modest and surprised. Is it just me, or is my friend glaring somewhat murderously at those flowers?|
It's actually really hard to believe all that happened 21 years ago.
As Little Miss Bushwhacker, I got six red roses and a tiny tiara and a savings bond and it was AWESOME. Yes, it was ninety degrees out and I was wearing a long sleeved dress with a petticoat under it and a heavy ruffled pinafore on top of it and my brother had to be my escort because I was too shy to ask a boy from school, and my mom realized after the parade that my brother had been running a fever the whole afternoon, but none of that put a damper on MY day! I rode on the back of a white convertible in the parade and I smiled and waved to the adoring crowds and felt FAMOUS.
|Rocking the tiara on the courthouse steps for the newspaper photos. This must be exactly what Kate Middleton feels like every day.|
And, in case you're wondering, that fifty dollar savings bond that I won will mature in just FOUR MORE YEARS. At which time, I just might return to Bushwhacker Days, walk around wearing my tiara and sash from 1991, and spend that money on funnel cake, Suzy-Q's, and a carnival wrist band.