In the 1930s, when Colonial Williamsburg began interpreting 18th-century life, historic trades had not yet vanished from the American landscape. In Virginia, as elsewhere in the country, blacksmiths still forged iron hardware. Woodworkers crafted furniture with little more than hand tools. A few wheelwrights even serviced the remaining horse-drawn wagons that jostled over rutted country roads.
One by one, the tools and techniques of these tradesmen were replaced by modern methods and machines. A handful of niche artisans persisted, carrying on some of the age-old techniques, but the calling to produce handmade craftsmanship as a profession — as a way of life — slowly disappeared.
The Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg remained a singular, special place where historic trades would be preserved.
Through its Historic Trades department, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation pays homage to the value and dignity of craftsmen. The scope of this interpretation transcends workshops, tools and handmade products. This department also sustains the method for transferring skill and knowledge, passed down only through practice, from aging generations to new ones by way of the master-and-apprentice relationship. That not only maintains a bridge back to the people who built the American Nation but also safeguards that knowledge for the future, too.
Cameron Green is one of 80 Colonial Williamsburg Historic Tradesmen. Like his colleagues, Green, an apprentice gardener, pulls double duty — half of his job involves interpreting Colonial gardening for guests in the Historic Area, and half is performing the same tasks as an 18th-century gardener.
Onlookers sometimes inquire about what tradesmen are “pretending” to do, but their work can actually be seen all over the Historic Area. The gardeners, like all of the other historic tradesmen, are doing the same work and making the same products as their 18th-century counterparts.
“Gentlemen’s gardens were a way of finding out about good practices they transferred into their fields,” Green said. But they also inform the present. For instance, 18th-century agricultural practices offer sustainable ways of gardening, which are experiencing a renaissance.
“Without this program, this knowledge might be lost,” Green said. This method of instruction traces an unbroken line of learners and teachers back to expert elders, preserving skills that are impossible to gather from book knowledge. Rising from an apprenticeship to become the journeyman and master ensures the longevity of the trade, Green said.
That’s one of the reasons Colonial Williamsburg has chosen to expand its Historic Trades program and in 2016 added a position called the Portrait Artist of Colonial Williamsburg, now filled by Zach Hillegas.
As a limner — a term in the 18th century that referred to a painter of miniatures — Hillegas represents Colonial Americans who worked as shade portrait artists, as well as those who used other art forms, such as watercolor and pen-and-ink. With a workstation in the John Greenhow Store, Hillegas creates small works of art while interpreting the 18th-century profession for guests, many of whom stay for long stretches to see him make progress on a particular piece.
“Is there anywhere we can purchase your work?” a woman recently inquired of Hillegas as he meticulously worked at a drawing of the Governor’s Palace, rendered in the pen-and-ink technique of cross-hatching.
That inquiry is common, said Hillegas, and one reason may be that the notion of handmade crafts is a foreign concept in an age when machines make so many things, even objects of beauty.
The answer to the guest’s question is “yes.” There is a place to purchase Hillegas’ work, as well as that of other Colonial Williamsburg Historic Tradesmen. Most Saturdays, art and other objects are auctioned at Market Square, furnishing money to support the Foundation’s core mission.
Trades provide monetary value for the living history museum, but the labor also helps build the historic infrastructure that attracts visitors to the Historic Area. The Market House, which opened in 2015, for instance, came together from the combined efforts of brickmakers, carpenters and blacksmiths, among others.
That’s why the Foundation embraces opportunities to guarantee a strong future for the Historic Trades. They are the backbone of the museum’s programming. Apprenticeships function as the only guarantor of the Historic Trades’ continuity, and without them, a set of skills and knowledge could be lost indefinitely. When Historic Trades are able to secure their future, the benefits are remarkable.
The Anderson Blacksmith Shop and Public Armoury recently added the position of junior blacksmith apprentice. A local high-schooler works a few hours in the shop each day as part of his curriculum after spending time in a traditional classroom.
The current junior blacksmith apprentice, Lane Curran, said guests his age often wonder why he’s not in school. “This is my school, in the same way it would have been in the 18th century,” he said.
The position offers a realistic portrayal of the age of an apprentice in the Colonial era, but the reasons transcend authenticity, according to Master Blacksmith Ken Schwarz. “Tons of school groups come through and it opens up possibilities for them. They see that it’s not just old guys that like history,” he said. This is about cultivating a young generation that is as passionate about history as their parents and grandparents.
For Barb Swanson, an apprenticeship at Colonial Williamsburg is a way to introduce younger generations to historic professions — and keep the memory of those bygone tradesmen alive.
When Swanson accepted the apprentice bookbinder position earlier this year, she agreed to carry the mantle of untold tradesmen who devoted their lives to the craft. But it was also much more personal. Her grandfather and his brothers were bookbinders and printers near Boston, as were generations before them. “I feel like I’m carrying on a tradition, and that’s important and special to me,” she said.
The generations of her family who toiled as bookbinders, printers and die casters may not have achieved fame or fortune, according to Swanson, but these were the very salt-of-the-earth people who built our Nation, and the means they used to accomplish that was the work they performed.
“We all know about the grand ideas of the famous people from history,” said Swanson. “But who was it executing their ideas? The everyday, average people, working in the trades.”
Ben Swenson is a freelance writer living in Williamsburg, Va.