Journeys: A Civil War Woman

Pipestone Civil War Days reenactor Kate Heller talks about what the festival is like, how she began reenacting, and how her Civil War Days wedding went

An aerial view of the reenactment of the Civil War at Pipestone's Civil War Days.
Civil War Days

Feature Photo by Ethan Heller; Inset photo courtesy pipestone Chamber of Commerce

“I’ve been reenacting since I was about 12 with a friend’s mom who got me involved, Her daughter wasn’t interested in doing it because her mom owned a dressmaking shop, so she had been subjected to it her whole life. For me, I loved playing dress up, and back in the old days, we used to camp in the grounds, sit around the campfire at night, and I’d listen to guys playing music and eat food off of the fire. So I used to reenact in Nebraska and around.

“A lot of families do that. If you go out to the grounds, there are moms and dads camping out with little kids on the grounds, and dad’s a soldier and mom’s quilting or cooking or whatever, and they portray the family.

“Then when Pipestone [Civil War Days] first started, I didn’t have much to do with it because I was so little. Eventually, Chuck and Laurie [Ness] kind of took over the civil war committee in about 2006 or 2004. … And when they got involved, I got involved.

“It’s kind of a small community of people who always go to the same events especially in the Midwest. A lot of them are in the East Coast—Gettysburg, Manassas, Virginia, a lot over in that area—so when the guys have the chance to do something local, almost all the guys show up, so it’s nice to see the same faces at all the events.

“The nice thing about Pipestone is that we focus on the people being there. A lot of the events, like for Gettysburg, it’s all about the big battle and making the event for the reenactors so there might be a fashion show or a couple of programs, but if you look at the event schedule for Pipestone Civil War Days, it’s packed. Every single venue is full all day long, and there’s always something going on, whereas some of the other events, they’re not as audience focused. There’s a lot of different musicians and different programs for the people to do, and I think the reenactors appreciate that, too.

Men dressed in suits during a reenactment of the Civil War at Pipestone's Civil War Days.

“I used to say [reenacting is] dressing up and looking pretty, but it’s a little more complicated. There’s a lot of involved planning for Civil War Days. You get your outfit, which for women consists of about 10 layers of clothing, and then you know, it takes you an hour to get dressed, go to grounds or get out of your tent, and it’s walking around and experiencing it. You can walk up to almost any guy or woman and they have a story of who they portray—’I was this soldier, and I have family back home, and I belong to this unit’—so it has a lot of learning aspects.

“For us it’s kind of a family event, too. My brother and my two sisters-in-law come down from the Twin Cities, and my parents are there, and I’m there every year, so it’s a family reunion for us.

“My parents have to gone to other reenactments as visitors, but the only one they do is Pipestone. My dad is also a guide for Pipestone Ghost Tours. My dad loves to talk, so it’s perfect for him. My brothers don’t really reenact, but my two sistersin-law both have dresses—in fact, they both have new dresses this year. One of my sisters-in-law does the school program, and she’s a teacher in real life. The other sister dresses up and sews and wanders around. They both started out, ‘I’m going to wear a skirt this year,’ and then next year, they got dresses, and so on.

“It’s a nice calm relaxing atmosphere, and we get to hang out with family, we get to wear fun outfits and relax and be outside.”

A Civil Marriage

Civil War reenactments were such a large part of Kate Heller’s life that when she got married, she thought, why not have a period wedding? After all, it was pretty thrifty, too. Heller says her husband’s “pretty game for anything,” so he and his family all borrowed their clothes and Heller’s friend helped her make a purple wedding dress. A gentleman from the Minnesota Living History Society helped put together a period accurate wedding ceremony and a good friend officiated. A violin and guitar duo added music in the background. By the time the ceremony ended and Heller turned around to face her family as a married woman, a whole crowd of people had gathered. “I don’t know if I had the biggest wedding because my middle brother’s was in Las Vegas—it was a pirate ship wedding—but I definitely had more people than my other brother,” Heller jokes.

This interview has been edited for style, clarity, and length.