Ken and Kathryn Lewellen have taken their interest in history to the next level, portraying life during the mid-18th century at Isle a la Cache Museum’s monthly "Living History Demonstrations."
The Lewellens, who just celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary, are members of the Isle a la Cache Brigade, a group of volunteer re-enactors that staffs the monthly demonstrations at the Romeoville museum. Ken has been a re-enactor for 30 years and joined the Brigade about 13 years ago, after some friends invited him to participate. Kathryn followed suit several years later, joining her husband for the monthly demonstrations that give insight into the 18th-century fur trading that was common in the area.
“For me, I’ve been studying history since grade school,” Ken said. “I had a teacher that got me excited about it.”
Volunteering at the "Living History Demonstrations" gives the Lewellens a chance to teach others about the history of our area. They talk with many people who don’t know much about what life was like in northern Illinois in the 18th century, or who know a little bit but are eager to find out more, Ken said.
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Both Ken and Kathryn enjoy the opportunity to share information about our area’s past in a hands-on way. The "Living History Demonstrations" often have a theme, which serves as their focus. For example, March’s event was a fashion show, and Brigade members showed off their clothing from the time period. Kathryn enjoys sewing, and she has made all of the clothing she wears as well as some of Ken’s. She often demonstrates different stitches and embroidery during the "Living History" events.
Children, especially, get a kick out of being able to see things from the 18th century and learn about life during that time, Kathryn said. As part of the demonstrations, she has a collection of animal furs laid out, and kids often like to touch them and guess what animal they are from. Ken also has a collection of games from the time period, and he likes teaching the children how to play them.
And although the kids are excited to learn about life hundreds of years ago, they aren’t too keen on the idea of giving up the modern conveniences we have today for a life without them, the Lewellens said.
Ken, though, appreciates the simplicity of the 18th-century lifestyle. “This time period is a lot harder in many regards,” he said about life today, adding that having to go back to a time when life was much more simple wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
Portraying their characters — he a French Marine and she a French wife — doesn’t involve just showing up every month for the "Living History Demonstrations." The Lewellens spend time reading and researching life in the 18th century and also going to trade fairs across the region to learn more and acquire items specific to the time period.
“We want to make sure we are as correct as we can be,” Ken said.
Beyond the "Living History Demonstrations," the Isle a la Cache Brigade also sometimes travels as a group to other re-enactments.
“The Brigade flag has flown in Ticonderoga (New York), in Peoria, in Kalamazoo (Michigan), in Kokomo (Indiana),” he said.
In addition to volunteering with the Brigade, both Ken and Kathryn have long been involved with other volunteer activities for the Forest Preserve. Ken is a certified CPR instructor and leads CPR training sessions for Forest Preserve staff. Kathryn, meanwhile, is involved with the District’s volunteer banquet planning committee, helping select a theme and design centerpieces and décor for the annual event.
Both the Lewellens take pride in their volunteer work, and it’s something they have passed on to their family. Kathryn said their children, a son and two daughters, grew up watching their parents volunteer in many capacities, from Scouts to their schools and beyond, and that was passed on to them. Their children today have their own interests and hobbies, but one of their daughters also volunteers with the Forest Preserve District.
For the Lewellens, volunteering is both a way to give back to the community and share their passion and interests with others. Being able to teach the community about our area’s history is something they both enjoy and take seriously.
“I think it’s very important for everyone to know where we came from,” Ken said. “If you don’t know your past, you’re doomed to repeat it.”
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