Snake Oil
Snake Oil

When Susan Hynes was a young girl growing up in Winnebago in the 1960s, she and her friends loved finding new ways to catch people’s attention. They often staged elaborated carnivals on the playhouse that her father had constructed in her backyard. They also took the shows into the streets and in front of unsuspecting passersby.

Photo by Mike Huerkamp - Susan Hynes as one of her many characters
Photo by Mike Huerkamp – Susan Hynes as one of her many characters

“My friends and I would get a great big box and put someone in it, and tell people, ‘There’s a gorilla in there!’” she recalled. “Or at night, we’d tie one of us to a telephone pole and hide and see if anyone stopped to look. We always wanted to get reactions out of people.”

Now, more than 50 years later, Hynes has found a new way to interact with people: historical reenactments. The Mankato resident volunteers for a dozen different historical organizations and groups and has played a colorful cast of characters, from a resourceful Civil War nurse to a crafty snake oil saleswoman. For more than 10 years, Hynes has brought real characters from Minnesota’s history to life, crafting costumes and pouring through history books to share the details of their lives.

“I ran into a [old neighbor] once, and she said, ‘Susan, remember when you used to do all those plays with the kids in the neighborhood?’” Hynes recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m still doing that!’”

When you are trying to do a historical presentation, people like to hear about death and scandal and mystery, and they like some humor thrown in with it, and that’s out there, in real life, more than you can imagine.

Discovering her passion

Hynes describes herself as “always pretty artistic,” teaching herself how to sew so that she could create clothes for her dolls. She especially loved costumes.

“As a young adult, I loved costume parties,” she said. “I liked clothing and fashion and the expression of color.”

But while she loved art and even started attending college to study it in 1968, she dropped out shortly after because she was “intimidated by it.” In its place, she began working for South Central College, staying there for 21 years before moving on to CenterPoint Energy. She stayed there for another 17 years, retiring five years ago.

Hynes said she started volunteering during her time at CenterPoint, because she needed something fun to do in her free time.

“I needed something besides sitting at a desk and doing a desk job,” she explained.

In 2003, she found what she was missing. While attending the annual Victorian lawn party hosted by the Blue Earth County Historical Society (BECHS) at the Hubbard House, Mankato’s premier historical mansion, she had her first real experience with historical reenactors—costumed volunteers who interacted with the party guides and shared about the Hubbards’ history.

When the volunteers learned that Hynes loved costumes as much as they did, they encouraged her to start volunteering as well—but she wasn’t sure if she knew history well enough. To be honest, she hadn’t really enjoyed history as a kid.

“The way I learned history to start with—this vague timeline of history—was not very engaging,” she admitted.

Submitted Photo - Susan Hynes as her character The Temperance Lady and a saloon girl at Mankato's History Fest.
Submitted Photo – Susan Hynes as her character The Temperance Lady and a saloon girl (story author Grace Brandt!) at Mankato’s History Fest.

But eventually she was convinced to try volunteering for herself, and she was hooked.

“As soon as I started doing it, I knew that I loved doing it,” she said.

Hynes soon became a knowledgeable Hubbard House guide, as well as working with BECHS in other ways. Since then, she has volunteered at other annual events, eventually taking over much of their organization. She also started the summer “Gaslight” series, which covers topics from Mankato’s history such as local suffragette movements and Victorian weddings, and she also started the organization’s annual summer Medicine Show. (You can usually spot her during the show as half of the “Cherry Sisters” duo, an infamously terrible vaudeville act.) She writes the scripts herself and assigns the parts, as well as usually contributing to the organization’s “Ghosts from the Past” series and other events.

Hynes even wrote a play for BECHS that was performed in 2007. Titled Who Killed Holland Ledbetter? it was a dramatic account of the real-life murder of Mankato resident Holland Ledbetter in 1909, and it was performed in the actual courthouse where the murder trial took place.

For Hynes, this method of sharing history was far more engaging and dynamic than what she had ever learned in school, and she loved sharing it with others.

“You can bring history alive by bringing objects and costumes [to show],” she explained. “I like to say, ‘The specific is terrific.’ They’ll remember the details, rather than just saying this vague timeline of history. That’s the way I learned history to start with, and it was not very engaging. When you are trying to do a historical presentation, people like to hear about death and scandal and mystery, and they like some humor thrown in with it, and that’s out there, in real life, more than you can imagine.”

Branching out

From the Blue Earth County Historical Society, Hynes soon learned of other opportunities to reenact history in the area. First came her work with the Betsy-Tacy Society, which oversees the Betsy and Tacy Houses. Hynes often volunteered in costume, leading tours around the two houses.

“I just realized I just love doing this stuff,” she said. “Then I was helping other people find costumes. It was like all this stuff that I’d been doing as a kid, like my young self was coming out.”

Almost every time I do something, I want it to be factual, and I want it to be engaging, and even the saddest things have some humor.

.Hynes expanded her historical repertoire as she began reenacting characters from the Civil War at different events, usually presenting in accurate Civil War costumes that she had hand-sewn. She became a founding member of the Boy in Blue project to restore Mankato’s Boy in Blue statue, which had been erected in honor of Blue Earth County soldiers involved in the Civil War. The group’s goal was achieved in 2015 during the war’s sesquicentennial celebration in Blue Earth County.

Around the same time, Hynes began volunteering at Mankato’s annual History Fest event. At first, she went as a volunteer of the Betsy-Tacy Society, but her friend and fellow reenactor Ron Affolter suggested trying a new character: a temperance lady. For the past six years, Hynes has grimly trudged the festival, clad all in black, a hatchet hanging from her side and a sign gripped in her hand that warns, “Beware the evils of drink!”

Submitted Photo - Susan Hynes as one of her many characters near the Hubbard House carriage building.
Submitted Photo – Susan Hynes as one of her many characters near the Hubbard House carriage building.

“When I carry the hatchet, I notice the boys will all come up to me to ask about it,” she said. “I get a lot of responses, all positive. It engages people. It’s a fun character to do.”

It was at History Fest that Hynes met members of the Cannon Old West Society (COWS), a roving group of history lovers who put on Wild West-style shows at different events, complete with shoot outs and horse tricks. Some of them were volunteering in the saloon where Hynes often barged in to decry the evils of whiskey, and they asked her to do her shtick with them at their next event. Hynes has volunteered with COWS for about four years, participating in shows at events such as the Waseca Sleigh and Cutter Festival and the Antique Power Show in Hastings. Sometimes, she plays the Temperance Lady; other times, she plays wild and wacky characters she makes up that fit in with the group’s rough cowboy antics.

“We always have such a fun time,” she said.

Colorful characters

Hynes has played everything from a well-to-do Victorian matriarch to a simple prairie school teacher. Other roles include a sticky-fingered maid and a Civil War soldier’s wife. She comes up with almost all of them herself, and the great majority are people who truly lived in Minnesota. One notable exception is Isabelle Finstermacher, a crafty character who will pop up at different Hubbard House events and who, curiously, always seems to have a different accent.

Hynes fleshes out names in a history book with hours of detailed research—which often reveals surprising stories.

“They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I think it really is,” she said. “Part of it is that fiction has to make sense. Some of the things that you find out happened in history, or some of the characters, and the outlandish and wild things that they did, if you put them in a novel, people wouldn’t believe them.”

Submitted Photo - Susan Hynes as her character Violet McNeal
Submitted Photo – Susan Hynes as her character Violet McNeal

She finds inspiration for her characters from all sorts of sources, but the majority of the time she finds them in books.

“I’ve got three bookcases, and books piled up by my bed,” she said. “Anybody who does very much historical costuming or interpretation, in the winter, in the downtime, they’re doing a lot of reading. If I go to any historical site, I’ll look for books. Sometimes you just see a little blurb about somebody, and you research it further.”

That’s how Hynes came up with Violet McNeal, a woman from Iowa who came to St. Paul in the early 1900s and became involved with a snake oil salesman. That character became one of Hynes’ favorites and sparked the annual Medicine Show that BECHS organizes every August. Meanwhile, Hynes learned of another character, Mary Ann “Mother” Bickerdyke, when she was briefly mentioned in a Civil War presentation. From there, Hynes hunted down more information until she could create a detailed and true-to-life character.

“Almost every time I do something, I want it to be factual, and I want it to be engaging, and even the saddest things have some humor,” she said.

For costumes, Hynes said she usually finds what she needs at thrift stores, especially if she’s building a Victorian costume. Civil War clothes are more difficult, and she usually has to make those herself. Because of the intricate techniques involved, one dress from that time period can take her 60 hours to finish. Hynes also makes most of her own hats, working on them throughout the winter when there aren’t as many historical events to attend. She also acquires wigs that she enjoys using, though she admits she has not yet found a use for her Marie Antoinette-style wig.

“I have five closets and some storage in the basement and a storage unit, all for costumes,” she said with a laugh. “My hats are just stacked up in hat boxes… When I have to find a specific hat, I have to take them all out, and the place is just a cluttered mess.”

For Hynes, though, all the work is worth it to share her love of history—something that she believes is still important now, even decades or even centuries after it first happened.

“I think it’s important in life to have gratitude and to see yourself in perspective to those who’ve come before you,” she said. “All of us travel down a road, and there are those who came before us. We need to have gratitude, and also respect for those who suffered before us and to try to understand the mistakes of the past. And it’s hard to do—to understand something larger than yourself that affects everyone. I think history allows you do that.”

A different stage

Perhaps surprisingly, while Hynes passionately loves both history and reenacting, she admitted she isn’t too interested in traditional theater.

“I was in one play, and I’ve helped with costuming years ago, but I like improv,” she said. “Then you don’t have to learn lines so much; you just have to stay in character. I like being out there, engaging people directly, up close, closer than you would with a play.”

On a similar note, Hynes isn’t planning on doing any historical writing herself any time soon, even though she loves reading nonfiction and doing research on her newest character.

“I can’t see myself sitting in the archives someplace and researching too long,” she said. “I can do this through the winter, knowing that eventually I’m going to do something colorful and showy and with people.”

Additional Links

Getting to know Susan Hynes

From: Winnebago

Lives in: Mankato

Housemate: Her cat, Frankie

Hobbies: Reading, participating in classes at the VINE Adult Community Center

Favorite character to play: Either Violet McNeal or Mary Ann “Mother” Bickerdyke

Favorite historical era: the American Civil War: “The American Civil War is fascinating, and you can never know enough about it. In our country’s history, it’s unsurpassed.”

A historical period she’d like to explore more: The fur trade era.