The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 22, 2005

Features

The British have come! And they joined us at the Patriots' Ball

Across the Atlantic and across the years: "Colonists" Myles and Rhondda McConnon meet members of Britain's Corps of Drums Society. (Photo by Midge Eliassen)
Last Saturday night was a fresh, clear spring night with a nip in the air. There was excitement in the air as well, as the annual Patriots Day celebrations went into full swing, literally, with the Patriots' Ball at the Concord Armory.

The Patriots' Ball dates back to at least 1875, when Concord commemorated the centennial of the battle at the "rude bridge" with a military and civic ball. To walk into this year's ball was to take a step into a blend of times and perspectives. A bewigged and hatted lady in a green-striped cotton 18th-century day dress greeted guests and snapped pictures with a large 35-mm camera. Revelers in modern cocktail-party garb were already dancing to the music of the band "Colours" by 7:45p.m. Tables groaned with hors d'oeuvres and people lined up at the cash bar to refresh themselves. Dress of almost every sort looked at home: those whose costumes were slapdash 18th-century spoofs or simply homemade, flag-bedecked hat confections rubbed shoulders with "patriots" in red, white, and blue modern dress or current military uniforms. Costumes ranged from chic to authentic to ridiculous, guests hailed from far and wide, and everybody seemed bent on having a great evening.

Fifes and drums provide stirring entertainment

William Howell, of the Second Continental Light Dragoons, explains his uniform to a guest. ( Photo by Midge Eliassen)

The band took a break at 8:30 p.m. and the crowds on the dance floor headed for the sidelines. Then the First Michigan Fife and Drum Corps marched into the room to American fife and drum music dating from 250 years ago. Their fawn-colored buckskin uniforms recalled characters in the stories of James Fenimore Cooper and settlers on the borders of the American frontier. Their musicianship was precise and stirring, featuring familiar tunes ranging from "Yankee Doodle" to a courteous nod to their opponents in the Revolution with "The British Grenadiers." During a pause in their performance, a spectator leaned over to me and gushed, "How cool is this?"

Following the Michigan Fife and Drum Corps, the British came to the Concord Armory. The Corps of Drums Society, including percussion, flute, and bugle players, first volunteered to come from their native England to Concord and perform in April 2002 after September 11, and they returned this year on the 230th anniversary of the "loss of the British colonies in America." Chest protruding, back straight, Drum Major Geoff Fairfax, M.B.E. looked for all the world like a British officer on the order of Alec Guinness in The Bridge Over the River Kwai, but the band marched in to the far more American theme from The Great Escape. Their spectacular performance blended British traditional military music with current American pieces.

Living history joins the party

When the performances ended and "Colours" took the stage again, a rocking Beatles medley brought the Michigan corps and the friendly British to the dance floor along with everybody else. I took this opportunity to buttonhole some of the people with interesting costumes and ask them about their dress. Richard Howell of Wilbraham was striding about the room in a costume which prevented him from "getting down" on the dance floor: a spectacular helmet made of brass, silver, bearskin, and horsehair, which had been crafted in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the blue and cream uniform of the Second Continental Light Dragoons, commanded in the 1770s by Elijah Sheldon. He explained that the current group of dragoons, all expert horsemen, numbers 15 local men and is recognized as a dragoon corps by the Commonwealth, but that the 18th-century company had the largest contingent of Massachusetts men in any dragoon company (a mounted military unit, formerly heavily armed), some of whom came from Carlisle.

Myles McConnon of Bolton is a Middlesex County Volunteers drum major but he had come to the ball with his wife Rhondda dressed as a wealthy late-18th-century gentleman with his lady. The couple had made their costumes entirely by hand, and they were accurate down to the shoe leather and buckles. Myles' peruke (wig) had been dressed and powdered, and he sported a silver-headed cane. Rhondda wore the restrictive corset and farthingale of the ladies of 250 years ago, and the layers of petticoats and drapery that adorned her "day dress" would have kept an ice cube warm on an arctic night. The McConnons behaved as their costumes demanded: their movements were slow and carefully considered, and their manners were as deliberate as their physical movements. Ladies and gentlemen of the period, said Myles, valued thought before speaking, and the 18th century was not about comfort, but about achieving moral and intellectual perfection: an apt description of the Age of Enlightenment.

Back on the dance floor, things were really heating up among those clad to admit greater freedom of movement. Among other Carlisleans, Bret and Joan Bero were spotted in an enormous conga line that snaked around the dance floor and up across the stage behind the band. Joan declared that Patriots Day starts on Friday in their household and routinely runs through Monday, with Bret taking the day off from work. Not long after the conga line dispersed, two lively blocks of Electric Slide dancers squared off and added a country-western flavor to the proceedings.

Traditions: the Grand March and the Walk to Wright's Tavern

At 10:30p.m., ball committee members distributed small American flags around the room and just about everybody lined up to join in the Grand March. To the strains of "Anchors Aweigh," "The Caissons Go Rolling Along," and other American military fight songs, the participants marched: two-by-two, four-by-four, eight-by-eight, and finally 24 across, until they came to a stop in a large square in front of the stage. There the band led the flag-waving group in singing patriotic songs and ended with the national anthem. The British contingent joined in every part and demonstrated that there are no hard feelings about the American Revolution in their ranks.

After a rousing grand finale performance by both fife and drum companies, the Concord Minutemen led the partygoers in the traditional midnight march to Wright's Tavern in Concord center, where "Samuel Prescott" rode in on horseback (Paul Revere never made it this far) to warn the Minutemen that the British Regulars were on the march. Wright's Tavern, at the corner of Main Street and Lexington Road, was built in 1747 and was the headquarters of the Concord Minutemen on the morning of April 19, 1775. Later that day it became the British headquarters. Ball committee member Laura Chelton of Old North Road explained that she was brought up in Concord, and that her parents used to attend the Patriots' Ball. She and her friends would ride their bicycles at midnight to the First Parish Church next to Wright's Tavern to watch "Samuel Prescott" ride into town to raise the alarm. Now that she lives in Carlisle and runs her business (Wayside Mortgage) here as well, it is her mission to get Carlisleans to enjoy the Patriots' Ball the way she has done for so many years. Dancing, food, entertainment, living history, far-flung friendships and fun: it sounds as if next year's Patriots' Ball is a must.


2005 The Carlisle Mosquito