Derek Franz

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May 30, 2012
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Bringing history back to life

The mayhem of battle was strewn across Minturn's Maloit Park last Thursday but it was all cleaned up by 3 p.m.

By the end of the day, there was little evidence of the historical drama that erupted between three Eagle County middle schools.

Pyrotechnics sent dirt flying into the air as about 220 costumed eighth-graders reanimated the Civil War Battle of Shiloh. It was hard for them not to smile.

"Stop smiling - this is war! Don't make it look so fun - you're getting stabbed with bayonets!" coached Darrell Osburn, director of You Can Live History!, a Denver-based non-profit that has organized and filmed more than 600 mock battles for history students.

The organization films each re-enactment with multiple cameras and edits the footage to make a documentary with sound effects and voice-overs.

"I've been doing this 21 years and filmed every one," Osburn said.

You Can Live History! also does re-enactments of the American Revolution.

"Those are my favorite because they're so colorful with the red and blue coats," Osburn said.

The eighth-graders at Maloit Park were from Gypsum Creek Middle School, Homestake Peak School and Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy. They studied the Civil War for six weeks. One week was spent studying the Battle of Shiloh and two afternoons were spent in marching practice.

At that time, Osburn also coached them on weaponry, death scenes and facial hair.

"The Civil War soldiers were the hairiest guys," he told GCMS students at practice. "Feel free to make costume beards and mustaches. I once had a fifth-grader who had a great mustache and goatee stuck on with gum. I asked him where he got the hair and he said he shaved his sister's Barbie doll. It was a good costume but his sister was mad at him."

The students also had to raise more than $2,000 in addition to fees of $25 each.

"Part of a $35 activity fee they pay for the year also went into it," said GCMS social studies teacher Torrey Kaddatz.

The students who raised the most money by scoring highest on a test - akin to spelling bee pledges - had first dibbs to be officers.

Matt Jordan was Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, which made him a superior officer to Kaddatz, who was but a lowly private. Jordan smiled when asked what it was like to outrank his teacher.

"I'll listen," Kaddatz said.

For the most part, students got to pick which side they wanted to "fight" for.

"It was pretty even," Kaddatz said. "We had a few voluntarily switch to get the numbers right."

The teacher who brought the program to Eagle County was Tracy Teetaert. She formerly taught at Minturn Middle School and took her students to Denver to participate in a re-enactment. Minturn Middle was moved into Homestake Peak School last year and Teetaert is now with Homestake as well.

"We joined 400 eight-graders for the (Civil War) Battle of Bull Run," Teetaert said. "A parent brought the idea to my attention."

She hopes participation will grow next year to keep the organization coming back to Eagle County.

"Hopefully we can get all the middle schools next year," she said. "The experience does seem to boost students' enthusiasm and drive to learn history. It also encourages discipline."

Kevin Labbe is a friend of Osburn who has a passion for pyrotechnics. He was on his hands and knees, hurriedly setting up ground wires on the battlefield before students arrived, as he's done for You Can Live History! for the last six years.

"I'm self taught. I was just interested in it while I was in college and read a lot of chemistry books," he said.

Otherwise, he's a musician, which is how he met Darrell Osburn and his brother, Gary Osburn, who also helps the organization.

Labbe set charges in the ground with talcom powder to make it look like cannon balls exploding as kids dived in either direction.

Cannons were stuffed with powder and caps as well for genuine BOOMs. Even the muskets were made to shoot white powder to make it look like gun smoke and all the more convincing when sound effects are added to the film.

"I wasn't a history buff until I started working with Darrell," Labbe said. "Now I'm really into historical artillery and weapons."

The Osburns' grandfather was a paratrooper in World War II's Battle of the Bulge and their grandfather's uncle was a Civil War veteran.

"My grandfather had a jillion stories," Darrell Osburn said. "He told me his stories and stories that his uncle told him about the Civil War."

Those stories inspired Osburn to study history.

"I read and studied because I liked it, not for some degree," he said.

He ended up making his living as a musician but never put down the history books. His knowledge and knack for telling the stories took him into a fifth-grade classroom as a guest speaker 21 years ago.

"I had friends who had thousands of painted Napoleonic soldiers, so I borrowed those and set up a giant scene of the Battle of Austerlitz that took up the whole cafeteria."

Other schools ended up visiting to see it.

"After that, the teacher asked me if there was any way to do a Civil War re-enactment," Osburn said. "The school gave me $1,200 to get costumes and materials."

Osburn since became a thrifty guy, making plastic belt buckles from a mold he made with a real one and equipping the toy muskets to shoot powder via blow tubes.

"Every dollar we get goes back into the program," he said. "I think I have about another five years left of doing this before I collapse."

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The VailDaily Updated May 30, 2012 12:43PM Published May 30, 2012 12:36PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.