Character Reference

What was Virginia like before the Revolutionary War? Ask Cousin Daniel Wilcox.

Dan Rosenberg was a teenager in the late 1990s, but you could say he came of age in 1771.

At 11, he became a youth apprentice at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm, McLean’s living history museum, where animal husbandry and farming practices follow historically accurate period methods. Rosenberg volunteered regularly at the farm until he turned 18. Then, after a year of college at the University of Pittsburgh, he returned to work as an agricultural intern and substitute farmer. “It’s family,” he explains.

Building upon his interest in interpretive history, Rosenberg went on to become a seasonal park ranger for the National Park Service, which he’s done off and on for the past eight years. His skills have taken him from Adams National Historical Park near Boston to San Francisco Maritime Park, but he keeps coming back to Claude Moore, where time stands still and it’s always 1771—four years from the start of the American Revolution.

“I have always loved history,” says Rosenberg, now 28. “I was that 6-year-old who wanted to climb on every cannon and go to every battlefield and see every fort. I’m still that guy, and I love sharing that passion.”

These days, due to budget cuts at many parks, he’s volunteering as a first-person interpreter on the farm. He plays the “disreputable Cousin Daniel” who lives near the resident Thornton family (as played by fellow actors).

“Bring an open mind” is Rosenberg’s advice to any who are planning a visit to an interpretive historic site. “We are trained to bring you into this environment and want you to meet us in our year. Ask questions and engage the interpreter. Play along.”

We did just that in our candid conversation with Rosenberg, aka “Cousin Daniel Wilcox.”

How’s life on the farm?  

Everything in farming is challenging, but the weather especially. It is either too dry or too wet. It never rains at the right time, but always at the wrong. This year our rye crop rotted in the field because it was too wet to cut.  

Do you also grow tobacco?

Tobacco is the crop here in the colony. It is the requirement of the rent that it be paid in tobacco: 500 pounds to rent 100 acres of land each year from Mr. Thomas Lee. That’s a little under half of our crop.

That rent doesn’t sound quite fair.

It’s as fair as anyone else charges.

What’s the hardest work you do?

Clearing the new fields. Every few years, tobacco requires a new field, so every year we clear new acreage and move the fence from an old field to a new field.

What’s your favorite farm animal?

The hogs, I should say. One doesn’t see too much of them, because they tend to spend much of the year off in the woods. They mind for themselves, which is more than I can say for most of the other animals.  

What’s your least favorite animal?  

Geese. They are quite delicious but have themselves earned the name of foul. They are dirty, smelly, loud and mean. I still have a mark on my finger from where that gander bit me.

Do you travel much?

No. The nearest town is in Maryland, but that would cost the ferry to cross the Potomac, and Georgetown is not a place for respectable folk.

Why is that?

It’s a port city of ill repute—dirty and boggy. The city is crowded and loud.

Is there another town you prefer?

Alexandria is quite the busy seaport with the shipbuilding and chandleries. There are quite the businesses there, but it takes at least half a day to walk the 12 miles from here. 

What’s your greatest joy?

My children, Anne [3] and Henry [7]. My wife passed away of a fever last winter.

Are you looking for a new wife?

I am.  

What are your qualifications?

That she should be a good cook and kind to the children and mindful of them.

Do your children attend school?

It’s far too expensive. The cost for school is more than we bring in in a year on the farm. I never went to school. I learned from my father.

Why are you referred to as “disreputable?”

My relatives are not fond of how much rum and peach mobby I drink. [The latter is an alcohol made from peaches that Thomas Jefferson was also known to distill and imbibe.]  

What’s your favorite day of the year?

My favorite day is when we celebrate wassail. It’s a great festival in the winter. In our family, we gather and toast the apple trees and give health to our neighbors and relations. It’s a time of great merriment to get together and travel bad roads and eat good food.

What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?

A gift of drinking chocolate. It is quite the delicacy. My sister bought it in Alexandria. Her husband is a shopkeeper there. One can purchase near anything in Alexandria, if one has the money.

How do you keep up with current events?  

One tries to read the Virginia Gazette. One hears the news in the ordinary, from neighbors, at court days, at market days, or at the Falls Church. To go to church once a month is a requirement. ’Tis too far to travel the eight miles every week.

What’s the latest news?
Governor Dunmore, who is a man of great estate, recently arrived from England. We’re still waiting to hear more about him in the papers from the capital in Williamsburg.

Have you seen British soldiers in these parts?

No, not since Braddock’s army around 1755. My uncle was in the militia fighting the French.

What do you make of the Boston Massacre?

I heard there was some trouble in Boston town. There will be tussles. Taxes and troops can be burdensome; there’s no denying that. It should blow over. n

Amy Brecount White is quite glad to live and write in Arlington in 2013.

For more information on Claude Moore Colonial Farm, visit 1771.org.

Categories: People
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