It’s pretty commonplace for residents of Evergreen to applaud their town. In fact, most folks welcome the opportunity to pay tribute when given a chance. But John Steinle, administrator of the Hiwan Museum, casts a pretty tall shadow when it comes to appreciating Evergreen.
It was 1992 when his passion for history paved a well-considered and purposeful path from Ohio straight to Colorado. Given to great wit, John likes to unravel his entertaining tales of growing up in “boring” Hamilton, Ohio and his driving commitment to lands beyond.
After graduating with a degree in fine art he won a job at a well-established greeting card company. Four years later he successfully sought a master’s degree in museum and archival management. From there John became a student of legendary details, areas of archeological interest and artifacts.
He confides that once he found his calling, the gates of history opened wide and somehow swallowed him up. His calling wasn’t all he discovered on his trek into the past, however, for John met his beloved wife Mary during a tour of the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver.
This fun-loving, but resolute investigator of times-gone-by attributes much of his spirit of inquiry to his parents. He fondly remembers family vacations that instilled hopes for his future. In 1957 John’s father took him to Disneyland, telling him that the park had only been open about a year and they had to see it for themselves. This was no isolated road trip, as the family had also taken in such historic locales as Valley Forge, Jamestown and Gettysburg, to name only a few.
Two years after the Disney trip they drove to Colorado to experience the Rocky Mountains. John was enthralled with mountain towns such as Steamboat Springs and found all the Colorado museums magnetic. The efforts it took settlers to tackle the passes and gorges fascinated him. John never forgot anything about that trip and pondered over such cities as Boulder until finally moving there as an adult years later.
John reports that he felt most of his dreams came true after he answered an ad to apply for the position at the Hiwan Homestead museum. When bragging on the perks of the job, he testifies that he works for the best park system in the country. But, he says the most prized benefit of all is his staff of volunteers.
Just a mention of the team brings quite the grin to John’s face. He describes them as the “cherry on top” and insists on singing their praises. While training new tour guides he readily enlists his sense of humor and presents the local data in an easy-to-remember fashion. Most enjoyable is his “magical history tour” in which he personally drives about the entire town, describing the stories behind individual sites and structures. John cheerfully admits he finds his job to be “hugely enjoyable.”
If you consider John Steinle to be quite the character, you would be half right. He’s not only a character, but also a character actor. During the country’s bicentennial celebration in 1976 he became interested in the reenactment of battles fought during the Civil War. Drawing from recorded accounts, the operations are carried out with authenticity to the smallest of details.
John is an enthusiastic participant who loves to trudge about on a recreated theater of war, braving the elements. The “soldiers” exist on a diet of hard tack, often referred to as worm castles, as well as basic salt pork. Tents are considered a luxury and are rarely available, in keeping with the standard of the day. When asked about comfort, he merely sneers and asks, ‘‘What comfort?” Even John’s wife has risen to the occasion and accompanied him on several reenactments and tells him she enjoys the experiences as well.
Although all his warlike weekend wanderings have been a source of enlightenment and excitement, John promises that one reenactment set in a slightly earlier period stands out above all others. In fact, you can count on him to laughingly announce that he actually attended the funeral of George Washington. And, in a manner of speaking, he did.
Playing the roles of mourners, he and his wife participated in the 1999 reproduction of the President’s burial, which realistically took place at Mount Vernon, Washington’s home. Both he and Mary were clad in authentic 1799 costumes, appropriately black for the occasion.
With thousands on hand to watch the festivities, four honor guardsmen carried the 500-pound casket to the burial site and concluded with a 21-gun salute. The realism also featured a fake body that had been placed for viewing on the dining room table in the original home, as was the custom at the time. All participants were to walk by the imposter, exhibiting an adequate level of sorrow while paying their respects. After, the body was delicately placed within the coffin.
This dramatic presentation was a historical event in itself, and John proclaims that the affair was treated with great reverence and respect. He says there was no partying and all involved maintained an appropriately solemn state of attention throughout. Many carried period-authentic swords and other weapons. A number of descendents from the original family attended as well. The event was televised and recorded by CNN. John and his wife were greatly honored, as participation was by invitation only.
Exploration and inquiry are the two most outstanding characteristics that have guided John’s life. When asked why he continues to sleep on the ground, suffer inclement weather without shelter and eat undesirable foods, he just laughs and asks “What better way to enjoy this land of ours?”
He confesses that sometimes he, too, wonders why he maintains such an arduous hobby. But once an exercise is completed, the weekend warrior observes, “A cold beer with my mates makes it all worthwhile.” Besides that, he plainly states that it’s all just “hugely enjoyable.”