#HomeGrownStories – Terry Purke
Ohio native, Terry Purke, has spent more than half of his life involved in sharing local history. He got his start in DC with interpretative living history. Today he is the curator at the Miami Valley Veterans Museum. He is also involved with the Overfield Tavern and performs historical re-enactments. Terry shows visitors around the oldest building in the City of Troy, the Overfield Tavern. During tours of the tavern, he introduces guests to the owner Benjamin Overfield and illustrates what life was like in Miami County during the early 1800s.
How he became interested in historical interpretation and reenactments:
When I was in high school in Dayton, I was very interested in pioneer history. I went to Antioch for a while, but I decided college wasn’t for me so I joined the Army. I married while I was in the Army. We ended up in the Washington D.C. area and that’s where I became involved in interpretive living history. I did French and Indian War interpretation in Maryland and Virginia. I had a lot of opportunities to go to premier historical sites as an interpreter. I went to Colonial Williamsburg many times.
I was fortunate enough to found and run a group at Fort Frederick for several years. It was a stone fort built in 1750 in western Maryland. We were the resident enemy, the French, attacking the fort. I maintained my interest in pioneer history but went off on a tangent when we put together a new group. This group did Scottish Highlander interpretation. We focused on the Jacobite Rebellion of the 1740s. Things had changed so that I had the wherewithal to take thirteen research trips to Scotland. Then I would come back here and perform in living history venues. I’m 82 now and I’ve been doing this since about 1970.
How he became involved with the Overfield Tavern Museum:
I moved back to Ohio to help take care of my parents. I was an only child and my parents had gotten on in years. My dad started showing signs of Alzheimer’s and my mom was taking care of him. My first marriage had crashed by that point. I was running a living history business in the DC area. I back home to take care of them. I figured since I was moving back to Ohio I would go back to what interested me in high school. That was Ohio Valley pioneer life.
When I discovered the Overfield it was nothing like it is now. It was in the hands of a bunch of very nice, well-meaning, elderly ladies. I remember being shown this object by one of the ladies. She didn’t know what it was, but she thought it looked like something a candle merchant would carry candles in. It was actually an original 1830s militia cartridge box that was quite rare. There was also a pair of Plains Indians’ moccasins which were curiously displayed on the wall. Someone had taken a nail and pounded it through the bottom of the moccasins to nail them to the wall.
So you can see, Overfield needed help. That’s when our director Bob Patton got involved. The Hobart family was also very generous in funding projects. Bob is very knowledgeable and was able to restore this place. He has also contributed an awful lot of material and he’s been wonderful to work with. Every time I turn around there’s more stuff – it’s great!
About the Overfield Tavern and its history:
Benjamin Overfield had this building built in 1803 or 1808, we’re not sure. We know that by 1809 he had his tavern license for which he paid the County Court one dollar. The purpose of a tavern in the day was to serve as a lodging place, they also served food. It was a place for the community to gather on important holidays. Back in the day, there were two major holidays and they had nothing to do with religious celebrations. People held religious celebrations at home or at church. The two big holidays were Independence Day and Militia Muster Day. Muster Day was an annual event when able-bodied men age 18 to 45 enrolled in the militia. A minor holiday was a meeting of the court day. Those were the days when people in the community would gather in the county seat. The only place for people to stay was in this tavern.
At the time Overfield built this tavern the whole area all here was a forest. The logs that made this building were harvested right here. First, he built this small building as a home, [today it is the kitchen in the Overfield Museum]. This was pretty typical of the time. You can imagine Mr. Overfield, his wife and their two kids living in this one-room cabin. The kids slept upstairs, there was a long ladder that went up to a loft. It was a tight fit.
In 1994 we had an archaeological dig here. We were lucky to be able to tear up the floor in this room. We found evidence of this hearth, which was very large for this size of a cabin. We could tell that this level was the ground floor in 1808. That was our first clue that this was built by, or at least expanded by Overfield. He turned this space into the kitchen for the tavern. We also discovered the original colors of the door in this building. We went down to the base layer and were able to see the iron oxide red and the Prussian blue. We found items under the floor from the whole period of the occupation of the Overfield building. We found pottery shards, iron pieces, and wood scraps. Right over here is where we found what I’ve dubbed as Mr. Overfield’s get-around-to-it-pile. There were pieces of iron. You could make nails out of the iron. There was also an ax with a chip in it, you could hammer that out and re-flatten it.
In 1825 Benjamin Overfield moved out of this building. He went to another location which burned down. It was on the Square where La Piazza restaurant is today. He moved again to where the Masonic Temple is now. We know that Overfield was a Mason. We know that the building he moved into was the tavern run by the first Masonic Grand Master in Miami County. When Overfield left in 1825 this building became a private dwelling. It remained so all through the 19th century open till 1948.
On school groups visiting the Overfield Tavern and the Miami Valley Veterans Museums:
We work with Doug at the Museum of Troy History for school groups. We split the group between the museum and Overfield. When our group of students comes to Overfield, we split them into an upstairs group and a downstairs group. Then we cycle them through Overfield while he takes his group through the Museum of Troy History. Then we swap groups. That way all the kids get to experience these small buildings.
Sometimes it’s lost on them, but more often than not it isn’t. With historical interpretation, if we approach it the right way they’ll be interested. We mostly have Troy City schools and every now and again we have a homeschool group come through. When schools visit us we have the opportunity to present the history of people who lived it. In school, they focus on the events so it’s a different perspective than they are usually exposed to.
I had a group of students come through the Overfield one time. It was hilarious. There was a student, a young kid, who as I was talking was punching things in his phone. Every once in awhile he’d interject with “That’s not what the Smithsonian says” [laughs]. It cracked me up. I thought it was pretty cool.
A similar thing happened at the Veterans Museum. We had 125 sixth graders cycle through in one day. This young fellow was looking at a World War II Japanese Good Luck flag on the wall and he raised his hand. He said “I have a question. Why do you have that flag hung upside down?” It had Japanese handwriting on it and we didn’t realize we had it upside down. I told him that we’d turn it right-side up and I asked him to translate it. He said he’d help as much as he could and he did. But he couldn’t translate it all. Even though he is Japanese and studied the language and calligraphy. The calligraphy has changed so much because of the computer. The Japanese alphabet has changed to accommodate computers and other new technology. I thought that was very interesting.
On the cultural significance of historical museums:
As historical perception changes, what used to be very important changes with it. I’m the curator of the Miami Valley Veterans Museum. Military history was very important as were the cultural aspects of it. As things changed it became less so. At first, we didn’t have to do a lot of interpretation because everybody had experienced it in some way or another. When there was a draft, all the guys went in. Their sisters knew what they did in the Army or they may have been involved themselves.
What we’re finding now is there is a separation between those who are going through it and their families. What we deal with now at the Veterans Museum is a kind of fracture in the community. It’s, unfortunately, turning into a fear of the veteran community. It’s getting very complicated now. As things change and society has to deal with things differently. Technology changing has also had an impact on how we present history.
His Miami County recommendations for out-of-town visitors:
For folks interested in local history, K’s Hamburger Shop is the place to eat. It was established in 1935 and the last remodel was in the 1950s. If you want a malted milkshake as it was made in the 60s, go to K’s. It is, in its own way, a step back in time.
The new owner is a young fellow, Michael Scheib. I remember him when he was a little. He’d come out to the Johnston Farm with his dad, dressed in Revolutionary War clothes. Now he owns and works in the hamburger shop wearing a paper hat, a bow tie, and sleeve guards. He dresses as a K’s guy would have looked in the 1940s and 50s. It’s as cool as all get out!
We have some great locally based restaurants in the downtown areas of Miami County. There’s a place called MoJo’s Bar & Grill in downtown Troy, it’s very good. There’s an upscale restaurant that recently opened called Smiths’ Boathouse Restaurant. It’s on the Miami River and they’re only open for dinner. You’ll definitely want to check that one out – they’re doing some interesting things there and the menu is very good.
We are entering a phase where there is a lot of interest in locally grown stuff. There’s Fulton Farms, which has been out there since the mid-1900s. There’s a lot of interest in the farmers market. I’m right in the middle of that, my wife owns an herb and spice company, McGuffey Herb & Spice Co. She sells at the Downtown Troy Farmer’s Market.
There’s a small museum at the Hobart School of Welding. That’s an offshoot of the Hobart brothers and the Hobart Cabinet Company. WACO is very interesting. It’s a wonderful example of a company that grew with the aviation industry. Three people started this company building airplanes. In 1927 and 1928 there were roughly 1,000 airplanes built in the US. WACO built about fifty percent of those planes both years. 486 of them in 1927, I forget the exact number for 1928. They built two wing biplanes. It was a WACO that was featured in King Kong zooming around up there. It was a very successful company. They made the combat glider that was used during World War II, but they didn’t survive past World War II. They were very comfortable canvas covered, tubular steel frame wooden supported biplanes. But then the industry changed and the war brought new technology. I was the museum director of WACO for a while. It’s an interesting company and the museum is great.
Follow our storyteller and interviewer, Courtney Denning, at ThisOhioLife.com.