Dr. James Sweetland Shares His Story Dr. James Sweetland Shares His Story

Do you ever wonder what happens to faculty after they leave SOIS? Former Professor Jim Sweetland shares his story...


They’re PhDs and high school dropouts. They grew up on the circuit, or just started this year. They are actors and reenactors and horsemen (and women) and falconers, and jewelers and blacksmiths and tailors; or musicians or jugglers or they just push a merry-go-round. They’re clowns and nobles and peasants and cooks. They used to be academics, or corporate types, or lawyers and architects and truck drivers and waiters and nurses and X ray technicians and botanists and almost every job you can name. Some do it for the history, many for the art, a lot for the freedom, some for a hobby, and many just because they like the life. They work one faire a year, or they are on the circuit all year. They live in fancy RVs and converted school buses and tents and the back of their cars, or in their shops or maybe rent motels by the month. They’re the people who work at Renaissance Faires, and the people I work with now.

I started working at the Bristol Renaissance Faire in 1996, pushing a ride and hawking games, while still on the faculty at UWM SOIS, and gradually moved into becoming a vendor. This led to my starting my own bookstore in 2000 (Pigasus Books), and logically (more or less) moved me into taking early retirement to go on the road full time in 2003. Thanks to the wonders of the Web, I have been able to continue teaching collection management online, keeping up on my academic field while also learning more about bookselling.

But, like many rennies, I do other things as well—I’ve narrated bronze casting, managed a jewelry booth, worked in a photography booth, and been part of a team teaching the fine art of 16th close order drill. I’ve also played Cuthbert Burbage, aka the business manager for the Globe Theatre, and “Will Power”, town crier, (sometimes while running the sound board for a stage act). And, I’ve been on setup and teardown crews, maintained games, and done bookkeeping for a large games company. Oh yes, and worked undercover security (in costume, not uniform).

A typical season goes like this: Florida in February and March, Ohio Viking Festival in April and Tennessee faire in May. Then up to Michigan and/or Wisconsin and Minnesota in June, before coming home and working games and rides at Bristol in July and August. Then, back on the road to southern Ohio (near Dayton) for September/October, followed by Alabama, and then Louisiana for the rest of November and much of December. Back home for Christmas and then start over again. Over time, I have been to over 30 faires, from Twig Minnesota to Fort Lauderdale, FL and from Maryland to California.

The entire faire does not travel together, but many rennies will caravan from one faire to the next. So you may see some friends off and on all year, and others only once a year. But, you may be neighbors in the campground, or on the faire site for two months at a time every year. We live in fairly close proximity, and learn fast to get along.

Contrary to TV shows and most journalists, we don’t talk in dialect or wear funny clothes during the week. The performers rehearse, the crafters make stuff, and the other vendors (like me) order stock and keep up on their professions. Yes, there are parties, and lots of potlucks. There are many impromptu music jams (the guy who runs Bump a Monk is a good guitarist, as is the woman who makes wooden mushrooms; the lutenist plays the bass; so does the guy who sells the flaming rocks, while the “Burly Minstrel” is a fan of 1930s musicals and the Gypsy fiddler does steampunk). And, of course, there’s softball and bocce and Tai Chi, and volleyball, and group trips to see the local sites. And, many folks pursue other callings, ranging from copy editing, to teaching online, to teaching the rennie kids (yes, there are families on the circuit), to random laborer and construction work. And then on Friday afternoon, its get ready for the next weekend, and 12-14 hours each day.

It’s fun, but not all fun and games. I’ve been in tornadoes in Texas , Minnesota and Tennessee, a hurricane in Ohio (yes, Ohio), blizzards in North Carolina and Louisiana, not to mention the great Nashville Flood of 2010. I’ve been stuck in mud in South Dakota and Illinois and sand in Florida, and had my camping tent blow down in West Virginia (I live in a trailer now). I’ve dealt with fire ants, mud daubers, mosquitoes, bazillions of spiders and daddy longlegs, not to mention stinkbugs, horseflies, woodchucks, coyotes, field mice and snakes. I’ve endured below freezing temps in Florida and over 100 degrees in Wisconsin. We live and work in the outdoors, where too hot or too cold or too wet or too dry means few customers, and where a perfect day may mean everybody goes to the beach instead.  

But, as a third career, this is working for me. And of course, I can keep up with students and UWM from nearly everywhere. Where else can you feed the elephants and camels, meet the “troll’s” performing rats at breakfast, make up a silly game of Centrifugal Bumblepuppy, trade quips with the dunk tank guy, and watch a full set of chainmail grow from a roll of wire, while in the background two kids are learning stilt dancing from their relatives, and the site manager tells droll tales from his days in the Coast Guard—all in the same day? I wouldn’t change anything (well, more profit would be nice).

PS: Reality check: Most Renaissance Faires are set in England in the reign of the Tudors. Patrons are welcome, and do not need to dress in costume, although many do. Some come for the shopping, or the entertainment (this has been called “modern vaudeville”), or the games and rides (not just for kids), or just to people watch, and a few even to learn something about the history. Currently the best directory of such things can be found by Googling “Directorie +Faire” to get to Mike Bonk’s Directorie. Or, check a current issue of Renaissance Magazine for a briefer list (RenMag’s directory is also free online). The emphasis is from fairly historical to very fantasy oriented—Bristol in Wisconsin is about on the middle of that spectrum, with Maryland and Renaissance Pleasure Faire (Southern California) probably the most historical of the larger faires. But, it is, in general “historically themed entertainment” rather than pure historical reenactment.  

Oh, and yes, some of my online students have come to a local faire to meet the professor.

Hear more stories at the SOIS Student & Alumni Reunion!

Interested in hearing more faculty stories along with where they are now? Then join SOIS for the Annual Student & Alumni Reunion during the Wisconsin Library Association Conference being held in Milwaukee. The Reunion is being held at the Pabst Mansion on November 2, 2011 from 5:30-7:30pm, and a trolley will run nonstop from 5-8pm between the Frontier Center and the Pabst Mansion. Join us for refreshments and meet with former faculty, alumni, and students to network and catch up. Also stop by and visit the past faculty profile gallery. There will be UWM SOIS giveaways, tours of the Pabst Mansion, and the opportunity to make a custom READ poster. All SOIS alumni, students, faculty and guests are invited to attend so visit http://sois.uwm.edu/wla2011rsvp and RSVP by October 19, 2011.


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