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Bringing history to life
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Many women enjoy shopping for purses, shoes and jewelry but Pat Visser would rather find a bargain on spittoons, old photographs and chamber pots.

Visser works full time as a history entertainer - bringing presentations rich with artifacts, music and costumes to area schools.

Working as a substitute teacher in Gwinnett County for 13 years, Visser gave the presentations for free and learned how to captivate an audience of young teenagers.

About two years ago, she decided to make the history presentations a business.

"But, the money I make, I turn around and put it back into the presentation by buying better antiques and things," Visser said.

Visser uses oodles of authentic antiques, period replicas and even family heirlooms to illustrate the stories she tells.

"I just love to bring history alive and for them to really be able to see it," Visser said.

She researches the material she presents in her four presentations - Early American Life, the Underground Railroad and the Civil War, the Holocaust and 20th Century Timeline - by reading extensively.

"I am constantly reading," Visser said, "and I always say if I ever got robbed, all the robber would get would be books."

Visser said she tries not to perpetuate the inaccurate historical lessons children sometimes learn in school, such as that George Washington wore wooden teeth. She said Washington did have mouth pain, but wore teeth made from lead or hippopotamus ivory.

"I really love the unusual stories," Visser said. "I'll read a book and maybe use only one little fact from the whole book."

Thursday and Friday she had several rarely heard stories to tell the eighth grade students at Indian Creek Middle School from the time of the Underground Railroad and the American Civil War.

She started the presentation by talking about king cotton and how when more cotton could be produced with the invention of the cotton gin, more slaves were needed in the fields.

Visser told the students her ancestors were abolitionists because they were Seventh Day Baptists, which frowned on slavery as the Quakers did.

Her family owned the Milton House, an inn, in Wisconsin that is now a national historic landmark for being a stop on the Underground Railroad.

A great-great-great uncle of Visser's was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Louisiana for feeding and clothing slaves. Eventually the sentence was overturned after countless letters were written to two Louisiana governors.

Visser dressed in the typical garb of a lady in mourning during the 1860s. She told the students that some writers have documented riding into towns during the time which smelled entirely of dye from the many widows coloring their clothing black.

Mary Lincoln Todd, the first lady, lost two of her brothers in Civil War battles.

She told the students that war was not glorious, but rather brutal and horrifying.

At the battle of Gettysburg, thousands of guns were found with up to 10 rounds stuffed into the barrels without being shot. One gun had 23 rounds, packed in by a soldier scared to death of what he was witnessing.

"War is so terrifying that you forget to shoot your gun," Visser said.

She also told the students about the many men who lost limbs in the Civil War - by the end of the war a third of the men in Mississippi had lost an arm or a leg, or both, she said.

Even the famous Stonewall Jackson lost an arm, which is buried in a marked grave separate from where the rest of his body was eventually laid.

Visser said her favorite stories from the Civil War were those of spies such as that of Mary Bowser, a slave who served tea in the Confederate White House and then provided information to Union officials.

"How many times do you go to a restaurant and just ignore the person serving you," Visser asked the students.

She also showed the students what a meal at Andersonville prison would have been - a scant ration of corn meal and pieces of corn cob.

"The only thing missing from the meal are the worms that would have been in it," Visser said.

Visser said she wished she had two hours to do the presentations, but students would become restless and teachers need the instructional time.

She said she enjoys showing and discussing with the students normal things such as what a toothbrush looked like, how often people bathed and how small houses of the average family were.

"They get more of an appreciation for history when they realize what their day-to-day life would have been like," Visser said.

She said working with students is fun too and that they are very respectful of her props and occasionally write her letters or bring in items of their own to show her how they were enlightened or how they personally connected with her lesson.

"I just want the kids to love history as much as I do," Visser said.