Susan Hynes lives in the past. And she loves it there.
As a volunteer for several local organizations, Hynes is gladly filling her retirement years by delving into history and taking on the identity of those who made our world what it is today. She brings the past alive through reenactment and role playing.
If you have attended events at the Blue Earth County Historical Society, Boy in Blue, the Betsy-Tacy Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, History Fest at McGowan’s Farm or various other locations, you’ve probably seen her.
Or, rather, you’ve seen the people she has meticulously researched so she can accurately portray who they were and how they affected life today.
“Susan’s passion and enthusiasm for history is contagious,” said Jessica Potter, executive director of the Blue Earth County Historical Society.
“Over the years, she has created many interactive living history programs experienced by all ages for the Hubbard House, including the annual ‘Medicine Show,’ ‘Gaslight Series’ in the summer and ‘Christmas at the Hubbard House’ in December.”
With Hynes comes a cast of history reenactors who are artfully costumed, scripted and directed by her, helping organizations such as BECHS expand their ranks with volunteers.
Hynes said she has great respect for actors who learn a role and then perform behind the theatrical “fourth wall,” who don’t see the audience because of spotlights on them or darkness around the audience.
For her, however, interaction is the spark. Responding spontaneously to questions or comments is the cue line. And seeing the reactions to her words and actions on their faces is the reward.
Although her dramatic efforts began when she was a child growing up in Winnebago, it was really 20 years ago when she got hooked on her current endeavors, she said. She attended a Victorian Lawn Party at the Hubbard House with her niece, who was 8 at the time. Friends of her niece were in costume.
“And she said, ‘My aunt just loves costumes. She makes all of our Halloween costumes,’” Hynes remembered. One of the organizers responded, “Well, if you like costumes, you should come here and help us and be a guide.”
She said yes and the rest, as they say, is history.
Some of her more authentic costumes are made by her. Others are thrift store purchases that she alters to appear authentic, she said. Because she is close to her audience — and because she is such a stickler for realism — she adjusts what she can and covers with a shawl or wrap what she can’t.
“She is a historian with a spark,” said Arn Kind, who through his Historical Experiences business takes the history of various periods on the road to schools and libraries. They often appear at the same events.
“She makes that history come alive by portraying many of those people, dressed up in full costume or regalia of the period,” he said.
The people he has seen her create through their years of connection range from the Temperance Woman who is fighting the evils of alcohol, to the widowed wife of James Cannon, a veteran of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.
“Susan has portrayed so many important and also not-so-important personages from our past,” he said. “She makes all of these people real with her first-person ‘living history’ interpretations and performances.”
Some of the real people Hynes may be most infamous for are Violet McNeil and the Cherry sisters. The latter comes from a book she happened upon while at the Betsy-Tacy Society. The author/subject was McNeil.
“It was a memoir about her being drawn into the medicine show trade in St. Paul, at the age of 16 in 1904, and it had photos in it,” she said. “And I looked at the photos and I thought, ‘That looks like me at that age.’
“So, I started presenting as her. She revealed the tricks that they used, the medicine show people, so I started doing Violet McNeil and a medicine show (at the Hubbard House).”
That branched off a bit more when she came across the five Cherry sisters from Marion, Iowa, near Cedar Rapids. And it allowed Hynes to create her own “sisters act” with friends, meaning more costumes to sew and scripts to write.
“They were billed as the worst act in vaudeville,” she laughed. “They even performed to sell-out crowds for six weeks in New York City” under that title.
Hynes likes to find levity and humor in her characters to help them come alive. One comment she sometimes gets from people, however, is that they can’t be real. She quickly dispels that impression — while in character, of course.
“The summer of 2022 at the Cox House (in St. Peter), someone complained that this wasn’t real history,” Hynes said. “Well, it was real history, but we elaborate it almost like a historical novel and get some funny gigs.
“Because I think people like to be entertained, and they like to laugh. They like a little scandal if they can find it, and it’s all mixed in there together.”
If Hynes presents things a certain way, Kind said you can be sure it was that way.
“Not only is she an expert in our history, but Susan goes the extra mile and really digs deep into researching what daily life was like during the times that she is portraying. What were the manners and mores of the time?” Kind said. “All of this knowledge comes out in her interpretations of the people she is portraying.”
Now, nearly 10 years after retiring from CenterPoint Energy as a customer service agent — her last day, appropriately, was Halloween — Hynes is having the time of her life. But that has created a challenge of its own.
“My problem now is I want to sometimes be two places at one time. There’s lots and lots of things going on, and I like to go and watch other people, too. Sometimes I’ll just show up in costume,” she said. “It’s just kind of fun to do that.”
Susan Hynes lives in the past. And she loves it there.