Sunday, May 24, 2009

Having the life of her time: Woman shares history through her ancestors' eyes

Telegram Staff Writer

She goes by several names, but her face is familiar throughout town.
'I'm the log cabin lady at the Bell County Museum,' said Welba Dorsey of Belton. 'I'm part of the exhibit. I dress up as one of my early Texas relatives and talk about what it was like to be a Texas pioneer.'
But the Texas pioneer is not the only ancestor she impersonates. In programs for schoolchildren and civic groups, she also portrays relatives who lived in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and early colonial America.
'It's thanks to research that I'm able to do all this,' Mrs. Dorsey said. Old letters and diaries stashed away in family closets gave her the names and dates she needed to start her research.
'I've been interested in history all my life,' Mrs. Dorsey said. 'And once I decided I wanted to be a part of the Daughters of the American Revolution (about 15 years ago), I took an interest in genealogy.'
The first thing she learned about her forefathers was that they were literate.
'I come from a long line of educators and historians,' Mrs. Dorsey said. 'If they hadn't been so meticulous about record-keeping, my job in researching would have been a lot more difficult.'
She started impersonating her ancestors about a decade ago at the request of her daughter - who, not so coincidentally, is a teacher.
'She called me wanting some help to make her history class more interesting,' Mrs. Dorsey said. 'I'm a retired teacher, and I think that the best way for children to learn is through hands-on exercises.'
So she put her thinking cap on and had the idea to dress up like one of the people she had researched.
The Texas pioneer was her first performance. She handmade the costume with the clothing in a style that matched the period wear of early Texas.
'I also brought a lot of props,' Mrs. Dorsey said. 'My family saved a lot of antiques, so I had old dolls and toys to bring, a quill-and-ink set, old nails, some musket balls and a piece of slate and chalk, the kind an early teacher would use.'
People who have seen Mrs. Dorsey's performances say they are enjoyable and historically accurate.
'She's unbelievable,' said Marjorie Croninger, regent for the Betty Martin Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Temple. 'You can tell she put in a lot of work on it.'
Stephanie Turnham, executive director of the Bell County Museum, agrees.
'Welba does a really good job,' Mrs. Turnham said. 'Her skits are fascinating and informative. The children who come to the log cabin exhibit are absolutely captivated whenever she takes the stage.'
Mrs. Dorsey's research work and interest in history inspired her to join several history organizations. She's the advisor of Temple's DAR Betty Martin chapter, the vice president of the Bell County Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and a member Sam Houston Chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in Belton.
Her affiliation with those groups inspired her to become a corresponding docent for the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington D.C.
'So every July I'm in Washington,' Mrs. Dorsey said. 'As a docent, I do programs on things like the myths of history and the history of clock-making.'
And this Christmas, Mrs. Dorsey plans to give a program on the 'Traditions of Christmas' as seen through the various periods of history.
'I love being a docent for the museum,' Mrs. Dorsey said. 'You get to do so much, and I always learn something new.'

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