Bringing History to Life at Colonial Williamsburg

Behind the scenes with Elaine Shirley at America’s living “livestock museum.”

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

Elaine Shirley is no stranger to milking breeds. Her background at a family dairy made her uniquely qualified for her job at CW.

Elaine Shirley is no stranger to milking breeds. Her background at a family dairy made her uniquely qualified for her job at CW.

Elaine Shirley grew up on a dairy farm, so it’s no surprise that she made a career of raising livestock. She just didn’t think she’d be doing it in front of thousands of tourists.

Her job at Colonial Williamsburg—one of America’s top vacation destinations and a sort of mecca for history buffs—is a sometimes strange, always fascinating amalgam of actor, curator and tour guide. Then there’s the farm work—the real-life animal husbandry required as a caretaker of CW’s Rare Breeds program.

For visitors to CW, the Rare Breeds program is a living, breathing link to an agrarian past that has virtually disappeared. For Shirley and her co-workers in the Coach and Livestock Department, it’s all the work of a vital livestock operation that also happens to include Colonial-era character and costume.

It’s all in service of making Colonial Williamsburg as much like the 18th century as practically possible. But that only goes so far.

“It can’t be just the same, even for the livestock,” says Shirley, who—on the bright, warm July morning of our visit—is driving a golf cart loaded with feed to pasture and paddock across the museum-slash-city; now and again she visits the animals with modern veterinary medicines on her cart, too. “We have to get done with this thing by 9 o’clock,” she says, patting the seat of the cart. “After that, nothing on the streets but the horses.”

Fifteen or so cattle, some 40 sheep and dozens of birds—chickens, certainly, but pigeons as well—get care from Shirley. Back at the stables, she shares a small office—next to a dozen or so horse stalls and the tack room—with her co-workers. Among them is her boss, Richard Nicoll, who had the vision for the Rare Breeds program in the first place and began collecting “exhibits” in 1986.

Elaine and CW collect animals, including heirloom breeds of chickens, from farmers all over the country.

Elaine and CW collect animals, including heirloom breeds of chickens, from farmers all over the country.

While the horses are very visible around the historic town and the pigeons are often conversation pieces—the birds are used in cooking demonstrations that are authentic and appropriately graphic—the Rare Breeds program today focuses mainly on cattle, sheep and poultry. Many of the animals at CW today are descendants of the animals Nicoll found more than 20 years ago.

The search began with research of writings and paintings to find what animals might have been around town in the 1700s. At one time, if CW wanted a cow or a sheep, they’d just go find one, without regard for whether it fit in historically. That changed with the Rare Breeds program. And while the idea behind the program was authenticity, there is a desirable by-product: preserving genetic material that was becoming scarce and even extinct.

The American Milking Red Devons are a sound example. Fewer than 100 existed in the 1970s. Nicoll found a family in New England still raising Devons and brought the breed to CW, where their ancestors likely roamed pastures in the 18th century.

While the contemporary American herd is now made up primarily of two breeds—Jersey and the ubiquiitous Holstein—that wasn’t the case in Colonial times. The Devons were products of their age—adaptable and multi-purpose. They’re good workers, decent milk producers and good eating. Even today, there’s a small slaughter market for CW’s grass-fed Devons. If they don’t die of old age, says Shirley, they might even end up in one of the town’s kitchens.

Elaine Shirley shears Leicester Longwools in demonstrations for the public.

Elaine Shirley shears Leicester Longwools in demonstrations for the public.

Shirley admits the Devons don’t produce like modern breeds. “Specialization in agriculture has led to the loss of some of these breeds, but it has also allowed a smaller number of people to produce a larger amount of food.” Still, she says preservation is essential. As Niccol says, “Who knows when we’ll need that genetic material years down the road?”

One of the real success stories of the program’s preservation effort is the Leicester Longwool. The sheep breed roaming the pastures here has been valued for its genetic traits for centuries, and were championed by English livestock breeding pioneer Robert Bakewell.

The sheep also stand as an unfortunate example of the culture clash many visitors experience between urban and agrarian society. Shirley tells the story of finding a group of Longwools munching on a pile of leaves, likely thrown behind their fence by a visitor. “The leaves were toxic,” says Shirley. “I lost 7 or 8 sheep.”

If it sounds like she takes it personally, she does. Even today she’s known to take a sick lamb home with her, tending it back to health.

That might be tougher since she lives in town now, but taking work home is nothing new for a farm girl. Especially when that work is historically significant.