Why does it seem that history appeals mainly to older folks?
I’d argue that students would have been more excited to learn history if they were drawn in with scintillating stories, rather than forced to memorize dates. I’d also state that, if teachers were as enthusiastic as Courtney Cauthon, otherwise known as “The Barefoot Historian,” students might be even more eager to learn.
Cauthon’s tours are becoming more and more popular as word spreads about her ability to bring history alive with her tales of a bygone era. And it’s not just the older folks who attend her walks. Both young and old recently gathered at the Carlisle Cemetery for her “Homicidal History” tour.
And if you are wondering why Cauthon is shoeless, she’ll tell you that a guest on one of her tours informed her that her shoes could be more historically accurate.
“That sent me into a bit of a tailspin,” she said. “I decided to forego shoes for a time and people noticed and loved it.”
They started calling her the “Barefoot Historian,” and it stuck.
When it comes to sharing history, Cauthon certainly has the bona fides.
“It’s where my passion lies,” she said.
She explained that her dad was a professor of political science and her grandmother spent a lot of time recounting tales about WWII in southern California.
“I would ask her to tell me stories, which were vivid, wonderful and personal,” she said of time spent with her grandma. “It wasn’t just about dates. It was about Japanese submarines off the coast of California during Pearl Harbor and shutting the lights out at night to be less of a target and about females drawing lines on the back of their calves for stockings that they couldn’t get—things that my grandmother experienced firsthand.”
The stories inspired Cauthon to pursue a bachelor’s degree history, a master’s degree in international relations and an MBA. For a time, she worked as an accountant.
“That was just painful,” she said.
She decided to pivot and create TimeWalker Tours, which, unfortunately, became a casualty of COVID. Undaunted, she returned to the drawing board and is now hitting her stride as founder of the Barefoot Historian, while also working as an historical costumer. Cauthon’s storefront can be found adjacent to the Carlisle Theatre, where she also conducts ghost tours.
Elva Matos brought her family to the “Homicidal History” tour, and they loved it so much that they returned the next night for a tour at the theater.
“We were amazed that almost everyone had an experience with a ghost or spirit in the theater,” said the Carlisle resident.
Visitors who duck inside her shop to book a tour or schedule a field trip for students may see her hard at work creating outfits for re-enactors.
“I study the textiles, patterning and construction,” Cauthon said. “For re-enactors, it can’t just look right. It has to be the right material.”
Joining Cauthon at her brick-and-mortar is another history buff. Chris Jones does wet plate photography, or tintype, with a camera dating back to the 1880s and narrates tours with Cauthon.
“We mix all of our own chemicals as per an 1864 recipe, which is how Matthew Brady took some of the most iconic images of the Civil War and people like Abe Lincoln,” Jones said.
So Much History
“Homicidal History in Carlisle” (subtitle: “A grizzly evening walk through Carlisle’s gruesome past”) is held year-round.
During the walk, guests will learn about the “Babes in the Woods” and why 5,000 people lined up at Ewing’s Funeral Home in Carlisle, or why a cursory look at the wall constructed around the Carlisle cemetery reveals faces in the stone.
Another walking tour offered by Cauthon is “Haunted History in Carlisle,” as well as a candlelight ghost tour of the Carlisle Theatre, which is said to be haunted.
“We turn down all the houselights and everyone is given an LED candle backstage, and we go behind the scenes in all the creepy recesses that exist in the theater,” she said. “It’s a very active space.”
Cauthon, who is also the president of Historic Carlisle, Inc., is pleased that her tours are becoming more popular over time.
“It’s nice to collaborate with the Downtown Carlisle Association and Historic Carlisle to get people out into the community and interested in history,” she said. “That’s the best part of it for me—getting people to slow down and look around because there’s so much history that people miss just driving through.”
The Barefoot Historian & Co. is located at 42 W. High St., Carlisle. For more information, visit www.thebarefoothistorian.com.
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