043 - Marketing Little Rhody by Bringing History to Life

How do you market historic people and periods in an engaging and compelling way? Bring them to life! The Marketing Essentials Team jumps in the wayback machine this week with John McNiff, native Rhode Islander and historical reenactor. John has been bringing historical figures to life since 1974 and loves educating the public about people like Roger Williams and William Blackstone. If you love a good story you’ll want to tune in to this episode.

Stuff we mentioned during the podcast:

John McNiff on Facebook

A Lesson in R.I. history: An hour with Roger Williams (Providence Journal)

Students to Retrace Roger Williams’ Footsteps in England (RWU)

Free Men of the Sea (pirate reenactment group)


You can also find us on Apple Podcasts.

Listen on Google Play Music



Justin: Hi and welcome to the Marketing Essentials Podcast. Our unique team helps small businesses grow by providing essential marketing expertise.

Bill: Hello and welcome to the Marketing Essentials Podcast. My name is Bill Parmentier of W. Parmentier Photography.

Justin: I'm Justin of Justin Kerr Design.

Alicia: And I'm Alicia Piazza with Custom Marketing Solutions.

Bill: And together we make up...

Everyone: The Marketing Essentials Team.

Justin: Well today we have an intriguing guest with us on the podcast, John McNiff who is a Providence native, a Rhode Island native. Has been, full disclosure, been my neighbor for 24 years and we wanted to have John on to talk about a unique aspect of marketing, which is storytelling. Storytelling of course has become the hot topic in marketing circles, but John has a really unique sort of take on it is that he actually tells stories as a historical reenactor and as a historian and former archaeologist. So we wanted to have him on the podcast today to talk about some of the interesting aspects of that. John, as I said, is a Rhode Island native. Was born and raised here and he did go away for a while, so he does have a larger view of the world but, as required by Rhode Island law, he came back to Rhode Island as all native Rhode Islanders do. John began his reenactment career in the mid 70s, 1974.

John: 74 yeah.

Justin: And has been doing it ever since and has done specific reenactment as both Roger Williams.

John: Yup.

Justin: And William Blackstone.

John: Yes.

Justin: And John's resume just goes on and on and on and I could use up the whole podcast talking about that. But I think would be more interesting than listening to me,  would be listening to John. So John, why don't you tell us a little bit about how this all came to be. How did you get into the whole reenactment and storytelling and just your love of everything Rhode Island?

John: Oh the reenactment part came about, just the round up, though the ramp up, to the Bicentennial. A lot of the local militia units, the Kentish and groups like that were literally recruiting people from members because they were having more and more demands on their time to go out there and do  things for the Bicentennial. And they actually had a recruitment booth at the old Midland Mall. And I was there with a couple of friends and we went by and said you know I've always wanted to do something like this and I signed up.

And I joined up with the Kentish guard and after about a year with them there was a group within the Kentish guard that wanted to break away and be a little bit more historically accurate for a militia unit from the time. As the Kentish Guard is a wonderful group, but their uniforms were more war of 1812 and we wanted to go to a,  literally recreate a unit from the revolution the second Rhode Island regiment of the Continental line. And I worked with Carl Becker and Roy Anna Jackie and several other people and we started up this unit for the Bicentennial and became a separate unit that was out there and going to encampments, marching in parades and doing all that for the Bicentennial.

And it's stuck with it because it's it's an absolutely fascinating way of learning history yourself. Not just going out there and reading a book about it, but actually going out there and trying some of the things that you read about and finding out that those historians back there that we're writing about it, didn't know what they were doing.

Everyone: (Laughing).

John: Because when you go out there and actually try to do something you find out that it's much more difficult. And also hand-making some of the costumes yourself.

Justin: Mhm.

John: Okay doing the stitching, realizing how much work was involved and that these weren't just something that you could go to Target and buy a pair of pants.

Justin: Right, right.

John: Or a shirt or something like that.

Justin: There is a reason that they had one outfit, it’s because it took so long to source the materials and make the outfit, it's like this is it this is what you have.

John: Exactly.

Bill: I got to imagine it wasn't cheap either.

Justin: Well it depends I guess.

John: I mean making your own things are of course cheaper than actually going out there and buying them. Particularly back then, they didn't have so many. Today you can go onto the web and find reproduction clothing from any time period. Or get in touch with a tailor, that will make something for you. Back then, you had images that were drawn in the field or you had specific portraits to work from and it was much more difficult to get to historically accurate clothing.

Justin: Mhm.

John: So um, we did all these things and I remember sitting in a basement sewing a tent together by hand, which I was looking at this and going “why are we doing this”?

Everyone: (Laughing)

Justin: Because we wanted to be.

Justin & John: Historically accurate.

John: You know it's the big heavy canvas.

Justin: Yup.

John: And it’s literally making the seams and sewing it by hand. It was, it was, but when you do that, you get a different result. You get something that you've put your time and effort into. And then when you talk about these things and see them leaking, it's it becomes really personal. But you also find out other things. There are times, we went on a historic encampment at one point and it was a nice 70 degree day. It was beautiful. So we were dressing relatively light for it.

Justin: Mhm.

John: And the temperature during the day, it plummet.It and I mean absolutely plummeted down to the point where it started snowing.

Alicia: Wow

Justin: Wow.

John: And the wind picked up and the wind was going right through us and you get past that point of actually chattering your teeth, where it just, we actually got into the fire pit with the fire. Okay we're making this great big pot of stew and we finally had the stew finished. We were finished, our clothes were entirely smoked and we went into a tent and we started eating. And we're thinking, we're not going to be able to stay here all night.

Everyone: (Laughing).

John:The tent was waving and about to blow over. It was all of those things that you realize, these are things that people actually would have encountered that freezing, freezing cold. We had a taste of it.

Justin: Mhm.

John: But from that little taste, you can tell other people how cold it can get. What it's like to get cold, but there was another thing on top of that that we found out that for months after it, our clothes smelled like smoke. And every single household would have had a fireplace.

Justin: Mhm.

John: That's how they heated them, okay. And when you start doing more and more research, you realize that people had generally two shirts. You would wear one and you would have one washed and it'd be drying. Okay and then you keep changing the shirts, sort of like we look at undershirts.

Bill: Mhm.

John: The other clothing is made out of wool and that's usually hung up near the fire. Guess what happens? The wool ends up getting smoked. How do you cure ham?

Justin: You smoke it.

John: You smoke it. What does that do?  It kills off the bacteria. So the outer clothing is all smoked. So it, the world did not smell like a locker room, okay. Everybody thinks nobody took baths back then. Everybody washed every day, but you didn't take a bath. And then your clothing is smoked, so it kills a lot of those bacteria. And your shirts have changed every other day or so, so really it becomes much more important when you read accounts of people going on board ships where you don't have a fire all the time.

Bill: Mhm.

John: And they were overpowered even back then by the stench on board ships because things aren't smoked.

Justin: Mhm.

John: Things aren't cleaned the same way.

Justin: Wow.

John: So it's little things like that that you can learn and and also ya.

Justin: So your love for all things Rhode Island.

John: Mhm.

Justin: Came from your experiences in high school?

John: In high school and well, no, that was in college.

Justin: Oh was that?

John: Yeah, that was in college.

Justin: Oh, ok.

John: Yeah, in college and then after that stayed with the group for a while for quite a while and you know different things happened. Get different jobs, move around different places. I went to grad school and became an archeologist and doing research into the areas that we're working, you have to do background research for each one of the projects that you're doing. And a great person to study for that in Rhode Island is Roger Williams. During the contact period, he was one of the more prolific writers about the Native Americans that were living around here. And so you learn, okay what we've got this place here where there's their shells, there's this, there's that, there's European items mixed in. What am I looking at? And you start to read what the Europeans were saying about how the people lived and everything else. You realize this place that I'm at right now, is a place where they had clambakes generation after generation after generation.

Justin: Mhm.

John: And it becomes like a layer cake they dispose all the shells in one pop, one spot, okay. And you've got this layer cake of generation after generation.

Bill: Wow.

John: After generation having clambakes. Big celebrations, in the same spot. And then the top say foot or so there's a European artifacts mix in with it. Broken plates, broke a broken piece of glass or something like that. And you realize, that half a mile away, is where Roger Williams had his trading post with the Native Americans. You realize this is stuff that is connected to real people, doing real things. This is really neat stuff.

Bill: That’s pretty cool.

Justin: No, it's definitely it's fascinating. So. as you continue to reenact, tell me little bit how you got into portraying both Roger Williams and William Blackstone?

John: Well you start out with the reenacting in the field being just nameless soldier number one, nameless soldier number two or whatever. And you go on and as, as you become more and more familiar with a historic record, you there's there's voices that want to be heard from the past. And I was very reluctant for a long time to do Roger Williams because he's such a complex character, but there's very little known about William Blackstone, okay. We know about dates, we know about where he lived, we know about a few things about him. But the character is left to a few comments here and there by other people about him. We don't have any of his writings we don't have any of his books, those were all burned up at beginning of King Philip's War.

Justin: Okay.

John: So what you've got is a person that is an ordained minister of the Church of England, that left England to come over to the colonies, to bring the Church of England to those radicals that came over here named to the pilgrims, okay. But that expedition fell apart, but he stayed. And then he moved up to what's now Boston. And when John Winthrop and those people came across in 1630, they basically forced him out of Boston because he would not renounce the Church of England. They were fleeing the Church of England, they didn't won't have anything to do with that. But because he would not give up his vows to the church, they basically forced him out.

Bill: Wow.

John: And he came down to what's now Cumberland Rhode Island.

Bill: Hey, my hometown.

Justin: Yeah, he probably roamed, well you know, your neighborhood.

Bill: Actually they have a little square right in Cumberland is is dedicated.

John: Yeah right with the old Dan and Hope Mill.

Bill: Yes, yup.

John: That's where on the front of his house.

Bill:  Mhm.

John: Right alongside the with what is now the Blackstone River.

Bill: Mhm.

John: Okay or Mr. Blackstone’s River, as Roger Williams called it okay and there's major roads that intersect there because there are fords across the river.This guy was not, as he was so so long put, as this as this hermit in the wilderness. He put himself at crossroads where people have bound to come and he grew apples and he grew roses. He was the country gentleman, not a hermit. He had a library of about a hundred and eighty books.

Justin: That’s enormous for that time.

John: For that we now, consider the expenses.

Bill: Books were not cheap back then.

John: Yeah so this is, this is a character that I could get my hands on. And one reference that I do have about him was that a guy tried to build a fence across his land. And Blackstone got mad. And he went out there and he ripped the fence posts out of the ground with his bare hands and chased the guy off his land with an axe okay, now.

Justin: Sounds like a typical Rhode Islander.

John: Well.

Bill: Yeah.

John: It got to me, it got to me saying that here's a guy that one of the reasons he probably left Boston, one of the reasons he probably left England, was he's a he's a good-hearted man but, he has a temper.

Justin & Bill: Mhm.

John: And that's the way I portray him when I do the reenactment.

Alicia: Wait he left Boston cuz he had a temper?

John: He left Boston because he doesn't, he, the kind of person that I'm talking about does not want to have the confrontation.

Alicia: Oh.

John: Does not want to lose his temper. So all of these people are poking at him, poking at him, poking at him. And he could either stay and have a confrontation.

Bill: Oh boy.

John: Or just say I can feel it I didn't and have to leave now.

Alicia: I just think of the typical Boston person today and, ahh, they don't hold back.

John: No they don’t.

Alicia: There not like Southerners who are all quaint.

John: No but I mean, this is a guy that is a minister of the Church of England, okay He sees himself as a man of God and he, but he's, he human.

Bill: Sure.

John: And that's the one thing that I want people to understand, whenever I'm doing a reenactment, whenever I'm doing an impression of one of these people, that these are human beings.

Justin: Mhm.

John: And then woke up in the morning didn't know that what the end of the day was going to be. We look at historical figures somehow as, sort of like, some sort of icon that knew that their future was destined to be out there. These were human beings.

Justin: Right.

John: And how many of them went out there and it's did some things like this and failed.

Bill: Mhm.

John: Okay.

Justin: People you're never gonna hear,

John & Bill: Yeah.

John: And they woke up in the morning, these are English people that if it gets to be thirty degrees outside, they're freezing. If it gets to be 75, they're dying from the heat. And they're coming over here to New England where.

Bill: Yeah we get all over the place.

John: I mean hip-deep snow was not unknown.

Justin: Right.

Alicia: Mhm.

John: Okay, we're a 100 degree day is not unknown.

Bill: Sure.

John: I mean these extremes. When they talk about a new world that was literally like going to a new planet.

Justin: Mhm.

John: They came here, they ran into people that were bigger than them. The Native Americans around here six foot one, six foot two, six foot three. The average Englishman is five eight, five nine, okay. So I mean all of a sudden this encounter in between peoples now, is something that's understandably suspicious on the English part that they're scared.

Bill & Justin: Sure.

John: They're they're a world away from home.

Bill: Mhm.

John: They're scared. There's no resources for them to go fall back on, that they know about, in their mindset, okay. And then there's these people that are so much bigger than them. The animals here, you know in England, you have a nice little red deer it's about the size of a good-sized Great Dane.

Justin: Mhm.

John: Okay, over here you have moose.

Bill: Yeah.

John: Okay, the things are off the charts. The animals in the woods around here will kill you.

Everyone: (Laughing).

John: Okay, today we have deer. But they had bear, they had wolves, they had rattlesnakes. they had bobcats, they had cougars, all right here in Rhode Island. And you go for a walk in England most you have to fear is another person.

Bill: Mhm.

John: You go for a walk over here, the animals will kill you.

Bill: Yeah.

Alicia: Mhm.

Justin: Yeah.

John: So, I mean that is the kinds of relations that I want people to understand about these historical figures. That they were coming to a new place, a lot of the times they were scared, the tremendous amount of courage to leave that world behind to come across that ocean.

Justin: Right.

John: Okay, those are the kinds of things that I want people to understand.

Justin: So you've had the opportunity to speak to all kinds of groups.

John: Yes.

Justin: School groups, you've spoken to adults. What are some of the unique opportunities that you've been afforded  as a result of doing these reenactments? That go beyond, say, the typical? Like let me go speak to a group of grade school students.

John: Right. Well one of the things that that has happened is I built up a relationship with Roger Williams University, okay. And we, and in the last few years, we've actually, part of their American Studies Program and part of the the initiative in the college, is to have, to understand who Roger Williams was,is that they study at least one course about these people and this time period.

Justin: Mhm.

John:  And working with Dr. Charlotte Carrington Farmer, was a good friend of mine. We have taken back, two years ago we took a group of 15 students, first-year students at the University took them to England, to literally walk in Roger Williams footsteps. We went to London. We went to the places we knew he was, he had been, because he wrote letters from London at different places. Charing Cross, at Whitehall, all these other places where he grew up. The Inns of Court where the lawyers were and got them to experience at least a little bit of that world. Then we went up to Essex to the church where Roger Williams was married. And if you stand in the doorway of that church and look out over the landscape, it hasn't changed in 400 years. You don't see a modern town around it. As a matter of fact today it's a crossroad. It's just a crossroad.

Justin: Oh really, wow.

John: But the church is there and it's a beautiful Puritan church on the inside because it's all whitewashed.

Justin: (laughing).

John: Okay, there's no icons, there's no...

Justin: Right.

John: ...murals, there's no paintings, there's no statues. It's a whitewashed Church with a simple cross at one end, probably very similar to what Roger Williams would have seen. And then we went up to Cambridge, to Pembroke College at Cambridge University, to where Roger studied. And to actually be in all those places, these kids got a tremendous experience. And at the time, when we're standing there, I got to tell little stories. Like outside the banqueting house in Whitehall, where Charles the first was executed, okay. We have them standing where the crowd would have been standing.

Justin: Mhm.

John: And talk about that window, right there, there was a platform built outside of it and as he stepped through, the crowd gasped. This is the King. And this is a time when the King is God's representative on earth. And he walked out there and he took off the cloak and it was wearing, because it was a cold January day, he wore two shirts because he didn't want to be seen to shiver.

Justin: Mhm.

John: And then he took off the jewelry and passed it on to certain people and talked to the executioner. And he said he's going from one corrupt world, to an incorruptible one. One of the last things he said, as he put his head down on the block is “remember: And he put his hands out and the ax fell. And this is a crowd of people that had been fighting a civil war for years before this, against the King’s forces and they were all gathered there. But to them still, the execution of the King was something incredible. And instead of a cheer going up from the crowd, there was just this audible gasp.

Justin: You rock their world, I mean.

John: Yeah, yeah.

Justin: Completely.

John: Yeah. And the thing to remember about any of these story tellings is, whether it's a historical figure or someone today, they're just like us. They woke up in the morning, they went to the bathroom, okay. They were either cold or they were hot, where they felt comfortable. They fell in love, they were heartbroken, they went through all the same things that we did.

Justin: Mhm.

John:And to get that across to people, that these people are just living in a different time than we are, but they're humans just like us. All of a sudden history becomes accessible to them.

Justin: Right, and as a modern person it gives you a sense of position in the timeline.

John: Exactly.

Justin: And a sense of perspective.

John: Yeah.

Justin: And like you said, when you were sitting, you know sewing, hand sewing the tent going “oh my gosh this is a lot of work”.

John: Yes.

Justin: You know and I better do this right, or it's gonna leak on my head.

John: Exactly.

Justin: You know it just gives you a unique perspective and it puts you in the shoes of a person from that time.

John: Now when you tell these kinds of stories to someone that's not from Rhode Island okay, all of a sudden they realize their stories are really wonderful, but you've got to grab on to something about these stories that's easily identifiable and relatable to to people today.

Justin: Yes, something beyond names and dates.

John: Exactly.

Justin: Names and dates are nothing.

John: Most history classes are names, dates, wars, generals, kings, whatever.

Justin: Yeah.

John: But when you talk about things like coming to a new world, okay. Like how many people here would go to Mars? Raise your hand.

Justin: Oh, I’d go.

Bill: I’d give it a shot. Alicia’s like no.

Alicia: No Amazon Prime there.

Everyone: (Laughing).

John: Overnight is right off the charts.

Everyone: (Laughing).

Bill: That’s a little tough.

John: But that's the kind of change that people would have experienced. But now imagine that there's a 20% failure rate of every rocket that takes off the pad to go to Mars.

Justin: Would you still go?

John: Would you still go?

Justin: Yeah.

John: Because there was 20% failure rate of the ships that left England to come over here. 20% of them just disappeared. Whether it was pirates, whether it was storms, whether there's mechanical failure on the boat itself. 20% of them just disappeared. These people still came.

Bill: Can I change my vote on the Mars thing?

Everyone: (Laughing).

Justin: I’d still go.

John: But I mean, that's, you've got to make it relatable to people, okay. That these were human beings, okay. And take something that human beings experience now.

Justin: Okay.

John: Like a movie trailer.

Bill: Leave em wanting more.

John: Exactly, exactly. You tell parts of the story that people can identify with. You get them into the story arc so they can identify. The worst movie trailers are the ones that show all the secret endings of the twists.

Justin: Yeah.

Alicia: Yeah.

John: Okay, because you go there and like, oh okay. What you want to do is leave them a little bit more hungry to know more about the story. To let them want to find out more, okay. And while you could talk to, I mean the worst lecture is the one that's just a total info dump, okay. Identify with a couple of aspects that the people can relate to; marriage, falling in love, cold, hot, animals, okay. Something that they have some sort of relationship with. So each one of these talks can be designed specifically for a specific group you talk into Audubon Society, you talk about the outdoors.

Justin: Mhm.

John: Okay.

Justin: You talk to a group of students, you could talk about what education was like at that time.

John: Exactly.

Justin: How did you learn? You know. At what point did your schooling stop?

John: Yes, being apprenticed when you were seven, to go live the next 14 years with another family, so that you would learn a skill.

Justin: Right.

John: Okay and never see you, hardly ever see your folks, because you're not part of that family anymore.

Justin: (Laughing).

John: All those different things, I mean.

Justin: Course there’s a lot of parents that are going “hmmmm”.

Bill: Hmm, ya that's not a bad idea.

John: It worked out really well. I mean creates bonds in between families.

Justin: Yeah.

Bill: Sure.

John: Kids would go live with another, say you raise cows and the other people down the street are leather workers, okay. You send a kid down there and he gets to learn how to work the leather skins and creates a bond with that family.

Justin: So what would you, kind of bring this back around and where we started in regards to marketing. What would you say are, you know the biggest assets to doing what you do in terms to an organization that may want to market themselves?  Whether it's a university or a historical organization, what would you say to them?

John: Well I think, for example Roger Williams University is extremely big on experiential learning go out there and experience something. And having a, talking about a historical reenactor coming there wearing the clothing, having the tools. There's an experience there, that you don't get by reading it in a book. You can feel how heavy something is. But the big thing for most is to, I mean a lot of people are stuck in an age where if you show it to  them and have enough words up there people will take that information in. They will sit and spend the time and read. But people aren't learning that way anymore.

Justin: Hmm, right.

John: Okay, there's got to be a way to get the information to someone that makes it come alive for them, okay. It's not for you, it's for them. You've got to get the audience involved in the talk somehow.

Bill: We heard that before.

Justin: We were just talking about that in regards to marketing is, your customers the hero of the story.

John: Yeah and when it comes to history, okay, there's something in the past that they can identify too.

Bill: Sure.

John: Okay, you go into most historic sites and you've got to try and make that leap into the past because they've got an old painting or an old piece of furniture or the building is exactly as it was in 1785. And you've got to try and put yourself in that position. There's got to be a way for the people that are working at Historic Site or that people have been trying to market different aspects of anything, to get the people when they come into the door, to feel like this is a house that people lived in.

Justin: Mhm

John: And to identify with the everyday of what's going on around them. And if you can bring them into that, then you can give them some of the information later. But you've got to get the people involved in, in these variances.

Justin: Bring them into your world.

John: Exactly.

Justin: Yeah.

John:  Exactly right.

Justin: Well I really appreciate you sitting with us today. This is, I could go on and on and make this is a three hour podcast, but, I really appreciate coming in and just talking just a little bit about the whole aspect of marketing through historical reenactment. And all the things that you've done and now I want to give you an opportunity if somebody wants to get ahold of you, say,  “hey I would really like to take advantage of this kind of marketing”, how do they do that?

John: Well the easiest way would be I have a Facebook page John McNiff. Umm, look for a guy that's, I forget which ones which profile pictures, but just take a look through the pictures everything is public on my Facebook page.

Justin: Okay.

John: Look for the guy that's a pirate a lot because that's something that I do quite often with a group called “Free Men of the Sea”. And we're a group of pirate reenactors, okay. And we go around, we have encampments. we do parades and everything else like that. So it's it's a lot of fun. I got into that in a very bizarre way, but that's that's another story.

Justin: That’s another podcast.

John:  It's another story altogether, but it was involved in working on a short movie here in Rhode Island, on the old sloop Providence.

Bill: Now through your Facebook page, are they able to talk to you about coming and visiting if they're a group or something?

John: Sure send me  a message. Yeah.

Justin: Okay, we'll make sure to put the link to your Facebook page.

John: Sure.

Justin: And a link to the “Free Men of the Sea” in our show notes.

John: Absolutely.

Justin: So people can click right there.

John: Yeah excellent.

Justin: Ah excellent. Well, thank you so much for coming.

Bill: Yes, absolutely.

John: It was my pleasure.

Bill:  We've had fun.

Alicia: Yeah.

Justin: And I guess that'll take care of it for today.

Bill: It will. So until next time, see you guys soon.

Justin: Bye, bye.

Bill:  Thank you for joining us today. And as always you can find the back episodes of our podcast on Apple podcasts and you can also find us on our YouTube channel, both of them are “The Marketing Essentials Team”.

Justin: You can find us on the web at marketing essentials team dot com and if you subscribe through our website, you'll receive a weekly email, letting you know when each episode has been published. Also. you will receive a link to subscriber only content.

Alicia: You can also find us on Facebook and our private Facebook group just search a “Lil’ Rhody Marketing Support Group”. It's a great place for other marketing professionals and business owners, where we can share marketing advice, challenges and general trends. Hope to see you there.