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Re-Enactor of the Month

By Jim Cummings

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Jim Cummings

Colleen Gilbert
Hester Purefinder


Photos and Story
By Jim Cummings

One of my greatest pleasures since we started the Pioneer Times Web News Service in the Spring of 03 has been meeting all of the wonderful people in re-enacting. And one of the bigger than life characters is a fun loving, charming beauty from Poland, Indiana who goes by the name of Hester Purefinder.

Hester is unique and has a powerful presence and persona. Once you have met her personally - you will never forget her. And that is why Colleen Gilbert aka Hester Purefinder is our Re-Enactor of the month for September 2007. It has been a real pleasure to meet and get to know such a diversified and caring person as Colleen.

Sometimes I have to struggle to distinguish the real Colleen from the persona of Hester the character she has chosen to portray. I think there is a lot of one in the other and vice versa. However she does it, she has mastered Hester as a work of art. And yes, I did say a work of art. Every artist has their own canvas, their own stage. And if you take in all of the little nuances Colleen has added to her portrayal you will indeed see that it is art.


Colleen has been in re-enacting for 12 years and has been performing Hester the 18th century down and out settler, vagrant, beggar for 7 of those years. So I asked Colleen where did Hester come from?

Colleen: I used to do native and I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. I used to drive a long way to work - and my mind would waunder. So the name Hester came first. And then she just evolved. I’m a fun loving person. I love life and want to live it my way. And with Hester I can have it that way.

Jim: How much research did you do with Hester?

Colleen: I did quite a bit. If I was going to do this - I wanted it to be

both believable and correct for the period of 1760 to the early 1800’s. Unfortunately there was not a lot of research on beggars. So I looked at camp followers and took it down a peg from there.Camp followers wore their clothes until basically until they fell off. About the best way to distress clothes is to use them. Wear them and wear them. I’ve been lucky. When other re-enactors are ready to get rid of clothes - they give them to me. But I have never washed Hester’s clothes. Come winter I will hang them outside in the really cold to “air them out.” I’m afraid to wash them - they would probably fall apart. 

Jim: Have you succeeded in what you set out to do and are you having fun?

Colleen: A big yes to both those questions!

Jim: What do people do when they first meet you - this dirty, grungy, tattered clothed woman, shouting and speaking with a broque, being generally a hot tempered and crotchedy woman.

Colleen: Most people do not know what to expect. If they are re-enactors - they will watch me for a while - to see what I’m doing and how pople react to me. Other people either turn and walk the other way, with their children in tow, or cross the street - generally there is always an air of disbelief but it is usually followed by laughter.

Jim: What about Colleen?

Colleen: Well I’m a displaced worker who has gone back to school full time at Ivy Tech. I should finish next fall with a degree in Medical Office Administration.

Jim: And what about Hester?

Colleen: We’ll I’ll continue with Hester as long as I am having a good time. And right now this is way too much fun. I really never know what I’m going


Hester can often be seen at re-enactments with her friend Dicey Riley. In real life Dicey is Cindy Harrell an over the road truck driver.

to do. If I see somebody acting really standoffish - and being a snob that is the person I will approach and try to really get them going.


One of the first photos I had taken of Hester with Jack Luttrell at the Fair at New Boston in 2003.

Jim: About how many people that came through the Cumberland Gap - do you think would look like Hester.

Colleen: I think about 65% of them were from the lower clasees. As re-enactors today we are too pristine. We all want to do the 18th century but we have a 21st century mindset. I chose this because no one was doing it. The great percentage of settlers coming west were the working class people and then even a lower class. But most re-enactors want to portray the well known figures in history. And not everyone was like that. But in re-enacting everyone has to find their own level. And that is as it should be.

Jim: Where do you see re-enacting in the next five years?

Colleen: We have to get more youth involved, because it is a great hobby. School days (usually a Friday) go along way towards getting them involved. Then we just need to talk them into “time warping with us.”

But when asked Colleen admitted she personally does not do a lot of work with kids. “I scare them,” she laughed. “Actually it is kind of cool. They will stare, and stare and them maybe get the courage to walk over. They will say something like “you’re dirty.” I ask them if they would like to be this dirty and the answer is usually “no.”

Colleen: “We’ll I’ve been told by people that I scare them. One person that you know real well (Kathy Cummings) told me she was really intimitaded by me when she first saw me. That just shocked me when she first told me that. I don’t think I am the least bit intimidating. Now we laugh about it.”


The Ratcatcher aka Bill Smith with Hester

I think people accept a man beggar a little bit easier. I am a shock because I am a woman beggar. And I understand that a lot of women don’t want to get this filthy. But it all washes off I tell them. Although there is another woman who is out selling onions today here at New Boston.. Her character’s name is Maggie Delaney. In the 21st century she is Carol Jarboe.


We chatted a lot before Maggie made her first appearance this spring. Maggie is an indentured servant of which there were many in the 18th century. It was a common way to afford passage from England to the colonies. But Hester was indentured and then escaped. And Hester/Colleen is quick to add - “and that is better. Because I have my freedom.” For this personna you have to have a quick wit.

I’ve had sutlers play along with me. They will throw apple cores and things at me to keep me away from their goods. The public is truly amazed - at this show. But after hours- after the public is gone - they will run over and make sure I knew they were just kidding and we laugh. If I didn’t have this kind of sense of humor - I wouldn’t be doing Hester!

Jim: One more question. Where did you get those remarkable teeth?

Colleen: Kevin Mallory. Actually he does dentures for a living and I told him that I kept having trouble with those mass produced  fake teeth - so he and his boss made a mold of my mouth and now Hester has her own teeth and I love them!

One final note. Many re-enactors that do specific roles get paid for their appearances at events. Hester is one of the few that do not. Why, I asked her. Because I like what I do, replied Colleen. And then when I am at an event - I can do what I like. If I want to go back to my camp and rest for an hour - I can I’m not on anyone’s payroll and so I always do it my way and my way is always to have fun.


Strolling with a gentleman friend at Historic Locust Grove in 2005.


Hester, Jill Sparrow, Cindy Harrell (Dicey Riley) and Carol -The Mollies of Mayhem - In a shooting competition at Lore of the Laughery at Friendship, IN.  Jill and Carol are members of the 78th Frasers cannon crew. Last year, says Colleen, there were no women in the competition so we decided to change that this year.


Teresa Muterspaw and daughter Madeline and a friend in 2001

Jim: What has been the best part of Hester?

Colleen: It was a few years ago at the fair at New Boston. I passed Teresa Muterspaw and her daughter Madeline. Madeline asked her mother about me, and Teresa explained that I was just a poor beggar woman. The next time I passed through the camp Madeline came running out with a potato for my stew. That was the best....


Hester to the Rescue
Although beggars like Hester may have been shunned in the towns - on the frontier anyone who could shoot was welcomed during times of Indian attack.

Other Comments:

from Michael Fields: the general feeling is Hester is an absolutely lovely person, everyone speaks of her heart. She is a good choice for Reenactor of the Month, another character in this little world.

from Jill Sparrow: Would like to nominate Colleen Gilbert, "Hester Purefinder" for Re-enactor of the month. For her willingness to educate the public that not everyone wore their Sunday finest and were of the upper class in the period.

 Look for Hester the Beggar Woman at events throughout Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. And don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and tell her you read about her on The Pioneer Times!

If you have someone you would like to see as “Re-enactor of The Month” drop me a line at

To see past Re-Enactors of The Month - click here.

Look for more stories to come about re-enactors portraying lower class citizens. And a hats off to those that already do - like Hester Purefinder, the Ratcatcher, Dicey Riley and Maggie Delaney.

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