25 Years: A Match Made In Heaven—Or At Least in Gettysburg!

In our past 25-Years Mewsings, we’ve discussed the progression of our dioramas. But today we take a look at a unique diorama. In its humble confines, “Come On, You Wolverines” represents the full history of Civil War cats.

2020-10-10 1998 May 02 croppedCivil War cat cavalry was present long before we thought to make dioramas. In fact, if memory serves right, it was our becoming tired of having to “fix up” bridles and saddles after every battle that prompted us to set up stationary displays, instead of continuing to use our cat-soldiers as toys. Some of our early pre-diorama photos show the modest cavalries of our earliest cats—and yes, some of the horses in this photo are on “Come On, You Wolverines”!

Our oldest photo of a cavalry diorama is from January 2000, with the units’ horses color-coordinated. Incidentally, Capt. James H. Kidd recalls in his memoirs how the 6th Michigan Cavalry began with each company (troop) on matching horses. Troop A had bays, B had browns, and so forth. It didn’t last long!

Our cavalry “diorama” did not have a base, so it was always changing. In 2001, we began displaying our dioramas at the retirement community where we worked. This one-day event would continue annually until 2013, when we moved to Gettysburg. For the cavalry, this meant that we set the battle up, horse by horse, every time (plus a second time when we took them home that night!). During this time, the diorama generally represented Brandy Station (June 9, 1863).

In 2009, the cavalry finally received a base! With real grass clippings as ground cover, the clashing horses now portrayed fighting at East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg (July 3, 1863). But transportation remained a bit hazardous, since there was no way to anchor the horses to their base. So, the cavalrycats jammed their ranks between the walls of their platform and did their best to keep their horses propped up on their feet. There are advantages to galloping stirrup-to-stirrup when you’re a toy horse bouncing in the back of a pickup truck!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Finally, in fall 2017, we began revamping the cavalry battle into an intentional portrayal of a specific point in time at East Cavalry Field. We decided to use the old base of a defunct diorama that had been sitting around for years. It was a match meant to be—it just took us a while to realize it! At last the old base had a use, and at last the cavalry had a base with a surface that they could attach to! The base has a very slight topographical slope, so Rebecca made sure to visit East Cavalry Field, pinpoint where she believes this clash of cavalry took place, and orient the base accordingly.

2020-10-10 20180210_173232The revamp meant evaluating each horse and cat. Sleepy, lazy (standing) store-bought horses were retired to green pastures and removed from the census of Civil War Cat horses. Some old clay cats and horses had lost so many limbs (and/or head) that they were “put down.” If the horse’s clay was still soft enough, we made a new horse. Unfortunately for the cats, there’s just no way to resurrect old dried-out blue and gray clay! Clay cats and horses who remained more-or-less intact were cleaned up by scraping a couple decades-worth of dust off their faces, uniforms, and white markings. In the meantime, the two cavalries enlisted young whippersnapper Sculpey cats. Some supplied their own fresh mounts, while others inherited veteran cavalry horses.

IMG_0410 1st horse on!Finally, it was time to install the horses. On May 5, 2018, the first horse, a Union liver chestnut, was wired onto the base! Over three hundred horses would follow before the diorama was finally placed on display at Civil War Tails almost a year later, on Friday, May 3, 2019. 

Of the 313 horses on the diorama, only twenty are store-bought. (When you come to Civil War Tails, try to find and point out the store-bought horses—Ruth and Rebecca can tell you if you’re right!) Thirty-five clay horses remain; some of them are new, some are “middle-aged,” and some are original and date back to the late ‘90s! The remaining 258 horses are Sculpey, and 204 of them were made for this revamp. The cats share the same mix of old clay and new Sculpey, making this diorama unique. No other diorama has such a mix of generations of cats and horses. When you look at “Come On, You Wolverines,” you can see a microcosm of 25 years of Civil War cat history!

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(Kidd, J. H. Riding With Custer: Recollections of a Cavalryman in the Civil War. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska Press, 1997.)

New: Pet Memorial Domes

LUCKY (used with permission)

If you’ve ever had a favorite pet that captured your heart, now you have a unique way to remember them. We have just added Pet Memorial Display Domes to our Merchandise page, under the “Pet Memorials” tab.

When you order, we will contact you for photos of your pet, so we can make a miniature model of him or her. By studying the supplied photos, we work to capture not only the markings, coloration, and physical appearance, but also the spirit and personality of your pet, as much as we can. For samples of some of our work, check out the Pet Memorials tab. 

These domes also make great Christmas gifts for friends and family!

25 Years: Material Developments

Today we continue our mewsings about the past 25 years of Civil War cats! But first, we would like to send out a big “Thank You” to everyone who joined us last weekend for our 5th Anniversary Scavenger Hunt. We had a great time and trust that you did too!

So far, we’ve mewsed about our progression from individual cats to our first topographical diorama. Up until designing the Angle, we had been searching for a good way to form the overall diorama—what to use as the base. After construction of the Angle, the emphasis shifted to the features on the dioramas.

Grass:

As we made the Angle, with its little green bushes on green paint, we realized that we needed a better material for portraying grass. But what to use? So began our search for a good moss or anything else that could be used as ground cover. We found one type of moss that worked well as long grass for our 2.5” cats, and used it on “At All Hazards” in 2002.

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Unfortunately, we discovered on another diorama that 1” clay cats could not handle the long strands of the moss. Their legs were too short to touch the base underneath the grass, and the soft modeling clay of their bodies could not survive the insertion of pins or wires to fasten them down. So, we abandoned that diorama. The cats were reused on the Angle, and the base was stored away. In 2018, it found its purpose when it became the base for our majorly revamped cavalry battle—“Come On, You Wolverines!”

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In 2008, we discovered “turf” and used it for ground cover on Devil’s Den (“Give Them Shell”). By then, we had also discovered Sculpey for making our cats, so the result was perfect: ¾” tall cats had no problem gluing down onto the turf!

Rocks:

“Give Them Shell” was also the first venture into hand-sculpting rocks based off of photographs of the actual boulders on the battlefield. The clay we used was quite messy—note the cheese puffs laid out on Reb’s laptop for hands-free snacking! In 2013, when making Little Round Top, we switched to DAS Air-Hardening Modeling Clay which is easy to use when shaping and painting the rocks.

Cats:

“At All Hazards” was probably the first diorama where we used Sculpey, a polymer clay that can be baked, to make some of the horses. The cats, however, were still the non-hardening modeling clay.

In 2004, we made USS Housatonic. Not only is the ship notable in that Rebecca had never made a tall ship before, not even from a kit, but this scene was the first time that we used Sculpey for our cats. Needless to say, after gluing the cats to the spars and having them not fall off, we were hooked on Sculpey cats! Life got even better in 2013 when we discovered Sculpey III comes in the various colors needed for horses and Union and Confederate uniforms, which meant we no longer had to paint our figures.

“The Boys Are Still There” is the culmination of our discoveries over the previous decade, using turf for the grass, DAS for the rocks, and Sculpey III for cats, artillery, and horses. But as always, we still look around the house for materials to use for other features. So, we use toothpicks for gun carriages, make our own trees with twigs from the backyard (buying Reindeer Moss for the leaves), and use black tea for the fallen leaf debris on the ground.

We’re constantly analyzing materials we see or objects we find and thinking, “Hey, that would be good for such-and-such” or “Would that work as this?” That’s just what happens when dioramas get in your blood. Research can give you ideas of what to use, but it is also fun to experiment and discover materials on your own!

5th Anniversary Scavenger Hunt!

CWTH scavenger hunt

Civil War Tails is celebrating 5 years! Join us this Labor Day weekend for our annual Scavenger Hunt! This year will be extra-special. With our Civil War cats celebrating 25 years, and the museum celebrating 5 years, the Scavenger Hunt will be chockful of fun CW cat history for you to discover throughout the museum. Come and see a quarter-century of Civil War cat fun, learn the history behind them, and maybe even take home a bit of Civil War Tails for yourself!

Civil War Tails will have special hours of 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Labor Day Monday. We will offer discounted admission, and prizes for completion of the scavenger hunt!

Please see our COVID-19 tab for special information regarding your visit.

25 Years: One Small Step for Dioramas, One Giant Leap for Civil War Cats

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In our 25th Anniversary Mewsings so far, we have told the story of our cats’ origin, introduced some old friends, and discussed the transition of “our guys” from everyday toys to dioramas. Today, we are mewsing about a major step forward in our diorama-making, signaling a new era in the lives of our Civil War cats.

We had had a Pickett’s Charge diorama since early on, which Rebecca constantly tweaked. By 2000, it was growing—first from one platform base to two, and then to boxes around them. Then we began “shrinking” the cats. All of this was with a view to depict the entire Confederate line but also a desire to make the diorama to-scale.

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On June 30, 2000, during a trip to Gettysburg, our dad suggested that we buy a set of topographical maps of the battlefield and he would help us build a topographical base for a new, to-scale diorama. At the time, the smallest cats we could make were 1-inch tall. So, given the floor space we had available, we were limited to making only the Angle itself and half of the Copse of Trees.

 

2020-08-15 PC 05 2001“The Fate of Gettysburg” kept us busy through college. While other students were doing whatever college students do, we sat in the dorm room and made cats for the Angle! (Well, okay, we also made at least USS Housatonic and “Desperation at Skull Camp Bridge,” if not others.)

Since the Angle was the first major diorama we had made, we did not know about ground cover. So, the “grass” was green paint, with bits of green foam added as bushes to try to make the ground more 3-dimensional.

“The Fate of Gettysburg” would have to wait until 2012 for us to discover and install “turf.” During that major overhaul, we also realized that most of Pickett’s division would be on our diorama, along the stone wall. So we needed to add 1,000 or more Confederates.

2020-08-15 PC 08We also added injured and killed horses for Cushing’s battery. Since his guns were abandoned by the point in time portrayed on the diorama, we had initially overlooked the obvious fact that the debris of Cushing’s shattered battery would remain on the field after his men and limbers had withdrawn. This adjustment meant re-reading about July 2nd and earlier on July 3rd, to count up how many limbers and caissons had exploded. This was a reminder to us to keep in mind events or episodes that happened earlier at the location portrayed on a diorama. (See “CSS Virginia (Merrimack)—Day One” for another example of including “previous day” damage.)

“The Fate of Gettysburg” Then & Now:

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2009

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25 Years: Diorama Beginnings

In 1998, we began setting up our “guys” in scenes on the floor. These early dioramas were not permanent, but they signal a shift in our focus. Early on, our armies fought our other toys (see “Meet the Cats”), but at some point Union and Confederate began fighting each other. The problem was, with all of the modeling clay and plastic store-bought horses involved, cavalry battles in particular required quite a bit of repair (“fixing up”) afterwards. When we tired of having to do this each time, we had the thought to build dioramas or stationary scenes.

 

We consider First Bull Run to be our first diorama. Originally, we set it up on a shelf—a line of Union infantry, a line of Confederates lying among the trees, and Gen. Barnard Bee’s retreating Confederates in between. Being only 14 years old, we were not concerned with scale, but we did want to tell the story—in this case, of Gen. Bee giving Gen. Jackson his nickname “Stonewall.” Later, when we began to think of scale, we moved the Confederates onto a box as a base and repurposed the Yankees elsewhere.

 

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Cat 3000

Our first real to-scale diorama is “I Want You To Prove Yourselves,” the 54th Massachusetts attacking Battery Wagner. Inspired by the movie “Glory,” we made a diorama. In October of 1999, we shrank the cats to make the diorama to-scale. Around that time, Rebecca began keeping a census of the cats. We don’t know who Cats 1000 and 2000 are, but we managed to identify Cat 3000 and place him on Battery Wagner. I say “managed” because math is not our strong suit, and Rebecca miscounted and forgot to count enough cats that for a while it seemed we might miss Cat 3000 altogether!

25 Years: Meet the Cats!

 

In our first 25th Anniversary post, we mewsed about the origins of our Civil War cats. Today, we would like to introduce you to a few of “our guys”!

For the first couple of years, “our guys” were allies in a fight against our other toys, enormous horses, tigers, and lions led by the big black Hound of the Baskervilles (from A. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel). We even wrote a trilogy chronicling their adventures. While the writing is probably atrocious, the stories are useful in reminding us of the names that we gave to some of our clay cats!

Quite a few of our cats have names. Most are cavalrycats, probably because they are more individual than infantry, which tend to be stuck together in batches of ten (to make counting them easier). Since cavalrycats are paired up, if one cat gets a name, his partner often does too.

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Bangs (left) & Harry (right)

 

The most memorable Union cat for us is the little cavalrycat Bangs. True to his name, he does in fact have bangs, making him recognizable. His big brother is Harry, recognizable by his big Appaloosa horse and the scar on his face. Since both cats have always had the same horses, and since both are store-bought standing horses, neither cat is in “Come On, You Wolverines!” They have been retired and are waiting to be in a special display of our cats’ history.

 

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Ray L. Fence

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Noah Fence

The most memorable Confederate cats are another set of brothers. The first one made was a skinny cat. For some reason, the “in” phrase for kids back when we made him was “no offense.” Well, somehow, while joking around while making him, his name became Noah Fence. Later on, when we made another skinny Reb cat, he was clearly Noah’s little brother. What is his name? Ray L. Fence, of course! Noah is in “Come On, You Wolverines.” He’s hard to find, but a white belt buckle confirms who he is. Ray, meanwhile, has been retired—although we can’t remember why he didn’t make the cut to join his brother on the diorama! He’s identifiable by his blue belt buckle.

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Josh

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Nate

Alongside Bangs, Harry, and Ray in retirement is Confederate cavalrycat Nate, riding his 3-legged Paso Fino. His partner is Josh, the color-bearer in “Come On, You Wolverines!” Josh still wears his Vandyke beard (which makes him look rather like a Scotty dog) and proudly grips his brand-new flag.

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Bucktooth on Bucky

Another cat who is becoming well-known in the museum, although not by name, is Bucktooth. Probably eight times out of ten, his horse, Bucky, is the first store-bought horse found by visitors trying to identify the 20 store-bought horses on “Come On, You Wolverines!”

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A few more old friends!

Happy Birthday!

This coming Thursday, June 25th, our original clay Civil War cats, Generals Lee and Grant, will turn 25 years old! Help them celebrate all weekend—come in on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday (June 25-27, 2020) and mention “Birthday” and we’ll give you 15% off admission AND 10% off all merchandise!

1995 booksThis week in 1995, Rebecca was reading The Story of Robert E. Lee by Iris Vinton and The Story of Ulysses S. Grant by Jeannette C. Nolan. After finishing the biographies, she made two cats out of clay. One wore the beard and blue uniform of Gen. Grant, and the other the beard and gray uniform of Gen. Lee. They needed men to command, so she made ten Union cats and ten Confederate cats. Little did we know, she was starting us on a road to 8,747 cats and a museum in Gettysburg!

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Rebecca (left) and Ruth (right) in 1996

The Civil War bug bit us hard. While Rebecca was the first to become interested in the war, Ruth followed suit and began making cats too. Since Rebecca liked Generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson, she claimed the Confederate cats. We’ve always joked that Ruth “got stuck making the Yankees ’cuz someone’s gotta do it!” In reality, we have always done things together, and so it was natural for us to share cat-making and to split up the task along army lines. But the split has never been exclusive. For example, one Christmas, Rebecca made a horde of Union cats and Gen. Lew Wallace as a gift for Ruth.

Reopening! … And 25 Years!

2020-06-05 artyAfter a quiet, 2.5 month, stay-at-home “vacation,” the cats at Civil War Tails are dusting themselves off and getting ready for the summer season! That’s right, we are opening on Friday, June 12!

However, not everything will be the same as before. Everyone who does not have fur and a tail will be required to wear a mask (except very young children and people with health issues that exempt them, as per the CDC guidelines). We’ll also be working to keep the museum sanitized, for your safety.

As if reopening were not enough excitement, our Civil War cats are celebrating 25 years! On June 25, our original cats, Generals Lee and Grant, turn 25. They’re hoping for a birthday cake that’s not made from hardtack… We’ll see!

Then on Labor Day weekend, the museum turns 5! So, mark your calendars now to come that Friday, Saturday, or Labor Day Monday for our annual Scavenger Hunt. The kitties tell us it will have lots of fun tidbits about their history for you to find in the museum!

Stay tuned throughout the year for reminiscences as Ruth and Rebecca remember a quarter-century of making clay Civil War cats!

Don’t Forget Your “Cabin Fever Emergency Kit”!

2020-03-14 20190321_104559Schools are closing, workplaces are closing—and you’re ready. You have food and hand sanitizer. You have technology set up to work from home. You have milk, bread, and eggs. But have you thought about…free time? On a typical day off, do you (or your kids) get bored? What will the kids do if school is closed for weeks? Don’t panic. It’s not too late to prepare. We suggest assembling a “Cabin Fever Emergency Kit.” You guessed it—diorama supplies!

Now, we don’t expect you to come out on the other side of coronavirus with an 11-foot-long Little Round Top. But when the kids have mastered every video game level and you’ve scrolled through Facebook a dozen times and watched all of Netflix twice, you might need something else to do. So, here are some tips for the novice and for the more adventurous!

Kids Cabin Fever Emergency Kit (non-craftsy adults can use this, too)2020-03-14 20200314_103749

  • A box
  • Green and blue paper, or plain paper and markers/crayons/colored pencils/paint
  •  Model trees, or reindeer moss and twigs
  • Small stones
  • Toy figures—animals, people, cars, anything
  • White glue (such as Elmers)
  • Scissors
  • Extras:
    • Toothpicks
    • Clay (air-drying, modeling, or polymer [i.e. Sculpey])
    • Wire
    • String
    • Cardboard
    • Anything else around your house that is useful. You’ll be surprised at what you find!

Not all of these items are necessary, of course. It all depends on what you want to do. You can find all of these around your house, at Walmart, or at a craft store like Michaels or Hobby Lobby.

Tip: if you look for animals and figures at a craft store, they usually have small packs near the diorama supplies. But they also have “Toobs” that come in a variety of options—horses, cats, sea life, dragons and knights, cowboys, dogs, farm animals, safari animals… They’re a great way to get a reasonable number of small critters for your diorama(s).

Use the box as the base for your diorama. Green paper becomes grass, and blue paper becomes water. Glue bunches of reindeer moss to a twig to make a tree. Glue stones in place as rocks or boulders. Glue animals down to populate your scene. Voila! You have a diorama!

If you want to get more detailed, you can make fences out of toothpicks. Use clay to make rocks and additional items and creatures. Make buildings out of cardboard and paper. The possibilities are limitless!

Adult Cabin Fever Emergency Kit (this is for the craftsy or really bored adults or older kids)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis kit is the same as the Kids kit with the exception of the green and blue paper. Come on, you didn’t really think you could get away with using green paper for grass, did you? If you have a higher level of skill or boredom, it’s time to bring out the turf! Basic turf comes in containers as loose specks of foam. See our “Making Little Round Top” page for more on how to use it. If you want an easier and less messy option, you can find pre-made sheets of turf at a craft store. You can also buy kits that give you instructions and supplies for making ground cover (using turf), water effects, rocks, etc. They are very useful!

Go crazy with your diorama! Find a historic photograph that you like and recreate it. Stray from the typical grassy diorama and make an ocean scene. Build a mountain or a canyon. Allow broken toys to inspire you, or use the construction toys you already have to build features. Pick just one particular object to build from scratch, such as a favorite car or a ship. Maybe you’ll even want to try your hand at a Civil War cat!!

Just remember, above all else, when making a diorama, the only person who has to be happy with how it turns out is you. Other people can give their opinions, but that’s all they are: opinions. Your diorama does not have to be perfect or spectacular. So long as you are happy with it, that’s all that matters!

Stay well, and have fun trying something new!

Oh, and if you don’t end up trapped at home and bored out of your mind? Save the supplies for later. After all, summer vacation is coming…