Indiana History

Vevay’s Musee de Venoge featured in new documentary

The film tells the story of the homestead’
first residents

VEVAY, Ind. (October 2020) – Vevay’s Musee de Venoge, a living history museum highlighting the history of Switzerland County’s earliest residents and one of Indiana’s best examples of French Colonial architecture, is the subject of a film that was released in August. The film, titled, “To Make a Beginning,” highlights the lives of Venoge’s first residents, Jacob and Charlotte Weaver, and is based on letters written by the Weavers that were recently discovered. The filming process began in late June 2019.

Musee de Venoge

Photo courtesy of Donna Weaver

From left are director Steve Abolt, Betsy Lyman, Joe Erdmann, Brian Cushing, Amy Liebert and Steven Richter during filming at the Venoge Cottage.

“We originally planned a very short video on the restoration of the Venoge cottage and a small bit about the people who lived in the home first. Then we learned that the Indiana Historical Society had more letters by Jacob Weaver than what we had seen already. That changed everything,” said Donna Weaver, who headed up the restoration of the Venoge cottage alongside her late husband, Tom, in the late 1990s. 
Weaver is of no direct relation to the cottage’s first residents, though the shared last name provides a unique connection. “We now had 36 letters that ran from 1813 to 1848. We found the second batch accidentally, and they told even more stories. Finding the letters was a complete surprise, and the direction of the film completely changed because of it and became focused on the people of the house.”
After discovering the letters, the film went through a rewrite and an expansion. “I transcribed the new letters, and our director, Steve Abolt, distilled them down to a working script. We had to leave out some very intriguing bits, unfortunately,” said Weaver.
The film highlights Indiana history in a way that Weaver feels often gets forgotten. “It’s a story of early Indiana, a time period that tends to get lost. This is a story of the Weavers leaving civilized New York State for Indiana Territory in the middle of the War of 1812. It was a 45-day journey with six kids under the age of 8. It’s about trying to make a living in the middle of nowhere,” Weaver said.
“We’ve been able to compare the letters to newspaper accounts from that time and see stories that Jacob wrote about in his letters that we tracked through the archives.”
Filming continued in August, November and December 2019, with some portions being filmed as late as June 2020. “Since we are a very small group, we all did multiple things,” said Weaver, noting that she served in a multi-faceted role. “I helped with the research, dress the sets, spoke on camera, filmed some scenes and did some editing. I also designed the art for the DVD and had it reproduced.”
“Our director, Steve Abolt, wrote the script, made the screen shot list, spoke on camera, and, of course, directed. Joe Erdmann did the filming,” said Weaver. Michael Reynolds Thompson composed a completely original score for the film. Joe Erdmann filmed, and Betsy Lyman helped keep the process moving.
Brian Cushing and Amy Liebert of La Grange, Ky., portrayed Jacob and Charlotte Weaver, respectively. Both have participated in other living history events. Cushing has held roles in museum films from Historic Locust Grove, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and Falls of the Ohio State Park. Liebert has played Queen Victoria at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and several locations throughout the Ohio Valley.
“I was flattered to be asked to come on board with this project by Donna Weaver and Steve Abolt,” said Cushing. “My fiancée, Amy [Liebert], and I had been attending and helping with programming at Venoge events for a couple of years.”
Cushing said that he “hopes people can see that the past is composed of countless, unique individual human beings living their lives and facing their challenges as best as they can.”
Liebert said that she hopes the film “humanizes the people who settled in Indiana and Vevay. For every war you have heard of there were so many more people just living through it all.”
Cushing commented on the universality of Jacob Weaver’s letters and how he hopes they are portrayed in the film.
“In the opening scene, Steve says, ‘This is the story of all of us who have ever dared to dream,’ and that’s really what it is. It may have been 200 years ago and under different circumstances, but the core of what (Weaver) went through is central to any life experience. When you read his letters, there is a feeling of his successes, failures, heartbreaks and happiness. In that way, that’s just as powerful as any tale of adventure and glory,” he said.
 “Unfortunately, unlike with Jacob, we don’t have any letters or other first person accounts left by Charlotte. We know the basic outline of her life – that she was born in Europe and immigrated to the United States. I know she was married and had 10 children with Jacob Weaver,” said Liebert on playing Charlotte Weaver.
“The only real piece of anything we have directly from her is a doodle she left on one of Jacob’s letters. It’s a small thing, but I love it because it’s such a human moment to have preserved. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is Brian and I sitting at the table where I am doodling. In a way it seems mundane, but marriages and lives are made up of those moments. And, of course, it wasn’t very hard playing off of my real life fiancee.”
The final product became a 58-minute production that the team intends to present to PBS for airing on its network. “So many people have poured an almost unimaginable amount of time, talent and expertise into this movie that it just blows me away every time I see it,” said Liebert.
“This has been a thoroughly rewarding experience,” said Cushing. “We’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to do a lot of historic interpretation at a lot of interesting sites, but Venoge is special among them all. It was a true labor of love from the beginning when Donna and her husband saved the place, and that continues to flow through everything that happens there.”
“History is the story of all of us,” said Weaver. “We hope this inspires people to go visit Venoge and think about life in frontier Indiana.”

• For more information on the film and Musee de Venoge, visit www.Venoge.org.

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