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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Jon Townsend is co-owner of Townsends in Pierceton, which specializes in 18th and early 19th century items.

  • Local artisan Josh King makes “pieces of eight” from a reproduction Spanish dollar.

  • Hats of all types are popular at the Pierceton shop, which has provided items for museums, TV shows and movies.

  • Media specialist Aaron Bushong edits promotional videos for the business. Livestreams are done each Friday.

  • Townsend explains how a hat is shaped on a stretching form. Townsend’s father began the business in 1973, and he took it over in 1995.

  • A variety of reenactment items available at James Townsend and Son in Pierceton, Indiana.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Seamstress Debbie Hand sews a regimental coat.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Nicole Kerr, a seamstress at James Townsend and Son, sews the collar for a late 1700's coat that would have been worn by a commoner.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette A knitting machine to make sock hats for reenactment enthusiasts and sold by James Townsend and Son, world known for its reenactment clothing and accessories.

Sunday, March 25, 2018 1:00 am

Behind the scenes

Re-enactor's dream store

Pierceton shop whisks you to 18th century

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

Behind the scenes

This monthly feature offers a peek at what takes place during production at area events or organizations.

Jon Townsend spends most of his time immersed in the 18th century.

As co-owner and president of Townsends – a manufacturer and retailer of reproduction 18th and early 19th century clothing and accessories located in Pierceton – he makes it his business to research and replicate products that match the time period. Like mushroom ketchup.

“It's really good,” Townsend says, reacting to a visitor's scrunched-up face in hearing about the newest product.

The company focuses on items from 1750 to 1830. There are hats, both women and men's, including the well-known tricorn hat, handmade cedar buckets, powder guns, bullets, blankets, handmade soap, leech jars, eyeglasses, dishes and utensils.

The company has just about everything a person conducting a historical re-enactment might need. Which is one reason Townsends is known nationally and internationally. Its items have appeared in numerous museums; TV shows, such as “Turn” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”; and films, such as the recent Hugh Jackman movie “The Greatest Showman” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series.

However, Townsend says it's often hard to tell what products are actually theirs because film crews sometimes manipulate the items for a particular scene or character, such as the coat for Johnny Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow.

Townsends was started in 1973 by Jon's father, who made historic replica lanterns in his Pierceton home. From there, his sister became involved in the mid-1980s and turned it over to him in 1995. The business began to expand its products as people requested different items and then employees figured out how to make them, Townsend says.

Right now, half the items Townsends sells are clothing, Townsend says. The biggest-selling item right now is a man's plain white shirt. “That is the underwear of the 18th century,” Townsend says.

The business, formerly known as Jas. Townsend & Son, is located in an old building on a corner along Indiana 13, the main street through Pierceton. The building, once you get past the main storefront, is a maze of hallways and rooms all stocked with items and products ready to be used to create or ship off to fulfill orders.

One could spend hours looking at items on shelves. It's almost like an 18th century Walmart, with anything and everything of historical nature.

Many of the items are made in-house or come from nearby artisans. Leather work is done by an Elkhart man. There is a bucket maker from Lafayette, and even the “pieces of eight,” which were used as currency back then, are made in a workshop on the first floor. That's where Josh King, a local artisan, is pounding pewter until it's flat and then cuts the pieces into eight.

King explains that the money is used as change from a dollar. After all, they didn't have quarters, dimes and nickels back then. The only way to make change was to actually cut up a dollar, Townsend explains.

Upstairs, Aaron Bushong works on videos for Townsends. The room has a mini set that is used for livestreams every Friday, Townsend says. They also go to the Old Fort in Fort Wayne and shoot videos or product photos on a regular basis. That's Townsend, donning clothing and items the company sells, in most of the photos on the company's website.

Social media has become a big part of what Townsends does, especially when it comes to getting its products noticed, Townsend says. Most of its business is done through online orders.

In another part of the building, there is a room where knit hats are made in-house. Tents are made in Larwill. There is a pottery wheel down in the basement, and the wood shop is at Townsend's parents' home.

The company also uses local seamstresses to make its clothes. Most of the work is done at their homes, Townsend explains, but on some days, employees will come in to work on more complicated or larger projects.

Debbie Hand of North Manchester is working on a regimental coat on this February day. The coat is the style of one that would have been worn during the Revolutionary War. While most projects take about three or four hours, Hand says, the coat will take all day to make.

Hand has been working at Townsends for 18 years. She heard about the job from her sister-in-law, who was working at Townsends at the time. Most of the people who work at Townsends are family or friends, or they heard about job openings by word of mouth, says Townsend. He doesn't usually post job openings because there's usually somebody ready to fill any spots.

The business is still very much a family affair. Townsend's oldest daughter works in bookkeeping, and his youngest daughter can be seen in many of the company's videos. Mom and Dad are still involved some, he says, but not as much as they used to be.

It's work that continues to be passed down to the next generation – all working to keep history alive.

trich@jg.net