Bill Freil is a farmer. Or, depending on the day, a schoolmaster. And sometimes, the owner of a dry goods store.
His occupations vary, but the setting is the same—1836 Indiana, as portrayed by Freil and fellow costumed interpreters at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers, Ind.
The job allows the 2005 Bluffton alumnus to continue pursuing a long-held interest. "I wanted to do something where I was talking about American history," says the Pittsburgh-area native, who also holds a master's degree in history, with a concentration in archival, museum and editing studies, from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
His love of history, he says, dates from third grade, when he saw the World War II film "The Longest Day," about the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day.
Freil was inspired to apply to Bluffton after visiting the "beautiful" campus and listening to an "incredibly friendly and outgoing" tour guide, he says. And once in school, he adds, "I was lucky enough to be introduced to Professor Lynn Barnes."
Barnes was a faculty member in apparel, textiles, merchandising and design, and also
a board member at the nearby Allen
County Museum and Historical Society. When some of her students went to the Lima museum to work with textiles,
Freil "tagged along" and soon became a docent, working one or two Saturdays each month during his last three years in college.
Taking a year off after graduation, he returned to Pittsburgh and worked in retail and as a part-time, volunteer assistant to the collections manager at the Washington County, Pa., Historical Society. There, he says, he learned a lot about care of historical objects, whose preservation and relationship to the everyday lives of Americans are of particular interest to him.
He then spent several years—before, during and after his master's degree program—as a part-time store leader at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington. For several months during that time, he also served as collections manager at the Greene County Historical Society in Pennsylvania's southwest corner.
He applied for the interpreter's position at Conner Prairie after his sister, a member there, told him the history park was hiring. He moved to Indiana in March 2011 to start the job in the 200-acre park's 1836 Prairietown, described on the Conner Prairie website as "a bustling community struggling to survive."
Visitors, he says, "like to hear history and to do activities to get their hands on history," notes Freil, who works four or five days a week during the park's outdoor season, from April-October. In addition to wearing period clothing, he speaks in first person, "molding it into an experience that gives them a great benefit," he says. During the off season, he has done office work and planned events in the museum, which is open year-round.
Long term, Freil sees himself either remaining in interpretation or returning to collections management—hopefully full time in either case—but regardless, staying in history. "I always want to do something with it," he says. "It's too much in my blood."
"You can't keep a historian inside a box," he adds, citing several possible careers. "There are even ways I can use that history degree to serve my community of faith"—which he is doing through a project to document the 45-year history of his Indiana church, Emmanuel United Methodist in Noblesville, which neighbors Fishers just northeast of Indianapolis.
"I really want to help people understand American history better," Freil says. "It's an affinity I have, and I want other people to have it, too."