Courtney Cauthon, otherwise known as ‘The Barefoot Historian,’ is living proof that the dead can spawn good business, regardless of whether she thinks of it that way.
Her path towards entertaining the public with tales of those who have gone before took a bit of a circuitous route. For a time, she worked as an accountant. “That was just painful,” said the Carlisle resident, who later decided to pivot and create TimeWalker Tours, which dissolved due to COVID and a difference of opinion with a business partner. This enabled her to regroup once again, which led to The Barefoot Historian & Co., where she’s finally found her sweet spot.
Cauthon’s tours are becoming more popular as word spreads about her ability to bring history alive with her tales of a bygone era. And it’s not just the older folks who attend her walks. Both young and old recently gathered at the Carlisle Cemetery for her “Homicidal History” tour.
When it comes to sharing history, Cauthon certainly has the bona fides. “It’s where my passion lies,” said Cauthon, explaining that her dad was a professor of political science for a time and her grandmother entertained her with tales about WWII in Southern California. “I would ask her to tell me stories, which were vivid, wonderful and personal. It wasn’t just about dates, it was about Japanese submarines off the coast of California during Pearl Harbor and shutting the lights out at night to be less of a target, and about females drawing lines of the back of their calves to create the illusion of stockings that they couldn’t get—things that my grandmother experienced firsthand,” said Cauthon. The stories inspired Cauthon to pursue her BA in history, her master’s degree in International Relations and her MBA.
And if you are wondering why Cauthon is shoeless, she’ll tell you that a guest on one of her tours informed her that her shoes could be more historically accurate. “That sent me into a bit of a tailspin,” said Cauthon, adding that historical accuracy is extremely important to her. “I decided to forego shoes for a time and people noticed and loved it.” They started calling her the “Barefoot Historian” and it stuck.
Tweaking the Business Model
When TimeTraveler Tours dissolved, Cauthon, who is also a seamstress, thought long and hard about tweaking her business model. “The experience with the prior business did make it clear that walking tours, as we had been doing them, would not be viable as a career, since the tourist industry in Carlisle is (as with most places) focused on the summer months, so I decided to reach out to schools in the region to educate students on the local history of the area. This extends our season well outside of the usual boundaries and helps to ensure that we’ll stay relevant and profitable throughout the year,” said Cauthon. She also branched out into historical costuming and wet plate photography, also called tintype, thanks to Chris Jones, her partner who uses a camera dating back to the 1880s and narrates tours with Cauthon. “We mix all of our own chemicals, as per an 1864 recipe, which is how Matthew Brady took some of the most iconic images of the Civil War and people like Abe Lincoln,” said Jones, adding that there’s a wardrobe on hand to dress individuals wanting to experience the process.
Cauthon maintains a storefront adjacent to the Carlisle Theater, where she also conducts ghost tours. Elva Matos brought her family to the “Homicidal History” tour which starts in the Carlisle Cemetery and continues on the streets of Carlisle. Matos then returned the following evening for a haunted tour of the Carlisle Theatre. “We were amazed that almost everyone on the tour had an experience with a ghost, or spirit in the theatre,” said the Carlisle resident.
Visitors who duck inside Cauthon’s shop can book a tour, schedule a field trip for students, or pick out authentic outfits that Cauthon creates for re-enactors. “I study the textiles, patterning and construction. For reenactors, it can’t just look right, it has to be the right material,” said Cauthon, adding that there are places which specialize in historically accurate textiles. “There’s a niche subset of costumers who work together,” said Cauthon.
The Homicidal History Tour—270 years of murder and mayhem in Carlisle—is held year-round. During the walk, guests will learn about the Babes in the Woods and why 5,000 people lined up at Ewing’s Funeral Home in Carlisle, or why a cursory look at the wall constructed around the Carlisle cemetery reveals faces in the stone.
Another tour offered by Cauthon is the Candlelight Ghost Tour of the Carlisle Theatre. “We turn down all the houselights and everyone is given an LED candle backstage and we go behind the scenes in all the creepy recesses that exist in the theater. It’s a very active space,” she said. Cauthon is currently working with the theater to conduct a few paranormal hunts, which will be available through October from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., with custom tours upon request.
Cauthon, who is also the President of Historic Carlisle, Inc., is pleased that her tours are becoming more and more popular. “Carlisle and Central PA in general has been so receptive, welcoming and excited about the new adventures that we’re offering,” said Cauthon, adding that in most cases the clientele are locals who want to see their hometown in a new way. “By constantly offering new events and working on new collaborations, we keep from becoming stagnant. We aren’t a one-trick pony, that’s for sure and what we do with costuming and photography allows people not to just learn about the past, but actually step into it,” said Cauthon.
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