Who was the Founding Father of Farb?

An exploration of the origin of the word by Jonah Begone

Farb. The ultimate condemnation for the Living Historian and our very own word!

I first heard it as an adjective on the way to my first Eastern event back in August 1984: "Yeah, some of those Rebs can look pretty farby," the driver confided to me. Having an interest in words - especially obscure ones - I immediately demanded to know what this meant, and upon being told, made a mental note to ensure I was never referred to as such. I also wondered how the term got started.

My first clue was a Camp Chase Gazette article about centennial reenacting by Harry Roach that appeared in the July 1986 issue. It was entitled "Reenacting: a Retrospective," and contained the following explanation:

The only outfit that was genuinely authentic was the 2nd North Carolina, led by the late George Gorman. They had hand-made wool trousers and jackets, and no two uniforms looked alike, which we thought was pretty bizarre. About that time (July 1961 - Jonah), George started using the term "farbie" to describe inauthentic garb. When asked what the word meant, George responded: Far be it from me to criticize inauthentic uniforms!" George died in 1981 at the age of forty-five; by my reckoning he should get the credit for being the first "authentic" reenactor.

I accepted this as gospel until I started doing my own research, as good reenactors are supposed to do. My inquiries eventually led to phone and email discussions and conversations with some other "Centennials" (my word to acknowledge their primordial status) that was somewhat at odds with Roach's brief explanation. Talking with these gentlemen has, I believe, led me to the factual story of the creation of the term "farb."

It is first necessary to briefly describe reenacting as it was back in the early Sixties. The centennial events were primarily fought by North-South Skirmish Association members, who regarded themselves as shooters and marksmen rather than as reenactment participants (battle reenactments, as we now know them, having just gotten started). Back then the N-SSA folks were more authentic than the reenactors, who could best be described as enthusiastic amateurs.

Tales of how, well, farby those first events were are legendary, and I do not intend to go into descriptions of the Sears work pants, M-1's and rampant John Wayne-ism that could be found anywhere on the field. (Or be found on the field today, for that matter.) But it is with certain N-SSA units that the drive to uniform authenticity began, and while it is true that George Gorman's Second North Carolina was indeed one of the first of the authentic units, they certainly weren't the very first, nor were they alone.

Burt Kummerow and Ross Kimmel were teenaged members of the First Maryland "Blackhat" Regiment, which was formed as an N-SSA unit around 1955. Kummerow joined in 1959, Kimmel in 1960. Their leader was a University of Baltimore German teacher named Gerry Rolph. While the Blackhats couldn't shoot well, they were interested in uniform authenticity, and Rolph emphasized handmade, woolen uniforms. (In fact, they preceded and sold authentic items to members of the Second North Carolina.) This and the fact that most of the unit was under the age of twenty or so led to a credible unit "impression." (More on that word later.) As Kimmel remembers it, Rolph was a devotee of German culture and had a habit of coming up with faux-German phrases and expressions, and remembers the term "farb" (as a term to describe members of less dedicated units) coming out of the Spring 1961 weekend uniform sewing sessions at Rolph's house in Glen Echo Heights, Maryland.

As Kummerow recalls it, the term was most frequently used by another Blackhat, Doug "Twitch" Potter. Kimmel also recalls that yet another Blackhat, Roy Collins, was an early and frequent user of the word. Both Kimmel and Kummerow remember the word in use by the time of the August 1961 First Manassas event. So we have three possible Farb Founding Fathers: Rolph, Potter and Collins. Since the word "farb" is German for "color" - leading to a possible meaning of "Unauthentically (or unduly) colorful" for the term - I suspect Rolph originally created the term as one of his German expressions. Whomever thought of it, "farby" was one of many teenage slang terms that knit the group together, and none of them thought it would grow in popularity and would still be used nearly forty years later. For this, George Gorman must be given the credit.

By all accounts George Gorman was quite a character, and the Second North Carolina was quite a unit - and stories abound. Composed of South Philadelphia street toughs and led by a man whom Kimmel remembers as being one of the most eccentric characters he had ever known, the Second North Carolina aggressively pursued authenticity - even to the point of tauntingly bleating like sheep at less authentic units. Some of this behavior can be attributed to the fact that the 2nd NC, like the Blackhats, were very young, mostly under the age of twenty.

Gorman had a business of selling Civil War artifacts in Philadelphia, and was known for wild behavior. The Maryland State Police led Gorman away from the 1962 Antietam event for some behavior they didn't agree with, but he reappeared in time for the 1963 Gettysburg event, and there exists a photograph of Gorman meeting then Governor George Wallace. (Here's another.) According to the Centennials the early years of reenacting were fraught with passion from the Civil Rights activities then going on, and units and events were described to me as often being quite "rednecky." (What a surprise.) But Gorman gets the credit for popularizing the term "farb." (Kimmel remembers that he turned the adjective "farby" into the noun, "farb."

According to the Centennials with whom I have spoken, the story about Gorman rolling his eyes heavenward and piously declaring, "Far be it from me to criticize unauthentic uniforming" is not how the term farby got started, and Kimmel, especially, would like to debunk it once and for all. While Gorman may have said this, it wasn't how the word was created. Many other accounts of the creation of the term farb are in circulation, but the most credible and agreed-upon is the Gerry Rolph/Blackhats account I relate here.

George Gorman passed away in the early Eighties; Gerry Rolph is also deceased.

A partial explanation and an early account of the now-common term "impression" was also given to me by Ross Kimmel. Mike Musick, an original member of Gorman's 2nd NC, presented himself to Kimmel one morning in the summer of 1964 wearing his 2nd NC uniform with a small oriental rug torn in the middle, worn over his head poncho-style. He then asked, 'How do you like my impression?" Kimmel replied, "What's an 'impression?'" Musick referred to a Historical Impressions booklet by Gerry Rolph (this being a phrase Rolph used in his various endeavors), and said he was presenting "an historical impression." So Gerry Rolph is associated with the coining of that term as well as with "farb."

Not happy with my early 1960s account of the term farb? Perhaps you might like this next one better as it's nearly one hundred years older. My Internet pard Floyd D.P. Oydegaard has in his possession a letter dated 1 April 1863 from A.R. Crawford in the 76th Illinois Infantry, Co D (here's only a portion):

Six children from the local village appeared wearing fallacious accoutrements & reprehensible baggage and thought they would put a sham battle on for our amusement. We laughed so hard at their imitation of soldiers that our sides were hurting for hours. Talk about poorly drilled fresh fish. These boys were made honorary officers starting with general down to private. They each got a penny or more tossed at them and ran off, no doubt, to delight others.

Floyd - tongue firmly in cheek - points out that the underlined phrase is unmistakably the oldest reference to the word "farb."

My thanks to the following persons for supplying me with information and lore regarding the origin of the term so unique to the reenacting hobby: Ross Kimmel, Burt Kummerow, fellow rugger Larry Babits, Phil Katcher, Tony Horwitz, Lee Millar, Floyd D.P. Oydegaard and Harry Roach.

BEHIND THE BYLINE: Jonah Begone is one of the Camp Chase Gazette's resident village idiots. He sits in a tiny cubicle in the CCG World Headquarters next to a noisy photocopying machine, and wastes time with the corporate Internet connection. His feverish scrawlings may be found at "JonahWorld!" His address is jonah_begone@juno.com.

This page is cited in Michael Quinion's World Wide Words. (Look under "farb.") If you like English words, and I do, you'll like this website.

A letter I received 1/10/05 - has anyone else here come across the term "Farby-darby?":


I was most interested to read your accounts of the origins of the term "farby", as the term certainly was in use when we founded the RevWar 1st Md Regt in 1964. My recollection was that Burt Kummerow, Ross Kimmel, and fellow-"Blackhat" John G. Griffiths (the Curator of Ordnance at the USMC Museum from 1987 to 1997) used the term "farby-darby" to denote less than authentic uniforms and equipment. I had understood that the term originated in reference to a gentleman with the last name of "Darby" who had a Civil War "museum" at Harpers Ferry in the pre-Centennial years called "John Brown's Civil War Showcase." From all accounts, this establishment was not known for its attention to historical accuracy.

However, Burt (or "Huey Honk," as he was known after the 1967 Montreal Expo trip) should know best. I would be interested if Burt recalls the "Darby" connection. At any rate, I am glad to see that Gerry Rolph's boys got due credit for the term. As one who wore J. C. Penny work trousers (not Sears) as a Confederate drummer boy in 1961, I am forever in debt to folks like the Blackhats and the 1st Md (RevWar) who brought the standards of authenticity up to the professional levels that are evident today throughout the hobby. It certainly makes the life of a museum curator a lot easier in doing displays and exhibits, as long as folks refrain from "de-farbing" uniforms, accouterments, and weapons by altering markings or faking original markings. That makes our professional life a lot harder....

Respectfully Submitted,

Kenneth L. Smith-Christmas
Curator, National Museum of the Marine Corps
Museums Branch
Marine Corps History and Museums Division
2014 Anderson Avenue
Quantico, Virginia 22134-5002

FYI: The Society for a Creative Anachronism (SCA) - Dark Ages and medieval reenacting - has jargon of their own. Click here to read Ioseph of Locksley's The Dictionary of SCA Slang.

My favorites:

CHAINMAIL MAMA: n., a woman fighter
CONAN-CLONE: n., a person attempting to be Arnie the Barbarian, or a female equivalent, usually in a MARVEL COSTUME.
DUKE FEVER: n., the wanting to be a Duke, usually by a Count.
FORCE, THE: n., Duct tape (IL) Also "the Holy Ribbon of St. Tenacious" and myriad variations.
FUBBA-WUBBA: n., acronym: "Fat Ugly Broad With A Bad Attitude" (derogatory)
KING THING: n., any royalty that is overly impressed by the fact that it is royalty
MINATURE FLEMISH PAINTERS: n., camera (eastern, perhaps Anglespurian only)
PORTA-CASTLE: n., a portable toilet.
RHINO-HIDE: n. or v., A fighter who fails to accept legal blows, a cheater. (very derogatory) [The Civil War counterpart is "Won't take hits."]
WEEBLE: n., a person who does not count blows, non-"macho" term, from the phrase "Weebles wobble, but they don't fall down.." (derogatory)

Note especially this one:
FARBEL: n., an inauthentic member. From "FARB-be it from me to question the authenticity of your costume....", etc.

E-mail from 11/23/14:

Ran across your farb origin article on the Internet. As an original member of the 2ND NC ( Company B based in Salisbury – NC) I can tell you that the article is dead accurate. Our leader (NC Chapter) was Luther Sowers (who is still with us – age 75). I’m 69 myself. Luther hooked up with George Gorman while a student at Temple University (Philadelphia) & had the original 2nd NC idea. The “Black Hats” were certainly an inspiration to the 2nd NC but we took “authentic” to new levels. Luther Sowers was the real driving force behind “authentic” uniforms – leather goods etc. Gorman was too drunk most of the time to accomplish “creative” stuff. Luther was (& still is) a master craftsman. He’s done re-pro uniforms for Hollywood, Broadway, TV etc. Tony Horwitz can confirm what I say because he wrote 1-2 articles about Sowers for the Wall Street Journal. I have no clue why he left him out of Confederates in the Attic as he could have been good for 2-3 chapters (minimum). My wife always thought I was exaggerating re: Sowers but – after she met him last spring the tune changed.

Now she thinks my stories were “not powerful enough.”

Luther resides in a “Gone With The Wind” Mansion outside Salisbury, NC. “Character” does not cover it. As for myself: I’m a retired Air Force Officer. These days: I just shoot my numerous Civil War era repro firearms. Some of the dudes at my shooting range belong to the NSSA (very FARB units). Have to restrain myself from breaking out the “sheep bleat.”  

Seems like “the 60’s” & 2nd NC are in a galaxy “far – far away”.  

Cheers (& thanks for the article)  

 Bill Bailey 
Chapel Hill, NC  

Here's a picture of Luther Sowers in his Salisbury, NC workshop, finishing off a sword. He’s done a lot of work for The National Park Service, Colonial Williamsburg etc. Luther graduated from Tyler Art School – Temple University. Does a lot of sculptures also. Very talented. Wish I had a dollar for hours we spent together crawling around the NC State Museums etc. NC had no clue what they had until we told them !!