More than 150 years ago, Maj. Gen. Jubal Early of the Confederate Army put Frederick’s officials and residents in a tough predicament: give his army $200,000, or his troops would burn the entire city down.
That ransom story will serve as a backdrop for a scavenger hunt game throughout the city on Saturday, organized by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and Surelocked in Escape Games, named “One Vast Adventure.”
John Lustrea, historian at the Museum of Civil War Medicine and a lead organizer for the event, said the idea initially came from Chris Sparks, the owner/CEO of Surelocked in Games. Sparks initially spoke with Lustrea and David Price, executive director of the Civil War Museum, in January.
Sparks said he wanted to create a Civil War-themed game based on a historical event in Frederick.
“Very quickly, it became apparent that the ransoming of Frederick is one of those stories,” Sparks said. “So as we started talking about the possibilities, we started putting this idea of how do you imprison the entire narrative into a single room … and thing is, you can’t and if you’re going to accurately tell the story, you’re going to need more space. So we said, why not do the entire city?”
Those who register for “One Vast Adventure” will traverse much of downtown, stretching from Baker Park to Shab Row, and from Mount Olivet Cemetery to 6th Street. They’ll see about 40 costumed characters along the way, offering clues and puzzles for contestants to complete as part of their quest to collect money to pay off the ransom.
Lustrea said in reality, Mayor William Cole got multiple local banks to pay off the ransom in 1864. But in “One Vast Adventure,” it will be up to the game players to save the city.
“If you’re a game player, you’ll be given a booklet to see where to initiate puzzles … it’s not going to be a linear progression from one puzzle to the other,” Lustrea said.
As part of the game, roughly 30 businesses downtown have jumped on board as partners and/or sponsors, and will be offering numerous discounts as part of the event. There will also be an opening and closing reception at the Weinberg Center for the Arts.
Lustrea said Sparks and Price have been instrumental in marketing and informing downtown establishments about the game. Ticket sales had reached about 200 as of last week, and were still rising, he said.
“Between the two of them, they know a striking number of what I’ll call movers and shakers in downtown Frederick,” Lustrea said. “And they’ve been able to say, ‘We’re doing this event, do you want to help us make it a reality?’”
Sparks said he’s learned a lot about local history during preparations for the game. It’s also been a lot of work, he said — meetings at least twice a week, rehearsals for the 40 or so Civil War characters, and creating the props and obstacles that will be laid out throughout downtown, along with crafting the game itself.
But he’s excited about its potential, and thankful for the businesses’ support as he and others have marketed it.
“I am a tremendous history buff,” Sparks said. “I’ve always loved soaking in the stories of history and always thought learning about history was the ultimate form of storytelling, and during this whole bit of learning about the ransom … it’s amazed me how human the whole story is.”
Sparks and Lustrea both said they hope for the event to occur annually, at least for now. Their initial preparations have used history to flesh out multiple game paths for players as they make their way through town.
Lustrea said Major Gen. Early wanted the $200,000 split up into four categories: medical, quartermaster, ordinance and commissary. Those will serve as the main paths for game players. Some tweaks will be made for next year, but that main model will be used.
He and Sparks are excited to see contestants come out and enjoy the scavenger hunt.
“We’re excited for it to happen,” Lustrea said. “No one has really done anything like this, not only here, but anywhere. So we’re excited to live history and make history at the same time, we’re just very excited for it happen … there’s a little bit of buzz that it’s generating.”
Sparks noted the importance of support from the community to bring the event to fruition.
“You can’t do something like that unless you have a community of leaders and business owners and shopkeepers and elected officials who know Frederick is more than a collection of its bricks and mortar,” Sparks said. “It’s so amazing to me to see so many people band around a single event, and I know that’s why it’s going to be successful.”