Encampments bring historical eras to life

It didn’t matter to John Powers that campfire smoke was drifting his way, that the temperature would dip below zero or that he’d be sleeping outside three nights.

He was in Eagle River, it was Klondike Days, and his roost was at a premiere encampment for the Great Lakes fur trade as it existed from the late 1600s to 1840. There were friends to greet, roles to play, hominy and stew to heat at a campfire, lessons to teach about ways of life that almost everybody else let die long ago.

“We add a tactile, physical presence” to the history that children learn from books, says John. He and two other Minnesotans filled the bottom of their tree shelter with animal hides and thick blankets of wool. They wore clothes made by hand, and that included buttons of tightly wound thread. They cooked with simple but heavy skillets and pots.

“When I was a kid, this is what I wanted to do,” says Dave Turner, a Lac du Flambeau native. “Now I’m doing it.”

The 6-by-9-foot lean-to of evergreen boughs looked like a snug fit for two or three grown men, but long ago the space long was enough to accommodate twice as many for the night.

Most of the $17,500 budgeted for the 17th annual Klondike Days encampment was paid to the 32 living history re-enactors who braved the weather with good cheer, to explain the life of fur traders, French soldiers – anyone who was a legitimate piece of the puzzle during this time of history.

“I look for the ability to interact with the public, and the authenticity of information” imparted, says Bill Kroll of Eagle River, who organizes the encampment. In the group were a lawyer, emergency medical technician, security chief, arborist and history teachers. A half-dozen were women. Ages were 20s to 60s. Some spent the day at camp, then headed to a motel for sleeping.

“I couldn’t go winter camping, modern style,” John says. The encampment “enhances the experience to relive this part of history” in a near-authentic way.

Although Klondike Days is history for another year, rendezvous, encampments and historical re-enactments will multiple as the weather warms. If that interests you as a potential participant, now is the time to begin studying the type of character and historical period to be pursued.

It is much more unusual to be paid as a living history interpreter than it is to rent space at an event to pitch your tent and another personality. Bill says most interpreters begin as hobbyists who spend time at buckskinner camps or a rendezvous, where interest in history is high but accuracy might be compromised by the influence of films and fiction. So historical standards are less stringent, and the historical theme may not be coherent.

“Move slow,” Bill advises. “You can buy a lot that you don’t need.” He and his wife of 25 years, Lillian, began with a box of historically pertinent supplies that they’d bring to a buckskinner camp for the day, then move to a motel at night.

“I saw a man do this line of work in 1977, speaking to me as a Scout,” says Karl Koster of Grand Marais, Minn. “I was impressed.

“In 1980, the Boy Scouts at a summer camp asked me to develop an area for older Scouts. We came up with ‘mountain camp,’ a place to learn traditional skills,” tanning to blacksmithing.

Living history events became Karl’s full-time work 12 years ago. It is about educating other re-enactors as well as entertaining/educating the public.

Isaac and Hilary Walters of Blair (Trempeleau County) are in their 20s and parents of 2-month-old daughter Noelle. Having a baby will not lessen their participation in living history events.

“It is a combination of things that I love the most – history, camping, canoeing, the outdoors,” says Isaac, a high school history teacher, to explain the draw. “The more I experience myself, the easier it is to explain to others.”

He has learned simple leatherwork, blacksmithing and how to make a birch bark canoe. As a college student, it wasn’t unusual to find him at home sewing, while watching the History Channel and drinking a beer.

Today’s encampments – for Isaac and others passionate about history – are family vacation time. “It’s a lot of research and reading,” he says, but it’s what he and his wife thrive upon.

For more about living history events and participation, consult Bill Kroll at 715-479-5034 or www.historicaltrekking.com.

For a quick taste of what’s possible, consider the indoor Southport Rendezvous, about fur trading in the 1700s and early 1800s; it is 12:30-4:30 p.m. March 25 at the Kenosha Public Museum. Bigger annual events in Wisconsin include the Prairie Villa Rendezvous, Prairie du Chien, June 14-17; and the Civil War Weekend at the Wade House, Greenbush, Sept. 29-30.

The 80-acre Forts Folle Avoine Historical Park, Danbury (reconstructed fur trade posts), opens for the season on May 26. This year’s annual Midwest Rendezvous will be July 20-28 at Black Hawk Memorial Park, Woodford (LaFayette County). For more about these and other historic sites/events, see www.travelwisconsin.com.

Dozens of vendors will sell supplies, firearms and clothing of interest to historical re-enactors this weekend in Oshkosh. The Echoes of the Past Historical Trade Fair is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at Sunnyview Exposition Center, Winnebago County Fairgrounds, on County Y, just east of Hwy. 76.

It is a good place for the public to glimpse the makings of early American and Civil War history encampments. Period music, demos, fashion shows and seminars are a part of the event. Karl Koster is among seminar leaders; his topic is use and construction of straw hats in 18th and 19th century America.

Coordinator Brian Bradley also operates a living history supply store at 4330 County S, northwest of Oshkosh on Hwy. 110. For more: www.bradleycompanyofthefox.com, 920-233-5332.