Smoke rose from Christine "Pinneaple" Jameson's campfire as she melted a pot full of beeswax. Busloads of school children soon wandered among the tipis, lean-tos, and wall tents to dip candle wicks in Jameson's wax, as she explained how centuries ago, fur trappers and explorers in the area relied on wax, lard, and blubber candles as they journalized their experiences.
Photo by Chris Rogers
Blacksmith Matt Johnson took questions from St. Martin's School students while he worked at the Big Muddy River Rendezvous on Tuesday. Johnson and a host of other demonstrators are reenacting frontier life on the Mississippi River at Prairie Island Campground this week through Sunday.
"The idea is drawing it out," a blacksmith near Jameson's tent told students, stretching out the words as he pounded a tent stake to a point. The students were perfectly still as they listened to the clank of his hammer. With sooty hands, the man cranked a bellows and flames roared to life in the forge before him, and he returned the iron spike to the fire. "Back in the 1800s we didn't have Wal-Mart so people had to see me. Try to spot all the different pieces made of iron at the different camps here," he challenged the students. "They all would have been made by a smith."
The young students stepped away from the blacksmith's tent and explored other demonstrators' camps, where they were invited to throw tomahawks and observe stretched hides being tanned.
The Big Muddy River Rendezvous attracts school field trips, families, and participants from across the region to Prairie Island. Rendezvous' are gatherings of French fur trade-era historic reenactment enthusiasts. The name comes from meetings of French fur trappers and traders traveling the rivers and lakes of the region, where the frontiersmen would trade furs for supplies like musket balls and salt, explained Big Muddy River Rendenzvous organizer Luke Accord.
"You don't learn this kind of history out of a school book," Accord said. Young readers might learn "a black smith made tools. Well, that sounds pretty easy. But when you come out here and the smith says, 'It took me 14 hours to make this piece,' and he's actually showing you what he was doing," that provides students with a deeper level of understanding of their country's history, he said.
For many, it is also pretty fun. "I love wandering into a camp and feeling like I left the world behind," said a "trader" selling frontier goods to rendezvous visitors from his tent who would only identify himself by his "camp name," Noisy Bear. I used to blow a bugle a lot, he explains. Many participants who travel to different rendezvous are given teasing, camp names over the years, he added.
"What got me hooked was after dark, when all you see is candlelight, campfires, tents and people playing music," said Trish Thompson, another vendor. Rendezvous participants more or less live as pioneers would during the event, and that immersion is when the magic really starts to work, she explained. "We really sleep in here. We have blankets; we have wood stoves in our tent. We do live history," Accord said.
Some rendezvous participants, or "skinners," are regulars at gatherings throughout the year, like Noisy Bear, but many have day jobs and take vacation time to come to Big Muddy River Rendezvous, Accord said. They are history buffs who just have so much fun doing it, he explained.
Education is a focus for the rendezvous and historical accuracy is a point of pride among skinners. "We do a lot of research," Accord said. "Myself, I have an extensive library. I research my persona very deeply," he said of his frontiersman character. "We try to have at least four sources" to back up everything from clothing to products, he explained. "That is kind of an unwritten code among us, that if you're going to put this out to a school kid, you'd better be able to prove it to us."
Noisy Bear and Thompson said they are not always as scrupulous with adults. "We get a lot of dumb questions" from people old enough to know better, he said. One woman looking to buy sheepskins from Thompson's stand asked, "It doesn't hurt the sheep to get their skin, right?" Thompson remembered replying, "Oh, no, they just shed them every year and we go out in the field and pick them up."
The Big Muddy River Rendezvous runs from Tuesday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m at the west end of the Prairie Island Campground. Admission for children under six is free; $4 for children ages 6 through 13 and adults over 55; for everyone else it is $5.