Leisure Features

Dorothy About Town: 10.10.18

Autumn is one of St. Louis’ best seasons, filled with countless outdoor festivals. Most are craft shows or beer fests, but I recently discovered another type of event: the re-enactment rendezvous. It’s a gathering of folks dressed like pioneers who sleep in tents and cook on open fires for a weekend or so at a time, enjoying each others’ company while paying tribute to their American heritage. Another term for it is ‘costume camping,’ although that doesn’t capture its essence.

I visited a recent rendezvous in Defiance at the Daniel Boone Home and observed an almost patriotic devotion to honor the ingenuity of our forefathers. People set up tents and I don’t mean the REI variety—and used candle-lit lanterns. They had portable kitchens, and most wore handmade clothing. They whittled, played the fiddle and admired each others’ handiwork. Some sold wares like tomahawks, chemises and leather gunpowder pouches. Men from Mississippi showed off their homemade venison sausage.

The smell of gunpowder filled the air since this was also a ‘shoot.’ That’s a competition, complete with judges and prizes, using muzzle-loading rifles. As best I can tell, these are labor-intensive weapons that involve loose gunpowder, dampers and flintlocks (whatever those are). No matter how many kindly ‘frontiersmen’ tried to explain it, the effort was pretty much lost on me. I’m only sorry I missed the rest of the competition, which involved a bow shoot and, I think, a tomahawk throw. This particular rendezvous—there are many across the country, including at nearby Fort de Chartres in Illinois and Old Mines, Missouri—was sponsored by the Trappers of Starved Rock, an Illinois shooting club.

Among the things I learned: an animal’s brain oil can be used to tan its hide (that’s how the Plains Indians did it); cattle horns can be scraped, sanded and boiled to hold gunpowder; game meat tastes gamey only if it hasn’t been fully drained of blood and gore before cooking; and buckskin clothing was so popular back in the day because it protects from thorns and brambles in the wilderness (not because it looks cool!).

So why, you might wonder, do people brave the elements to sleep in tents, haul their own water and eat only what they can bring into the rendezvous (or maybe hunt on-site)? That is the question I posed the ‘living historians’ I met. It’s a pastime, a shared interest among people who revere their communal history. But most of all, they said it was an activity they got hooked on years ago. As one participant explained: “At night, it’s just gorgeous with only the lanterns, candles and fires glowing in the dark. And the stars above.”