“Each morning started with distant bagpipes and the evening ended with the soothing notes of “a bamboo flute floating over the camp,” said Cathy Bennett of Dolph, Arkansas. “It was a perfect way to begin and end days at a rendezvous of the 1830s.”
Cathy and her husband, Billy, were two of the hundreds of reenactors who spent a week wearing clothing of the mountain man era, cooking over open campfires, competing, hand sewing and living in tents at the Southwestern Regional Rendezvous in Lampasas, Texas.
The event was a chance to revisit the lives and living conditions of the early explorers who searched for beaver and other furbearers and expanded the knowledge of our country. When they weren’t visiting with friends old and new, the Bennetts were learning skills like axe throwing, weaving and archery. They also bartered and sold hand-made items from a trade blanket in front of their tent, and attended dances and get-togethers in the central plaza.
- RELATED STORY: Important Steps For a Primitive Bow Build
“It was our first big mountain man rendezvous,” Billy “Cat Killer” Bennett explained. “Before moving to Arkansas, we were members of the Society for Creative Anachronism and re-lived the times of Henry VIII. The mountain man era is much more suited to my life today and background.”
Lucky for the Bennetts, Cathy is an amazing seamstress. She can make clothes in the style of any era. All she needs is a picture to design the pattern. She whipped up appropriate clothing using pictures she got from the internet and a clothing coloring book ordered from the Museum of the Fur Trade.
Billy, a former Marine and EMT, likes the mountain man period because the gatherings allow him to use survival skills that he has developed as a hunter and a believer in preparedness, and it expands his knowledge of living off the land.
“I enjoy reenacting this era because I learn self-sustainability skills,” Billy said. “It’s important to gather useful skills from the past. Many of the ways they did things back then work better than what we do today.”
No matter which era of history holds your fascination, there is probably a group that celebrates it. There are folks that load up their cannons and horses each year and spend a week reenacting Civil War battles like Champion Hill in Edwards, Mississippi. These hardcore Civil War aficionados wear authentic wool uniforms even in the heat of Mississippi summers, and camp out under the stars around the plantation where the battle was actually fought. They have shooting cannons, period equipment and clothing suitable for the Civil War.
During the battle each year there are sword fights, shooting (with blanks), horse charges and scores of soldiers being shot, wounded and temporarily killed in the field of the plantation. Hundreds of people come from as far away as Rhode Island and Oregon to participate in the battle each May, and thousands of picture-snapping visitors show up to watch from the edges of the battlefield and visit the soldiers in their bivouacs.
Cowboy action shooting is another popular way to reenact. These folks dress up like bad guys, badge-toting marshals, saloon girls and whatever other characters they choose from the Old West era. Then they shoot it out with bad-guy targets using sixguns, rifles, shotguns and real ammunition. Scenarios are written in advance. Many groups camp out and share a Western experience for several days at a time.
There are also groups for the Revolutionary War, the French and Indian War and for just about any other historical period. These groups are fairly easy to find with just a Google search. And if you’re into guns and cowboy action shooting, be sure to visit our sister publication Guns of the Old West online at gunsoftheoldwest.com.
Pioneer Role Playing
What is the fascination that brings these celebrants of living history together? Why travel hundreds of miles to partake in some live-action role-playing (LARPing)? I’ve asked dozens of reenactors of diverse time periods and there doesn’t seem to be a single answer. Each reenactor has a personal agenda.
“Reenacting is putting research and historic facts into everyday life experiences as life was lived back then,” said Cathy. ”I can create the clothing, wear it while living in a tent and go through daily routines that make the past become real.”
Most mountain man reenactors cite taking part in activities of the time as what keeps them going to rendezvous.
“Reading about starting a fire with flint and steel is one thing. The real experience of getting the first fire going is very different,” said Cathy. “After scraping your knuckles on your knees for 15 minutes to get that spark to turn into fire, I appreciate the explorers and pioneers like the mountain men.”
There is more to reenacting than playing in a tent for the weekend. Participants teach each other skills that can be translated to life outside the 1830s,” said Cathy. “I find that other reenactors have the same passion for history and learning I do. We have gathered for quilting, butchering, tanning hides, cooking and bonnet making.” Most groups also share information and skills with folks who come to the encampment.
- RELATED STORY: Classic Comeback Camping
“It’s fun. I like showing and explaining the old ways of doing things to the visitors,” said Theresa “Miss Hattie” Lafferty. “Some psychologist would probably say it’s an extension of little kids trying on adult clothes and adult behaviors, but it’s more than that. Not only do we take on someone else’s personality, but we get to do all the things they would have done, knowing full well that on Sunday we will pack up our kits and head back to a civilization that includes air conditioning, flush commodes and washing machines.”
Often scout or school groups are brought out to see how their predecessors lived. It gives the kids a window into yesteryears that just doesn’t come alive in books.
A mountain man rendezvous is held each September in the Ozark Mountain town of Calico Rock, Arkansas. Thousands of visitors stream through the park, talk to reenactors, watch demonstrations and buy the items they have for sale. Things like cooking supper in a cast-iron Dutch oven or carving and fitting a knife handle take on a whole new meaning after visiting an encampment.
“Bringing my class to the park to learn tomahawk throwing, fire-starting and cooking over an open fire is a highlight of the school year,” Christy Thompson, a fourth-grade teacher, said. “They come back to class with a clearer view of what really happened in the lives of people who lived in that time. There was even one reenactor who portrayed the French trapper who named our town. The staining on our bluff reminded him of calico cloth. After a visit to the village, overall class history grades improve dramatically.”
- RELATED STORY: Treasure Hunters: Unearthing The Artifacts Of America’s Past
Old, Better Ways
Most people go to their first rendezvous at the invitation of someone who is already living the life. After visiting the camp and talking to the participants it’s easy to think, “I can do that.”
A greenhorn participant starts with basic period clothes and sharing a tent with someone else. Gradually, he or she picks up camping equipment, pots and pans and updates their outfits with fur hats, corsets and other replica clothing. The final step in the commitment process is to buy a correct period tent. Soon the novice is spending weekends traveling to events and planning vacations around rendezvous. The final step is to earn their own camp name and become a regular participant.
“Retirement allows more time for me and Billy to prepare and participate in rendezvous,” explained Cathy. “We just bought a new, larger tent and are making furniture and more period clothing for the upcoming Southwestern Regional Rendezvous in Leslie, Arkansas in March.”
The couple spends many of their evenings and snow days cutting and sewing leather for new moccasins, remaking old blankets into coats and weskits and forging knife blades. Even in the 1830s folks still had to keep up with the guy in the next tent.
Rendezvous close to the Rocky Mountains, where original hoorahs were held, are the highest level of mountain man reenacting and attract thousands of participants and visitors each year. Each summer, tan tents blossom like huge wayward flowers across the landscape and the feasting and competitions begin. In the end each person who participates has his or her own reasons for getting involved with reenacting.
“I enjoy the wonder in the eyes of a child who feels a beaver pelt for the first time as much listening to a wizened senior remi- niscing about old skills that are lost from his childhood,” Cathy explained. “I continue to learn each and every time I attend an event. The most rewarding part is the fellowship and friendship shared during the gatherings. Food, laughter and stories over campfires make treasured memories that last a lifetime. That makes all of the work worth the effort.”
There’s no doubt these weekends are a special amalgam of living history, discovering ways to do old things and the fun of dressing up and camping out. One can never go wrong when trying to learn lessons from the past.
- RELATED STORY: How To: Wilderness Wall Tents
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.