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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2003

Rally 'round the sewing machines

By DENNIS BOVA

William Henry Harrison was quite a fella. He had a commanding presence. Presidential, even. But every time I see him I wag my finger and say, “You shudda wore a hat!”

Let me explain. Harrison was the ninth president of the United States. He's better known around these parts as the guy who built and commanded Fort Meigs - the original one in the War of 1812. It's pretty well known that the fort is in Perrysburg, which brings me to another point: The town is misnamed.

Comm. Oliver Hazard Perry never set foot in the burg. Harrison, however, exhibited foresight in building the fort before the rest of the town sprang up, thus beating the high housing costs. And he returned when he was running for president in 1840, giving rise to the “Harrison Rally Days” that are held to this day. So I say the town should be Harrisonville.

But I digress.

I've been seeing Harrison more so lately. He's an artist's portrait on a wall at the new museum outside the fort's rebuilt stockade.

We who volunteer at the fort have been spending time in the new digs getting ready for the upcoming season. There are the muskets and swords one usually associates with being part of a historical re-enactor's equipment. But on this day there was something more paramount. Sewing machines. Maybe a half-dozen or so (no pun intended). The place looked like something from New York City's garment district.

There were teenaged and middle-aged guys hunched over these stitchery-do's. Mothers and wives were there, too, doing their own work and yes, giving we males guidance. All of us were making the clothes we will wear at the fort this season: replicas of uniforms, street clothes, caps, and dresses particular to the early 1800s.

I sew as well as I sing, which is to say poorly. While trying to dodge my duties with the needle and thread, my eyes caught Harrison looking at me.

By all accounts, Harrison was well-liked by his troops. But he doesn't look impressive. His nose is a bit too large for his face, his ears a tad low and big. But there's something about his eyes and the set of his brow that makes you look past all that. He looks at you studiously, like he's sizing you up. I imagine him asking, “Do you have what it takes when the situation becomes adverse?” (They talked with a touch more formality back then.)

Like I said, I usually scold him for not wearing a hat. Here's why. That original Harrison rally day in Perrysburg helped propel him to the Oval Office. However, he became the answer to the trivia question: Which president had the shortest term in office? The hero of Fort Meigs, conqueror of Indians and the British, gave a long inauguration speech in cold, damp weather without a coat or hat. He caught pneumonia and died after being in office one month.

The rest of the volunteers joined me in a break from sewing. As we lunched, one of the fort's staffers mentioned that he had just gotten off the phone with the mother of a young man who used to re-enact here. This young man had left here to be a real serviceman. He's with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. The last she heard, he was north of Basra, the staffer relayed.

On a message board in the sewing room was the name and military address of this young man. Beside that was the name and military address of another former re-enactor, this one with a wife and child. The message to we who re-enact history is: Write to those who are taking part in history.

On the adjacent wall is Harrison. Looking.

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Dennis Bova is an assistant news editor at The Blade. He can be reached at bova@theblade.com



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