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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2008

Local re-enactors rescue 1812 sister site besieged by flood

BY BRIDGET THARP
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Re-enactors with Cushing's Company, 2nd Regiment fire for 'civilians' at the 1813 Independence Celebration at Fort Meigs. Re-enactors with Cushing's Company, 2nd Regiment fire for 'civilians' at the 1813 Independence Celebration at Fort Meigs.
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Clad in a military uniform circa 1812 and packing an antique pipe of loose tobacco, D.J. Tripp didn't seem out of place yesterday beside his fellow war re-enactors at the 1813 Independence Day Celebration at Fort Meigs State Memorial, though he and three others traveled almost 500 miles to be there.

Mr. Tripp's group was unable to perform at its own 19th-century landmark - Old Fort Madison in Iowa - because the Mississippi River flooded the structure last month.

"It's a little bit of a nightmare out there," Mr. Tripp said of the damage from a Mississippi crest that exceeded the area's previous record flood, in 1993, by 6 inches. "It exacerbated the rotting and deterioration problems just from the age of the fort."

Because forts have significant places in War of 1812 history and a former Fort Meigs historical interpreter, Eugene Watkins, now runs the Iowa fort, re-enenactors from both forts have collaborated before.

Last summer, about 10 volunteers from Fort Meigs took a cannon to Iowa to perform demonstrations for their "sister site," Fort Meigs site manager Rick Finch said.

D.J. Tripp of Fort Madison, Iowa, enjoys his pipe. He and his group traveled almost 500 miles to get to Perrysburg. D.J. Tripp of Fort Madison, Iowa, enjoys his pipe. He and his group traveled almost 500 miles to get to Perrysburg.
JEREMY WADSWORTH / THE BLADE Enlarge | Buy This Photo

As the flood prevented Ohioans from making a similar trip this summer, Iowa re-enactors instead were invited to Fort Meigs, and donations were col-lected to be turned over to Old Fort Madison to repair its flood damage.

"We try to band together," Mr. Finch said, adding that at least $250 likely will be sent to Iowa. "When we have another War of 1812 site in trouble, we try to help."

Mr. Watkins was busy with federal inspectors and was unable to attend the Fort Meigs celebration, which drew at least 360 people yesterday and 600 on Friday to participate in live demonstrations.

Outside, about two dozen re-enactors and fort visitors played "rounders," a game presented at the fort as a primitive version of baseball. Players swung a flat wooden bat with one hand, hitting a ball crafted from a sewn ball of rags. Metal posts preceded the traditional bases, and defenders were allowed to stand in the path of the batter to protect the base.

Katy Lemle of Monclova, left, and Kayla Utendorf of Elmore, Ohio, wash dishes the old-fashioned way after making corn bread.
Katy Lemle of Monclova, left, and Kayla Utendorf of Elmore, Ohio, wash dishes the old-fashioned way after making corn bread.
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"It's difficult because you have to hit with one hand," 10-year-old Jaelon Neer of South Lyon, Mich., said.

"It's harder to run the bases," added Brandon Carter, 14, of Holland.

The slightly burnt smell of baking corn bread wafted onto the playing field as sisters Lynn and Annette Bristol of North Ridgeville, Ohio, demonstrated period recipes in a hearth oven.

"I like the baking," 5-year-old Katie Palmer of Temperance said.

Re-enactor Tony Szymanski smiled as he waved a short handcrafted knife over his head, telling 40 spectators that 1812-era riflemen used the same instrument to eat, clean their muskets, and shave their faces. The 59-year-old Holland man described with enthusiasm the hardships of working and sleeping outside at the fort in the Black Swamp when, "on a good day, mud was up to your shoe tops; on a bad day, it was up to your knees."

Kristin Newby of Toledo snaps a photograph of her daughter Joss Newby, 2, using a landmark as a backdrop, during activities at the Fort Meigs 1813 Independence celebration. Kristin Newby of Toledo snaps a photograph of her daughter Joss Newby, 2, using a landmark as a backdrop, during activities at the Fort Meigs 1813 Independence celebration.
JEREMY WADSWORTH / THE BLADE Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Across the grounds, his 56-year-old wife, Billie Szymanski, portrayed a nurse with a similar intensity. Disease was more likely than gunfire to kill soldiers, she told fort visitors, and primitive wooden operating tables were often painted red to camouflage old blood stains.

"I believe the children need to visualize this stuff," Mrs. Szymanski said of the hobby she's shared with her husband for about nine years.

That's the same reason 50-year-old Martin Land of Northwood said he's spent most weekends for 12 years in an artillery captain's uniform. He said fort visitors are often surprised to learn volunteer re-enactors crafted their own uniforms or built the period weapons.

Anya Harner of Bowling Green, at far right, fastens her tent to meet up with her company at Fort Meigs yesterday. Anya Harner of Bowling Green, at far right, fastens her tent to meet up with her company at Fort Meigs yesterday.
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"People in 1813 are no different than people today, they just have different issues to deal with," Mr. Land said. "Just come out and try something and you're capable of much more than you think. That's a good lesson in any time period."

Contact Bridget Tharp at:

btharp@theblade.com

or 419-724-6061.



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