Stepping through the gates is like stepping through time. On one side, smartphones, automobiles, and electricity, on the other side muskets, hides, and canoes. On Aug. 10 people gathered at Old Wadena Park for the 29th annual Wadena Rendezvous. The rendezvous is a two day spectacle devoted to the old ways of living. For a small fee, spectators can enter the park and observe period accurate demonstrations and reenactments. There are also many opportunities to learn new skills while taking in culture conceived over a 100 years ago.
Sitting in the middle of the makeshift camp was Daniel Boessel. Boessel was nestled behind a rather large canoe, he took a long drag on his pipe while people stopped to inspect his craftsmanship. The young man and his father have made hundreds of canoes. The process of constructing a canoe is intense with multiple steps which require a bevy of materials.
“I’ve been rendezvousing since I was three years old,” said Boessel. His small encampment was made up of an assortment of tools, hides, and woodworking materials. Boessel used one of his larger canoes to prop his tent which he slept in the night prior. During this meeting he was posing as a canoe builder for the Northwest Company and his job was to man the fur post and construct canoes for hauling gear and people.
According to Boessel, the hardest part of constructing a canoe is the sewing, which consists of assembling the body pieces into one solid canoe. Early in the day he was concocting a black tar substance that he would use to seal the canoes. Another arduous task that often involves repeat applications. Cold water takes its toll on the sealing and it has to be gone over with subsequent trips up river.
In the distance, a clacking filled the air. Rhythmic taps that sounded as if they were being synchronized with music. This sound wasn’t coming from the music tent, it was emanating from a mock fur traders shack. Two little girls gathered near a table displaying tradables wares. They were playing with a wooden doll attached to a short stick. With one hand the doll was made to dance merrily on a slab of wood. Lora Foust was leading the young lady with a rendition of yankee-doodle as the wooden marionette jumped to and fro. The limberjack is an old fashioned toy and improvised percussion instrument. The toy, according to historians most likely originated in Ireland and found its way to North America. The toy is meant to resemble a clog dancer and they are typically made in Vermont.
Foust has been living history for decades. “We reenact life in the North American fur trade,” explained Foust. Foust has a genuine love for history and the fellowship it brings. During a rendezvous she and others gather to enjoy campfires, tell stories, and sing songs.
Today furs have been replaced by a trip to the clothing store. In this era a fur coat may be considered a rare luxury item but a little over a century ago, they were a necessary part of life. Midge Johnson scraped away at a rabbit pelt mount an upright log. With every scrape she removed yet another layer of fat. Johnson has been participating in events like this since 1993. To date she estimates that she has prepared about 2,000 furs. Many years ago she decided to pursue this craft, from there she read books and received tips from many other tanners. The style of tanning shes uses is alum.
If you talk to 1,000 tanners, there's a 1,000 ways of doing it,” said Johnson as she took another thorough scape on the hide. Preparing a hide is a multi-step endeavor that requires patience and a little luck. According to Johnson if the animal is overly distressed during slaughter the increased adrenaline makes the hide more difficult to work with. The animal is skinned and the hide is soaked in salt for two days. The hide is then scraped, removing the fat and blood vessels, anything that can’t be preserved. Once that's done, the hide goes back in the salt to soak for an additional four to 10 days. The hide is removed from the bath and washed. Its put out to dry then a lotion is applied along with a good stretching. One hide takes around two weeks to prepare so she usually does them in batches.
People arrived by tractor, sitting on hail bails. As the smell of fire hit their noses a camp made of tents emerged from the forest, signaling a rare chance to experience life in a simpler manner. The Old Wadena Rendezvous is held near the banks of the Crow Wing River and organizers attempt to imbue every activity from the food to the demonstrations with rich history from the area.