Living history

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Parts of Cape Girardeau took a 200-year step back in time Saturday as historical re-enactors played out their fantasies of living in another age.

"I do it because I was born 200 years too late," said Jackie Kussman of Fredericktown, Mo., who is participating in a festival honoring the bicentennial of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's three-year exploration of the continent.

Between talking to visitors at her tent, Kussman sat down at a fire pit at the Red Star Public Fishing Access to chat with fellow re-enactors of the Crowley Ridge Black Powder Club. The canvas tents of other re-enactors dotted the site.

Crowley Ridge member Jeff Lake of Dexter said re-enactors are drawn to the hobby for different reasons.

"My grandfather did leatherwork and coppersmithing and taught me, and I fell into it naturally," he said. "You'll find most of us doing this were either the geeks or nerds in high school that other people looked at and said, 'You're weird.'"

Early American settler life is Lake's choice for playing a part in history. He said he couldn't pull off a Renaissance role.

"I don't look very good covered in purple velvet," he said, laughing. "I look like a big grape."

The period clothing of re-enactors has an eye for authenticity. Some participants Saturday were wearing antique eyeglass frames.

As the campers cooked, made crafts, smoked pipes and talked with friends around fire pits, visitors arrived with questions -- lots of questions.

"Did you really sleep here last night?"

"What do you eat out here?"

"Is that fire real?"

Crowley Ridge president Dale Kemp of Dexter laughed about some of the stranger inquiries. Still he's happy the visitors -- especially the children -- are interested enough to ask.

"This stuff is history that's been forgotten, basically," he said looking down at a blanket covered with wood carvings. "A lot of these arts are dying. If we don't show somebody, then soon there won't be anybody around to do them."

For Joe Roberts, a heating and plumbing service technician from Scott City, reliving the exploration of the continent is a growing hobby. Years ago, he became involved with a local musket club that is now defunct. After attending several re-enactment rendezvous, he handmade his camping tools, tent and clothing -- from his fur-brimmed cap to his shirt and leggings.

"I'm happy to live in the time I do live in, because the average life expectancy for a man in the mountains was about 40 years of age then," he said. "But I really do enjoy the re-enacting because I love history."

That same love of history touches younger hearts, as well. In front of a stretched deer pelt where a re-enactor removed hair with a hand tool, 8-year-old A.J. Garns of Jackson -- dressed in a billowy shirt and leggings -- played barker to a crowd of youths.

"You guys sure you don't want to try this?" he yelled. "It's a lot of fun. I did it for an hour."

Several blocks away in Cape Girardeau's downtown, Main Street took on the appearance of an early American trading post, complete with blacksmiths, canoe carvers, native jewelry traders and folk dancing. Along the street, re-enactors explained star-charting, early American artillery and candle-making.

For most of the day, crowds waited in front of the Red House Interpretive Center to take the inside tour and learn about Cape Girardeau founder Louis Lorimier and other early settlers in the area.

The celebration continues today, with a parade at 11 a.m. marching from the encampment at the Red Star Public Fishing Access -- also known as Honker's Dock -- to the Red House.

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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