Sunday, August 7, 2016

Blennerhassett Island Rendezvous

Originally posted: February 23, 2014

That's it, just ahead. The Ohio River surrounds it.
The Spring and Summer of 2013 was to be my season of discovering America’s past from it’s pioneer beginnings. Its fun to surf the Internet to see what’s going on elsewhere that isn’t covered by local newspapers or even the larger travel magazines. This is an annual event called the Blennerhassett Mountain Men Rendezvous,  where re-enactors of that historic period get together and talk to “strangers” about their lifestyle as it was in the mid-18th Century even before America declared itself to be the United States of America. These were the first of the pioneers to strike-out alone from the civilized world to live off the land were among the very first to see the country, trade with aboriginal Americans (aka Indians), and brave all elements to survive. These were brave and hearty souls and I wanted to meet some of them.

The Island Bell - waiting for final passenger boarding call - me.
“Island Belle” was holding final passenger boarding call. They were kind of waiting for me to quit taking pictures. They were on a tight schedule.

The modern day town of Parkersburg, West Virginia is the jumping off point in our time machine visitation. Specifically, dock where the stern-wheeled “Island Belle” picks up supplies and passengers. Although the ship appears to be a coal or wood burner from the past, it is really a modern diesel-powered ship. A round-trip ticket costs $9.00 per adult. However, as I stepped onto the gangplank wearing a pair of Levi’s, city hiking shoes, boonie hat and photographer’s vest loaded with my notepad, pens, extra memory cards, short lens with my Nikon 80~200 f/2.8 attached to my Nikon D2x, I still couldn’t help but mentally visualize a scene from the old movies of the riverboat days or a page from Mark Twain. The river ways were the Interstate Highway system of those days.

Approaching the landing took only Captain's skill as swift current wanted to push us downstream.
The captain of the Island Belle began to reverse the engines and paddle wheel rotation to slow the ship as we steer to port side toward the landing. As the ship slowed against the strong current of the mighty Ohio River, the captain had to steer into the current and forward at the same time in order to avoid drifting farther downstream. He did a fine job and we landed without incident, but we could feel the revving vibrations of the diesel engines and could see the constant need for short course corrections as we turned into the landing. Holding his foot to the accelerator (to use a common frame of reference) to keep the ship in place, the crew lowered the gangplank and we disembarked into the pioneer past to explore the island.

I couldn’t wait to start taking photos, but I needed a subject or two. I had but a few images so far, but wanted lots more. Always take more than you need, is my photography motto. Some you will want to delete, some you can improve upon in post editing and some will be just great as is, while others will remain simply snapshots. It doesn’t matter. I’m not doing it for the money, but for future memories and maybe someone’s education along the way.

My own pioneer instincts told me to sniff the air for the smell of burning wood. Ah, over to the left is where I would find the encampments. At the landing, I walked up the dirt and gravel road and made way for the camps of the mountain men. I saw these two beautiful horses pulling this wagon of school children up rise in the road at a pretty fast pace so that they could make it to the top and give the kids a thrill, I guess.

Horse-drawn wagon rides were popular for the visiting school kids on a field trip.
The smell of campfire smoke was getting stronger so I knew I was on the right trail. Ha! It was the only trail. I could see some tents hidden in the trees ahead. I kept walking, but as today was officially the first day, I expected to see an area full of re-enactors. I stood still for a moment and counted, … twice. Only six. SIX campers.

Of course, this was a Friday and many folks had jobs and paychecks to earn back in the 21st Century. Maybe the constant threat of forecast rain over the course of the weekend kept the campers at home. At the moment, the weather was perfect – just perfect.

I had come prepared to spend the entire weekend there if things worked out. At the moment, I was a bit disappointed by the turnout, but determined to make the best of it all. Not having that many subjects, I still did my best to capture the flavor of the event. I still had a good time.

The Gunsmith's camp. Living the reality of those times.
The camp of the gunsmith. Notice the flue for his tent heater. These folks have spent a lot of time, effort and their own cash to be realistic to the times.

My first stop of interest was at the camp of a gunsmith. This gentleman actually hand-crafted flintlock guns in his shop at home using the methods of the pioneer times – no power tools unless the power was man-power.

Gunsmith discusses craftsmanship and the art of pioneer gun making.
Although he was engaged in conversation with other pioneers, he stopped so he could answer some questions about his flintlock rifles for some passing school children. I took the opportunity to ask a few of my own.

He seemed to be a quiet and deliberate man very committed to his craft and as any craftsman should be, proud of his work. His desire to share this with others is a true testament of his character. I’m sure you’ve heard it 1,000 times, but in this case its true. They just don’t make ‘em like that any more.

Powder horn and lead-ball pouch always at the ready for defense or game.
I couldn’t help myself and asked him if I could get some shots of his gear. “Hell, son, that’s what I hauled it here for.” The gentleman didn’t actually say that, but I sure might have. After all, he was a gen-u-ine mountain man.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of one of his pieces. Of course, he had hand-made a reproduction of a flintlock rifle that could have been carried in the Revolutionary War against England. It was a beautiful piece, but THIS one could have actually been there.

This flintlock rifle could have been carried in America's Revolutionary War. It carries the date 1762.
I’m sure the gentleman would have let me hold it and aim it at the treetops, but I dared not ask. I had mental visions of actually having to use such a weapon to hunt for my food rather than use my wampum cash at the meat counters of our local Shop ‘n Save. I just know I would have been one of those sullen and starving pioneers that didn’t make it very far. It was a matter of either do or die.

I had to move along. I didn’t want to monopolize this kind man’s time and there was much left to see.

Next I wondered into the campsite of a woodworker and his family who had been coming here for many years and had the souvenir medals given by the organizers to show for it. As he carved faces into pieces of wood with his pocket knife, his wife and young son strung trade beads. This was cool that the entire family was there to represent that not just the men-folk  traveled West in those days. Every family member had a job to do or chores to do to help the family to survive. Fathers would teach their sons and mothers would teach their daughters. There were definite roles to be performed and as today, there were always exceptions as there were no rules or laws out in the wilderness.

Drifting along at a snail’s pace, savoring the aromas of hardwood fires mixed with cool off shore river breezes, I stopped to admire a huge trap large enough to bag a bear – and so it was, as I was later informed. Although it had been permanently rigged to never slam shut on some unsuspecting young-un, it was impressive enough. As I bent down to examine it closely, it’s owner walked over with a big grin on his face. ”Ya like that? Do ya?”

Mountain man poses at his abode with rifle and walking stick nearby.
“Of course!” I said. I’d seen smaller traps before, but never one this size.

“I had to fix it so that it would never close. I couldn’t actually display it otherwise.” I could see on the bottom where he had a piece welded on, but otherwise it looked ready to go.

We talked a long time about the today’s times relative to say the 1830’s and why so many decorations on his hat. He was surprised at that question since I wore many pins on my boonie hat from my visit to the 25th Anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. with a group of veterans.

He just said, ”They’re memories.” As he pointed them out one by one and told each one’s short story I snapped a photo. The four of clubs had a bullet hole in it, but not in his hat. This story turned out to be a mountain man’s marksmanship challenge with a muzzle loader.

I could have talked with him all day. As it turns out, he’s a member of a local muzzle-loaders club not 25 miles from where I live. I’d seriously like to bump into him again. Very interesting, knowledgeable and fun to hang out with that day.

As the skies started to darken over and the wind picked up carrying a slight chill, as one mountain man to another, there was a storm front moving in. Well, it was predicted by 21st Century experts. I guess they have to be right sometimes. I looked up at the skies, then looked for shelter somewhere – just in case – but I still had some time, but not much.

By now, some of you are curious about how the rich people lived and why this place was called Blennerhassett Island. It was because of some politically connected rich guy who made a fortune, bought the island, set up his little empire away from the poor people and their impoverished ways. He later got into some legal trouble, was exonerated, but never regained his fortunes and died somewhere around New Orleans, broke. The local historical society located the original plans for the house and archaeology departments of local universities located key points of the original foundation. Money was raised and the house was actually built on the mainland, then moved by river barge and set-up in it’s current location – for the tourists.

The Blennerhassett Mansion -  rebuilt from original plans on reconstructed on original foundation remnants.
I didn’t pay the measly four dollars for the costumed ladies’ guided tour as this wasn’t my mission today. Besides, I’m a common man and would never identify with how the wealthy might have lived in those days. I’ve been through some of these mansions before such as in Madison, Indiana and a couple of other places I have no photos of. I was more interested in the lifestyles of the original people who worked with their hands to carve a place for themselves – not in history, but for their very existence – the true believers, the explorers and the founders of this, our Ohio River Valley homeland.

The wind began to seriously blow, flags were flying straight out and darker and darker the skies became.

Storm's a-comin' and it won't be long.
There was a shelter house with numerous picnic tables and a snack bar not far from where I stood and if I ran, I could make it – but then so would everyone else visiting that day. Just about that time, the voices of the diesel engines of our refuge could be heard making for the riverboat landing.

As we all rushed for the last boat back to port for the day, visiting time ended, the leading edge of bad weather began to announce itself by huge water droplets banging down on bare heads and sun hats. This could get ugly in a hurry. It was a good thing theIsland Belle had an enclosed salon which served soft drinks and snacks. I’m sure it was the only allure for the kids on the boat who would have rather played in the rain.

It was really coming down hard now as I protected my camera valuables underneath my photographer’s vest even as I crowded inside with the school kids. Good cameras can withstand a lot of abuse from temperature, dust and wind, but rain isn’t one of them.

The National Ensign always flies on a good ship, even in bad weather.
As the crew raised the gangplank, soaked to the skin, the captain backed away from the landing. I snapped a shot of the rain hitting the water. I dunno why. Don’t ask me why I take a picture. I’ve seen lots of rainfall in my lifetime, but this rain made a sort of harmonic music as it played on the surface of the mighty O-hi-o. Surely, the Indians and settlers alike must have deemed it soothing to their souls as well.

The pouring rain made music on the Ohio River.
The captain wheeled the ship around and shifted gears to all ahead flank (I’m guessing) and proceeded against the current up river to the dock we left from earlier in the day. Just as suddenly as the heavy rains came, they left the area and the sun returned for the last half of the short trip from the island back to port.

The rest of the day was sadly, pretty normal. We docked, slowly walked down the gangplank back into the 21st Century to our waiting modern automobiles with air conditioning, power steering, brakes, and cruise control – finally back to our real world. Somehow, having visited the past – for only that short time in relative terms – I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I had actually been there all along. (almost)

The village ducks. God love them all.
The ducks. You’re looking at the ducks. Why pictures of ducks in this story? Well, I always take pictures of ducks, too. I dunno why.

Another great day-trip .. a one-tank day trip. Until next time ..


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