As I write this, I’m sitting in the car on my way to Ft. Frederick State Park in Western Maryland. My husband is driving, and the fact that I’m not is a luxury. For so many years, we needed two cars for this trip.
We’re headed to the 18th Century Market Fair to camp — reenacting the past with some modern conveniences thrown in. When I first made this trek sixteen years ago, I just dressed in my not-very-accurate colonial best, grabbed some money, and hit the road. I had no idea what to expect, but the new friends who’d told me about the event would be camping there, and I thought there was a chance I might crash with them overnight. So I brought a toothbrush and a contact lens case.
I would never travel that light again, not by a long shot.
After I parked, paid my entrance fee and walked up to the entrance, I found myself suddenly surrounded by acres of white canvas tents and thousands of people who looked like they’d never seen a cell phone, running water or even a train. I was overwhelmed–both thrilled and a little horrified at the same time. I had thought it would be easy to find my friends in their colonial garb. After all, mob caps and knee breeches tend to stand out in a crowd. But here it would have been easier to spot them if they’d been wearing Ravens shirts and jeans.
Fortunately, someone I knew spotted me and led me to the campsite of a friend. Another newcomer and I teamed up to wander the rest of the afternoon and evening, visiting campsites full of cast iron cooking implements, lit only by the flames of candle lanterns and cooking fires. No glaring lights. No radios. Lots of live music and laughter. It was a different world and I knew right away I wanted to spend more time in it.
So as soon as I returned to the 21st Century, I started buying things that I thought would help me make that return. Within just a year or two, we had amassed enough stuff that it required two large vehicles and a rooftop carrier to transport it all to the campsite.
First, we needed a period-correct tent. Sixty-six pounds of canvas. And an additional canvas dining fly, all supported by about 20 wooden poles created by trial and lots of error. A big bag of ropes. My husband tells himself that he likes to build things, so he was obliging enough to build us a camp bed and boxes with shelves to set up a camp kitchen. We bought wooden cots for the kids, cast iron pots, pans and elaborate forged iron rigging to hang or sit things over the fire. We added giant baskets and boxes filled with wool blankets, colonial clothing of varying degrees of accuracy, ceramic mugs, tin cups, and steel cake pans that we use as plates. We packed a lot of wood furniture– folding chairs, folding stools, folding tables. Some of these pieces arguably could have been found in Maryland in the time of George Washington. Others are only period-correct in the sense in that they are not made of plastic.
In short, we acquired a lot of stuff. Some we found in thrift stores. Some we purchased from other reenactors or sutlers offering their wares at the fair. Some stuff we made. Some we ordered from overpriced catalogs. And some, I’m sad to say, came from Walmart.
So it took weeks to plan, and several days to pack. Just for a weekend at the fair. Was it worth it?
Hell, yes! Though some years the weather made our stay rather miserable (or even dangerous) other years it was glorious to shed the busy pace of the 21st Century and simply enjoy living. We were doing chores — cooking, splitting wood, hauling water — and it somehow felt like a vacation. The kids had chores, but they also had plenty of time to play stick ball, stage mock battles at the fort, and watch the shows. My daughter was so fond of the Faire Wynds Circus that she dashed out of camp every time she heard the horn blow for the start of a performance. At the end of the weekend, she asked one of the performers to autograph a piece of parchment with a quill pen.
One year our son built a lean-to on the back of our tent using foraging and building skills learned in scout survival camp. He slept in it all weekend. And one of my favorite moments of my entire life occured at the end of a long sunny day in camp. As my daughter and I trekked up the hill to visit the “necessary” (thankfully clean, modern plastic porta-potties) one last time before bed, she sighed and said, “I can’t wait for tomorrow!”
“What’s tomorrow?” I asked.
She answered with excitement, “Another day!”
Sadly, neither child is with us this year – college schedules don’t mesh very well with the reenacting calendar. We don’t have the cots, and there are fewer baskets of the semi-period correct clothing, and fewer layers of blankets, sleeping bags and pillows. I’ve also come to realize that I do not need to pack every period-correct cup, bowl, plate, pitcher, kettle and piece of wooden furniture that we own. Because we own a lot now. Most of the more decorative items remain on their shelves, so we have less to pack and unpack and we can manage to fit it all in one car. We also leave behind the not-really-period-correct stuff that we used until we acquired better stuff. Most of that is sitting in the basement until I figure out what to do with it.
Overall, the amount of stuff acquired in the name of this hobby is a little mortifying. Several impoverished villages could outfit themselves quite well with my cast-offs. Eventually I’ll finish giving away everything we no longer use. But I get to keep the memories — all of them. Memories of beautiful days with birds singing in the trees and memories dark nights with the tent collapsing around us in a storm. That’s all any of us have left in the end, and all that stuff helped us get there.
So was it the biggest waste of money ever? Maybe not after all.
Here are the two sites we’ve “colonial camped” at the most:
Ft. Frederick Market Fair – http://dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/western/fortfrederick.aspx
Colonial Craftsman Weekend at Jerusalem Mill Village – https://jerusalemmill.org
I started volunteering at Jerusalem Mill to learn household skills that my heroine would know when I was writing my second book, Restitution. We even ended up using one of the buildings at the site on the cover: https://katedolan.com/restitution.