Rendezvous with history

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 7, 2003

Rendezvous - a meeting at a prearranged time and place. To cause to assemble or to assemble at a prearranged time and place.

From the road the only two things that could tip off an observer are the sounds of rifle shots echoing through the thick pine forest and the man, dressed in ancient clothing, standing by the gate.

Other than the crack of flint-lock rifles rolling through the hills and the kind man at the entry checkpoint to land owned by a Pike County physician, no other visible signals are there to alert passers-by that a huge village full of fascinating campers in historical garb lies just through the trees.

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But once past the gate, a person can, if properly motivated to traverse the rugged terrain, stumble across a group of people from around the nation who have converged on Pike County this week for the annual Southeastern Rendezvous.

The gathering is a function of the National Rendezvous and Living History Foundation which, along with the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, sponsors a get together of people that are devoted to equal parts history and good times.

The Rendezvous in Pike County is equal parts Woodstock, Civil War reenactment, Boy Scout camping trip and field party. The participants, who draw upon historical periods between 1700 and 1820, are kind and often exude a grizzled wisdom imbued by countless nights spent sleeping on the dirt and under stars.

They insist that the gathering of nearly 500 campers, who come from as far away as Canada and Nevada, is tiny in comparison to the national gathering coming this summer in Ohio, where over 6,000 Rendezvous participants are expected.

"It starts out as fun, becomes a hobby, then a habit and, ultimately, a way of life," explains Lee Lehmann, who has been traveling around the country to Rendezvous gatherings since 1983.

Lehmann, who hails from Jack, Ala., is a former policeman who enjoys the tolerant atmosphere of the meetings.

"I'm a former cop and one of my best friends out here is a former dope dealer and people say 'How can ya'll get along?' but that's just it. That was then and this is now," he said.

Lehmann still has a law enforcement capacity of sorts though. As a "dog soldier," he's responsible for keeping order at the week-long campout, making sure no fires get out of control and settling any disputes that may arise during the intricate barter that takes place at the trading posts along trader's row.

The collection of tents that populate trader's row are among the most popular features of the gathering. Members of the public are welcome, for a $3 per day fee, to peruse the shops, where a person could find any sorts of fox furs, authentic iron tent pegs, belt buckles, crafts, jewelry or any number of hand-crafted items and treats. From toys to edible treats, the assortment is impressive.

One of the merchants, "Miss Allie," is 75-years-old. She's been traveling around the nation to Rendezvous meetings for the past 12 years. She said she hails from "Van Gough."

"Where my van go, I go," she said.

Miss Allie is the oldest woman in the camp, but said she still maintained a fierce independence and traveled the circuit alone, sometimes as much as 40,000 miles each year.

"I drive the van by myself, pitch this tent by myself and I change my flat tires all by myself," she said. "I call AAA all by myself and they come fix it."

Miss Allie sells cookies and homemade pickles, among other things, to passers-by.

"They call me the cookie lady, but my daughter said they are pronouncing it wrong. She said they need to say it like 'the kooky lady.'"

She gestures towards a body curled up at the rear of her tent.

"There was a drunk Indian running around here a while back. He was weaving in and out of people, yelling and stuff. He just wandered in here and passed right out on the floor. I'm scared to wake him up because he's got that tomahawk."

Tomahawks are just one of the weapons in the well-armed camp. In addition to "the hawks," which are thrown in competition, knives are abundant at the camp and the muzzle-loading rifle is a common sight - not to mention sound.

The thunderous crack of the flint-lock rifles can be heard throughout the camp as rifle enthusiasts take aim at the rifle range.

The weapons are cherished as critical to the heritage of American fur traders, who often met at rendezvous gatherings to trade supplies with merchants from the eastern cities.

Steve Borcherding is a modern-day incarnation of such merchants. He hails from Hamilton, Ohio, and runs an elaborate shop for his boss, Dick Bennett of Iowa. The duo travel around the country, making their living at such festivals. Borcherding estimates that he spends 38 weeks on the road, hawking ladies' historical camisoles, loin cloths, sheepskin pot holders and baskets that can be worn on the back like a backpack.

Every detail is critical when historical authenticity is at issue.

"We cut the tiny buttons for these tomahawk sheaths out of elk and deer horns," he said. "It takes about 30 minutes for each button."

That level of attention to the ways of life lost centuries ago can be seen standing on a hill over the campsite. There are no outdoor camping gear fanatics here, with water purification kits, high-tech tents and thermal sleeping bags. Tents are white canvas and held up with sticks of wood. Blankets are fur pelts or wool and music is made, not by boomboxes hooked to generators, but by instruments, hands and voices.

But in addition to minute scrutiny of historical accuracy, Borcherding stresses a common theme among Rendezvous participants: the people are what make the festival worthwhile.

"I've never met a nicer bunch of people," he said.

Lehmann agrees.

"Rule one: Have a good time," he said.

Hayward Legg is the chief of the Dog Soldiers. He's been participating in the gatherings for 25 years and offers a bit of explanation as to the allure of the Rendezvous.

"You can sit under the stars, sit by a fire and forget the war in Iraq and the rat race and the job," he said. "When it's over and you have to go back, it's like coming out of a dream."