Weekend Tourist: Meet me at the Rendezvous

Do you ever want to get away from smart phones and e-mails? Need a break from Facebook and Twitter? Would you just like to go back in time when things were easier? Well, you can. In fact you can go back to 1840 nearly every weekend if you just know where to look.

A Black Powder Rendezvous is a living history experience. These popular events have a large and loyal following, but on the other hand, many of us have never heard of them. They are similar to Civil War reenactment or Renaissance Festivals, except these groups focus on the fur trade era and the traders’ annual gathering called a rendezvous. They take place all over Minnesota and throughout the country.

Today’s rendezvous participants set up their camps, change into costume, then live as if it’s 1840 for a weekend or longer. Games and competitions are scheduled as well as craft projects. Those who stay overnight on the grounds stay authentic to the time: they dress in period clothing, camp in primitive tents, cook over wood flames, and shoot period fire arms charged with black powder.

Visitors are usually allowed on a particular day. Last weekend I wandered in to the Goose Creek Rendezvous in Harris wearing clothes made in this century. Luckily, it wasn’t a strict rendezvous. Some of them follow rigid rules of authenticity and have period police to make sure everything’s in era. You might get kicked out for drinking a can of Coke or having buttons on your shirt instead of ties, but mostly those rules are for participants, not visitors.

Entering the rendezvous was amazing. Eighty different camps were nestled side by side in a large open field. Tents and tipis were outfitted with rugs, cots, piles of wool blankets, and simple lanterns. Awning structures provided a kitchen and dining area complete with furniture. Small iron stoves were hung with utensils hand-wrought by a blacksmith. The blacksmith had his own camp too, displaying his wares with prices marked on a chalkboard sign. Four traders at this rendezvous sold goods to encourage newcomers to join the excitement.  

Waiting in line for the communal dinner felt like attending a fashion show circa 1840. Women wore long dresses of small calico print layered with aprons. Men were covered in animal hides, furs and 100 percent cotton broadcloth. More than one person wore a Hudson’s Bay blanket coat. The guy in front of me was covered with a beaver pelt vest, buckskin pants, a pleated open-collar shirt, and a bone necklace with turkey feathers. When I asked him if he made his own clothes he proudly exclaimed, “everything but my underwear!”

That evening’s dinner included roasted turkey, baked beans, bright orange squash, and corn picked that morning. No small plates, not a piece of arugula in sight; it was delicious. I sat at a friendly table with a couple from St. Cloud who’ve been rendezvous participants for more than 10 years. Two of their grandchildren were with them. In fact, lots of kids were there. It really was a family event. Socializing and making friends is a big part of the experience. Kids were screaming with delight at tomahawk throwing contests and didn’t seem to have any e-toy withdrawal problems.

The more people I talked to about how they became a rendezvous participant the more I realized they were all just regular people who liked camping or cooking outdoors or the shooting sports. I met a pharmacist, a minister, an electric company employee, a woman who lives in an Inver Grove Heights townhouse, people from all over the state. While I did see one piece of polar fleece, most of the rendezvous participants really did enjoy getting away from modern conveniences. When I came back to the city that night the bright lights and noisy streets made me long for wool and the smell of woodsmoke.

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There’s still time to take in a rendezvous this fall:
Oct. 1–2: Big Island Rendezvous, Albert Lea
Oct. 11–16: Big Muddy River Rendezvous, Winona