A weekend 'call to war' in Butler

More than 300 re-enactors will replay a French and Indian War battle

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When the clock strikes 11 a.m. Friday, more than 300 men and women will trade in their modern amenities for three days. They will be turning back the clock to a time when George Washington held the rank of lieutenant colonel, as he was ordered west to assert British claims in Western Pennsylvania.

French and Indian War re-enactors will be coming to Butler County 260 years later from all over the United States, and even Canada, to participate in one of the year’s largest French and Indian War re-enactments, the Battle of Great Meadows. Better known as the Battle of Fort Necessity, this 1754 conflict marked the commencement of the French and Indian War.

The Grand Encampment, as the event is known, will take place this year from Friday through July 20 at the Portersville Steam and Engine Show Grounds in Portersville. While Portersville is more than 100 miles from Fort Necessity in Fayette County, the Steam and Engine Show Grounds is an appropriate alternative because of its proximity to Washington’s trail.

Throughout next weekend, there will be plenty of opportunity for the public to engage in Colonial American scenes and activities.

Visitors will be able to experience a different aspect of the battle on each day of the encampment. On Friday night, French and Native forces will team up for a frontier raid on an English settlement. Saturday will show the re-creation of the Battle of Fort Meadows, and on Sunday the public will see a large field battle that will contrast the ways in which 18th century European and North American wars were waged. Throughout the weekend, a George Washington impersonator will make appearances.

There also will be demonstrations and activities ranging from cannon and musket firing to pottery and woodworking.

The Grand Encampment will feature some of the most skilled French and Indian War artisans in the country, who will be selling 18th-century merchandise. A knife will also be made on-site just as it would have been made in the 1750s. It will go up for auction after being engraved by Mark Thomas, known as one of the nation’s finest engravers.

“A lot of this is about letting the public into our world and our hobby,” said re-enactor Daniel Nehrer of Zelienople. “A lot of times our kids don’t take this up after us, so we have to constantly recruit. This really gives the public a chance to get out and get immersed in it. This is really living history.”

The Grand Encampment is also an opportunity for French and Indian War re-enactors (and fanatics) to meet one another while discussing, sharing and re-creating events that occurred between 1754 and 1763.

“I think the biggest draw honestly is just the love for history,” said re-enactor Jennifer Black of Portersville. “That common thread runs through all of us; we love the opportunity to play it out like this.”

Her love for the French and Indian War era is also a business.

Ms. Black, along with her partner Mark Wiley, is the owner of an 18th-century mercantile shop known as the Wiley House Shoppe. They, like many others at the encampment, sell historically accurate 18th-century clothing and wares such as guns and furs. With no permanent store location, Ms. Black and Mr. Wiley sell a great deal of their goods at re-enactment sites or through contact on Facebook.

Their clothing and accessories are examples of what preserves authenticity. From head to toe, re-enactors must prove accuracy of their 18th-century garb and roles as Frenchmen, Native Americans, settlers or militiamen.

“At this Grand Encampment and any immersion event, you have to stay [in character] 24/7, even if the public isn’t there,” Mr. Nehrer said. “This is for people who are really seriously into the history.”

Remaining in character means handling the heat — often a main issue for re-enactors wearing heavy fabrics — the same way as those in the 18th century. Re-enactors trade plastic water bottles and air-conditioning for mugs and hand-held fans.

“Weather does pose an issue, but it’s nothing that we’re not used to,” Mr. Nehrer said.

Mr. Nehrer’s only hope is for dry weather Sunday. Wet, heavy canvas adds weight for those bringing tents, which have to be erected and dried at home.

The re-enactors also have to abide by 18th-century law.

“You can’t just walk into the French camp,” Mr. Nehrer said. “Or if you go shopping up in the settler area, you could easily be attacked for carrying a gun.”

For more information go to www.grandencampment.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/GEWesternPA/.

Emily Kaplan: ekaplan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3776.

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