The usual sounds of the Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous — splitting logs for campfires, the tink tink tink of hammers against stakes as entire tent cities are erected and the far-off bleat of a mama goat — were joined Friday evening by a chorus of something just a little different.
“Hey!” a woman squeals as she jumps off the stump she’d been resting on, rushing into the open arms of an old friend.
“How are you?” she asks with tears.
“We’ve missed everyone so much,” another woman says as she, too, awaits her turn for an embrace.
It was a scene that played out time and again as merchants and re-enactors set up their camps — in many cases — for the first time in more than a year as the pandemic canceled most of their reenactment circuits last year.
“It’s so good to see each other again,” said Carol Jarboe, a loyal Rendezvous merchant from Woodburn, Kentucky. “We’re a family, and we’ve been apart for 18 months. Of course, we’ve been able to follow each other on Facebook, but it’s just not the same.
“I think everyone is looking forward to being here, doing what we’re all familiar with and feeling the joy that always comes with it.”
A few merchant tents over, Nicole Floyd was attempting to remember how to put up her canvas home for the weekend. Its been awhile, she admitted.
“I’m trying to relearn,” she said with a chuckle as she stepped outside into the cool breeze.
A basket merchant from Cayuga, Floyd said she was thrilled to be back among friends. Many Rendezvous merchants travel the country doing reenactment events each year, relying on these festivals as their primary source of income.
For Floyd, it’s simply a hobby; they do between 4-8 shows per year. But for many long-time friends, a return to the Rendezvous means the return of much-needed normalcy.
“I know how important it is to some of them, to be back here,” she said. “So I’m very happy about that. I’m happy for them.
“But it’s also just really exciting to be out and about with everybody again,” she said as she let her gaze drift across the French Commons, her hand offering a wave to someone who caught her eye. “It’s just nice to be able to do fun things again.”
And while it is good to be back amongst friends again, many Rendezvous merchants are worried about whether or not people will feel comfortable returning to the Revolutionary War reenactment with cases of COVID-19 still lingering.
“How will the public feel about coming out?” Jarboe asked rhetorically as she hung a sign across the front of her canvas shop. “Will they be concerned or will they, as we hope, come on out and enjoy the fresh air and pick up right where we left off?”
To reward those choosing to safely return, many long-time merchants are opting to offer visitors something a little new and different.
Jarboe and her husband, Frank, have been coming to Rendezvous for years doing historic demonstrations. They do sometimes as many as 40 shows in a year.
Locals likely know them as portraying resurrectionists, a common Revolutionary War-era practice where people dug up cadavers and sold them to medical schools.
This year, however, they’re introducing demonstrations on survival jobs from early America.
“The things you could do if you were destitute and had no job skills,” she explained. “A lot of people came back from the war missing legs, missing arms, and couldn’t make a living anymore. You could either go to the poor house, which was awful, or we’ll show you ten jobs you could do to at least make enough money to survive day-to-day.
“I think a lot of us have worked hard to bring in some new things, bridge the gap,” she said. “I know a lot of merchants have been busy creating new products over the last year.
“Everybody is bringing their best.”
Christine Scanlon, Louisville, Kentucky, owns and operates Romantically Bent, a clothier dealing in historically-accurate clothing and accessories.
She, too, said it was a relief to be back doing what she loves after a year largely without. Living in relative isolation, she said the neighbor’s cows eventually got tired of her mindless chatter.
“So this is fantastic,” he said with a wide smile as she carefully set out jewelry displays. “It’s so good to be back here again, seeing everybody. This is what I do full time. It’s amazing for the soul because I’ve just been at home but also much-needed because I need the income for my small business.
“I know a lot of (other merchants) didn’t make it through (the pandemic),” she said, sadness creeping across her face.
Jim Allen, Ramsey, a re-enactor with the Illinois regiment of Virginia, said being back, for him, was bittersweet. They’ve lost some of their own to the pandemic, he pointed out.
“So it feels good to have survived,” he said. “And it’s good to be back, too.
“It feels a little different, but then again everything feels different now.”
Jane Whiteside, a few tents over, worked to unfurl rope so she could set up camp. A member of the Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion and a loyal Rendezvous re-enactor for 35 years, she, too, was enjoying an evening back amongst old friends. The smell of campfires and children’s laughter brought much-needed warmth to their hearts after a year of hardships and heartache.
“This whole group is like a family — a big family,” she said. “Some re-enactors are here with four generations of family. So being able to get dressed up again, see our friends, it’s interesting.
“And it’s nice.”