Todd Moe talks with Michael Whittaker, a history and re-enactment buff, from Bishops Mills, Ontario. He's also Harbor Master this weekend and will be among hundreds of re-enactors in Ogdensburg.
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The base of Lighthouse Point, where the Oswegatchie River enters into the St. Lawrence River, becomes the navy camp during Founder’s Day Weekend. Re-enactors will set up tents under the willow trees, and their boats will be pulled up on the beach. Michael Whittaker is the Harbor Master for the event.
“That’s my title, Harbor Master. Grand, isn’t it? It simply means if there’s a problem, they come to me, and when they come in, I direct them to where they should set up the various types of tents,” said Whittaker. According to him, they try to keep some order with regards to the tents by placing wedge tents together, marquees together and dining flies together.
This year, the festival will feature a new children’s day on Sunday. According to Whittaker, all children age 12 and under will get in are free when accompanied by an adult. Also, courtesy of Stewart’s Shops, James Bruchac will give a special children’s presentation that will include stories about Adirondack heritage and lore. Bert Cunningham will also bring some of his model ships. He owns one of the largest model ship museums in the world. The Sisters of Perpetual Needling will also demonstrate period quilting, which differs from contemporary quilting.
“And then of course we’ll have our usual re-enactors and settlers. People like to come here; we’re a re-enactor-friendly event, and we try to do what they want to do,” said Whittaker. “For example, our navy battle will be Saturday and Sunday morning because the fellows who man the boats want to galvanize as naval brigades and join up with their respective sides, French or English, in the afternoon battles. So we thought, ‘Great, no problem with us, the way you want to do it, fine.’ And it’ll give the public a bigger and better show.”
Whittaker says that they’re hoping La Revenante, which is a schooner, will be coming. This historical and demonstration vessel will be coming down from Kingston. Whittaker said, “They have said they will get here as they get here. They want to be here, but wind and tide and the currents of the St. Lawrence River, even though we are downstream, wait for no one.”
The goal of the Founder’s Day event is to transform the area into what it would have looked like in the 17th century. Civilians will be kept separate to one side, and all the dining flies will run down the point right on the water so there will be cool breezes blowing when people are eating meals. The other tents will be lined up parallel to the eastern shore. These include the officers’ marquees, and then the men’s wedge tents in rows.
“What we try to do, and I think we’ll be even more successful this year, is setting up encampments so that they very much resemble the military encampments of the day,” said Whittaker. “So it will give a real impression of what the camps looked like. Of course, you know, we’re not going to have 3000 or 4000 men encamped here, but people will get the notion of what it would have been like. And of course all of the people will be in uniform or otherwise in period clothes.”
As a 21st century historian looking back at this time period, Whittaker says he thinks that the French and Indian War was a defining moment in American history. He said, “I’m one of those people who believe that if you don’t know your history, the depths of your ignorance are unplumbed. I think it’s really important to know our roots, where we came from as Americans or Canadians. This is part of the roots of our culture that formed the United States and Canada. The French and Indian War has been called the war that made America, the war that made Canada.”
Whittaker concluded, “And it’s just a fun time. And most of the re-enactors really like to talk to people. Don’t look at them as if they’re specimens on display. They’re not exhibits and they do like to talk to people because they have a love of history that they love to share. We come because we love history, and there’s nothing we like more than when it’s 90 degrees putting on two layers of wool because it feels so good to live the time.”