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Old Fort Niagara


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It only took one look in the mirror to relay the message: this charming 18th century-style garment must be mine. The vegetable-dyed charcoal linsey-woolsey had the drape of spun silk; the garment’s lines at once ancient and unexpectedly contemporary. A fanburst of pleats garnished the side seams below the waist; a tricky pleat toyed with the waistband, a cassock-like facing defined the austere closure.  I twisted and turned in dim light of an 18th-century canvas tent in front of a low silvery mirror, admiring the time-bending effect the Asian silhouette had on my simple skirt.


 “I’ll take it!” I cried delightedly.


Naturally, when I’d arrived at the Old Fort Niagara’s remembrance of 250th Anniversary of the French & Indian War, shopping was the last thing on my mind. I’d come, like hundreds of other tourists, to enjoy a reenactment of an important pre-Revolutionary War battle. Being lucky enough to live only 1 ˝ hours away from the lakefront historic site, I thought spending part of my July 4th vacation there was very appropriate.


Hundreds of reenacters from across the country had mustered to this waterfront fortress that had defended Canada and New York borders. They had one mission: to depict the historically significant July 1759 siege of this fort. Staunch redcoats, fierce Mohawk warriors, wasp-waisted camp followers, and doughty French soldiers—this tumultuous early colonial time came to life for us, thanks to the meticulous work of thesevolunteers.


A sunburnt, excited crowd gathered above the impressive earthworks to watch the mock battle. While costumed men crouched and whooped, filling the still summer air with cannon smoke and musket fire, an announcer took us through the timetable of events. A hunting party was discovered by a band of renegade warriors—or were they? Too soon the hapless French commander realized the Mohawks were only the scouting party for a British regiment who’d crept ashore under the not-so-watchful eye of a sleeping French warship. The siege lasted for days, culminating in the surrender of the fort to the English.


Our one-hour “battle” featured costuming and weaponry authentic to the last degree and was warmly appreciated by the crowd. Children and adults applauded the presence of two real-life heroes—two soldiers on leave from Iraq and Afghanistan were participants in the reenactment. This revelation won a vigorous round of applause. Dramatic “deaths” and wild encounters made the battle fascinating, albeit a bit alarming. After the battle drew to a close, we tourists made our way down the steep, grassy slopes to meander through the “market fair.”


To the sound of trilling reed flutes and syncopated drumbeats, craftspersons in canvas tents displayed their wares. Leather goods, wooden wares, homemade sausages, colonial fabrics, toys for young patriots and demoiselles—the variety tempted the tourist while the colorful costumes of the merchants made shopping a special delight.


An ivory tent hung with gay fabrics and sumptuous goods beckoned me. As I entered, I heard the proprietress sigh good naturedly,” Whew! 25 buttons finally done!” The daintily dressed women turned, saw me, a potential customer, and blushed prettily.


“Oh, I shouldn’t have said that!” she apologized, laughing. “But those buttons…!” She gestured towards a gentleman’s waistcoat that she’d just hung up for sale. Its slate blue linen front was studded with pewter buttons that seemed to march down the front forever. A matching vest hung behind it, mutely testifying to her nimble fingers.


I grinned conspiratorially. “I’m a seamstress, too,” I confessed, “I’ve been there, done that!”


She smiled. Her waistcoat of Jacobean floral fabric in navy and burgundy nestled against a full skirt of burgundy, a navy ribbon anchored her straw hat that sat atop a pristine white mobcap.  She introduced herself as “Kit” and allowed me to take a few picture as she sat behind a tidy wooden desk. It was complete with sewing bird, pincushion and a small cedar chest that held the day’s receipts. Her beautiful goods were suspended along a clothesline—a modest gathering of exceptionally well-made clothes that would have originally graced a lord or lady, worker or soldier. I fingered a soft gray coat, asking her about it as I lifted it from the hanger.


“Oh,” she said, “That would have been a bed jacket for a lady to ward off a chill. There wasn’t much heating in those old houses, you know! That color,” she mused, twitching the garment’s folds into place, “it’s marvelous on you. Perfect for your hair. I wouldn’t have guessed it.”


I turned, pleased, to look in the shadowy mirror. The subtle color seemed to transform my simple skirt and top into something special. I nodded to my image in the dim tent. A fashionable lady from the 18th century winked back at me.