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Event Report - 1997 Simon Kenton Festival!

Only days until the 1999 Simon Kenton Festival!

Well, the '97 Simon Kenton Festival in Old Washington, Kentucky is nothing but fond memories now, and it's time to tell everybody who wasn't there what it was like, so you'll know what you missed and come next year.

We drove down from Cleveland, Ohio to Maysville, Kentucky, arriving at the site of Old Washington, fully dressed in period garb, sometime after dark Friday evening (Sept. 19).

We drove around the darkened streets of this quaint 1790's village, expecting to see the place overrun with reenactors, but it was as if we were in the wrong place.

Finally, we located a group of people setting up period encampments behind historic Marshall Key's Tavern, one of whom, Jon Hagee, was the prime mover and shaker amongst the organizers, representing both the Kenton Kin group and the reenactors.

Jon told us that most everybody was down the street at the rehearsal for the play, so (figuring we ought to take the hint and leave before we got commandeered into helping set up camps), we headed on down to the small amphitheater where the Maysville Players were rehearsing for the next evening's play about the life of Simon Kenton.

We walked in to the theater area, past many other people in period dress (figuring they were other reenactors, like us) and sat down on the grandstand to watch the rehearsal.

To make a long story short, we were as surprised to find that the other people in period dress were actually townspeople from Old Washington (yes, this place IS an actual living village, not a theme park) helping out with the play, wearing costumes supplied by the Maysville Players, as they were to find out that we actually owned what we were wearing and carrying; and they were all most impressed that we had come all the way down from the far Ohio country just to come to their little shindig. And we absolutely MUST take part in the play, even if only as extras.

OK, we said, that sounds like fun. (This seemed to be turning into something that back in the 60's was referred to as a "happening". Quirky, unexpected things were occurring, and they looked like the beginnings of a party.)

The next day, Saturday, was the official start of the festival but it rained in the morning, so we decided to put on "civvies" and go check out Maysville. I wanted to go down to the mouth of the Limestone Creek just for the historical reference - My living history character would know what the Ohio River looked like when seen from the mouth of the Limestone Creek, after all - but was disappointed to find that the mouth is hidden by a system of flood-control measures designed to keep Maysville on one side and the spring floodwaters of La Belle Riviere on the other side. The city has, however, erected a nice observation point at Limestone Landing, and the effect is much the same, I'm sure.

When we were down there, we happened to meet a group of people from Pennsylvania who were also there for the festival, one of whom, Barbara White, was Simon Kenton's Great-Great-Great-Great Grandaughter!

After visiting Maysville, we went back to the place we were staying ("Super-8 Station") and changed back into our frontier garb and headed out to Old Washington.

It was about 10:00 and the town was just waking up. Vendors were setting up their booths, the camp was stirring, but nothing much was going on yet; so we decided to take a short trip on down the road to visit the Blue Licks Battlefield.

We visited the wonderful museum there as well as the memorial and battlefield itself. In the afternoon we went back to the site of the Festival and, after having lunch at Marshall Key's Tavern, we just kind of hung around looking "period", talking to the tourists, and browsing around the various historical buildings and shops. Since we weren't camped on site, we eventually "appropriated" a relic-filled 18th century cabin on the edge of town, (with some picnic tables outside and - get this - an 18th century log privy out back) as our base of operations, and nobody seemed to object - in fact, the visitors coming in no doubt thought we were supposed to be there as part of the show. Nah, we were just squatters, "borrowing" the coolest shelter in town for our field-expedient "period-correct camp"! (Outside the cabin) (Inside. Note the relics. Not bad, huh?)

That evening, after a tasty potluck dinner supplied by the 'skinners in the period camp, we all went over to the amphitheater and helped put on the play, much to the delight of several hundred theatre-goers, (special thanks to Anne Parker for her fine production) and afterward attended a cast party in the Harriet Beecher Stowe museum (the old Marshall Key home).

Sunday morning we went back out to old Washington and were delighted to find that not only was Marshall Key's Tavern open for breakfast (normally, they aren't open on Sundays, but the Festival Committee had convinced them to stay open for the participants), that seemingly few people knew it, and we had the place practically to ourselves. We ate in one of several small dining rooms decorated with genuine 18th century historical relics. The breakfast was delicious, period music was playing in the background (OK, so it was piped in, that part was easy to ignore because it worked so well), no 20th century anachronisms evident anywhere... It was just one of those defining moments that made the whole trip seem complete. And more than that, it was a moment that seemed "REAL" for my character - for that brief period, I really felt like I had time-tripped back to the 1790's.

And at breakfast we asked ourselves, "Just how is it that this place isn't absolutely overrun with people? Especially reenactors! How can we seemingly have this great place almost all to ourselves?"

Well, apparently that's a long story that delves into a difference of opinions over the years on the parts of the organizers as to just what the festival should be. A few years back, certain policy decisions were made that resulted in the festival straying from its' historic roots and turning it rather into something of a street fair with carnival games (eek!) and other things that generally took the festival to a place that serious reenactors just didn't want to be.

I understand that the Kenton Kin objected to this, wishing a more historical approach (after all, this is the Simon Kenton Festival) and this year Jon Hagee, who is both Kenton Kin president and a reenactor, volunteered to help pull the festival in a more historically-correct direction by personally overseeing period camps and reenactor involvement. A new Festival Committee post was added and Jon joined the concerted effort to bring new life into this 21 year old Festival. I might add that the current Festival Committee members are also new. So 1997 was apparently a year of many fresh starts! This year, the Kenton Family organization formally charged their President to "work with the Shopkeeper's Association to help move the Simon Kenton Festival towards a more historic late 1700's frontier atmosphere."

(In my humble opinion, this was a smart move. The visitors who came to the Festival seemed to really like the living history portrayals and the interaction with the participants. To me, it's just kind of common-sensical - doesn't it stand to reason that people who would be attracted to something called "The Simon Kenton Festival" would be looking for a historical connection? Two parents thanked me for helping to bring this part of their children's heritage to life for them, and it was beaucoup gratifying, let me tell you.)

Cool. We actually did something meaningful and had fun doing it, which is one of the reasons most of us are into this stuff anyway.

My thanks to Jon and his friend Faurest Simmons for the great job they did, it sounds like they were working under difficult conditions where they couldn't possibly please all the diverse interests. And yet they still succeeded in establishing, if only for a few days, a small community of reenactors who really seemed to me to be the central focus of the whole show, as well as forging a new, exciting direction for the festival.

Planning is already underway for next year. If you're a reenactor (eastern, pre-1800 especially), you really ought to watch out for this event. Jon assures me that under his direction the Festival Committee will be taking steps to make the event even more reenactor-friendly, although that's hard to imagine. Because for me, it was kind of like having someplace like Williamsburg turned over to me as my own personal playground for the weekend.

For a history geek like me, this area was like hitting the Mother Lode - Historical markers everywhere you look, old cemeteries bearing the remains of people I've only read about, 18th century cabins and buildings and museums everywhere - I wish I'd had all week to hang around and see everything.

Anyway, if you're a reenactor looking for something that's a bit different from the normal "rendezvous", not quite so boistrous (next year may be a tad more boistrous, however) but in many ways more satisfying to the serious historian - this may be what you've been looking for. (Just a word of warning for big-city people, especially those from north of the Ohio - Kentucky hospitality is a bit of a culture shock. EVERYONE is genuinely friendly, and they really want to talk to you, it's not just a trick so they can lull you into a false sense of security then sell you to a party of British and Indians. Honest...)

So plan on a little extra time to chat, you'll get a lot of good information about what to see and do, and you'll meet some truly terrific people who will make you sorry you have to leave. After all, the scenery may have been pretty (consider that an understatement), but it was the people who made me feel like I was really quite welcome to properly enjoy it.

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