When beaver was king
AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS In the black powder trap shooting event, Jerry Heister shoots a Henry 58 caliber smooth bore flintlock percussion shotgun, made at the Henry factory at the site of the event, about 1880.
"In the 19th century, men's top hats were made of beaver fur," explained Tim Lubenesky, director of Jacobsburg State Park's Fur Trade Rendezvous Reenactment Weekend. "Our Rendezvous is celebrating the fur trade period-a time when beaver was king."
"During the fur trade era, the trappers spent their winters in the mountains," noted Ed Radowitch, a re-enactor who specializes in tomahawk throwing. "They had an event where they gathered in the fall called the Rendezvous, a place to sell their furs and get their supplies for the next season of trapping."
At the Fur Trade Rendezvous Weekend, 120 re-enactors portrayed life at a Rendezvous two centuries ago. They displayed their furs and crafts, purchased supplies, and played games of skill and chance.
Often glossed over in history books, the fur trade was a major factor in the creation and expansion of the United States. Beginning in the mid 1500s, Europeans developed the technology to make men's hats from felted beaver fur.
The demand for pelts in Europe drove the European beaver to near extinction and stimulated the French to begin trading with the native peoples in North America. Hence, the French name, rendezvous, became the name for the annual hunters' get together.
By the end of the American Revolution, beavers were nearly extinct in the original colonies and the hunt for the beaver trade pressed the trappers ever westward.
"The heart of the fur trade period that is most reenacted is about 1820 to 1845," Lubenesky said. "That is when the American Fur Trade Company was really in to it, Lubenesky said. Originally, it was local to the East Coast, then it moved west as they kept annihilating the beaver. After 1845, Japanese silk became available, replacing beaver fur for men's hats."
Ed Radowitch demonstrated the art of tomahawk throwing by heaving one and cutting a playing card in half at seven paces. He was self-taught and said that anyone could throw a tomahawk accurately with enough practice.
"The secret of tomahawk throwing is the distance away from the target. It will rotate one time before it gets to the target. About seven paces are perfect," he explained.
Period tomahawks were made of iron with a wooden handle.
"They were used to cut wood, butcher game, and as a weapon of last resort," he said. "You only threw it in a competition at a rendezvous."
"If you wanted to arm your opponent, you threw it," joked Radowitch's assistant, Charlie Becker. "You wouldn't throw it in battle."
Ed Land demonstrated the art of blacksmithing. Using a hand-cranked furnace, he heated soft coal to make coke. Then he heated a mild steel rod and hammered and twisted the rod into a variety of hooks.
Master gunsmith Richard Hujsa demonstrated how rifles were made at the Henry Gun Factory on the site. The craftsman of 50 years was completing a Pennsylvania 45 caliber flintlock rifle with a curly maple stock.
The highlight of the Rendezvous was a black powder trap shoot. All contestants fired flintlock shotguns at clay pigeons fired from a spring trap.
Among the four sharpshooters tied for first place in the initial round was Jerry Heister. He had the hometown advantage as he was shooting a Henry 58 caliber smooth bore flintlock percussion shotgun. The gun was made at the Henry factory at the site of the event, about 1880.
The Pennsylvania Longrifle Museum and the Henry Family Homestead were open for tours. The 2010 Fur Trade Rendezvous took place at the Boulton Historic Site - 402 Henry Road, Nazareth, PA on Saturday, October 30 and Sunday, October 31.