Stepping into the old frontier
Mandan News, editor
Fort Abraham Lincoln once again bustled with the noise of soldiers and frontier peoples. It was part of their Great Western Exposition, which took over the fort for the weekend.
Over July 11-13, the fort opened itself to hundreds of visitors who wanted to take a step back into history in a unique manner.
The first day of the event focused on children. Opening on Friday, July 11, children were treated to a variety of activities, including balloon animals and inflatables.
As a special treat, Mrs. Custer came out to read a story to the children. Each child was also given the chance to “become a soldier,” which provided a number of activities for them to pursue in the replica frontier encampment.
It was on Saturday that the event really came to life though. With reenactors, who had the previous day to really settle into their roles, helping to recreate the environment in which the early frontiers men and women lived, the visitors were able to step into a time long past.
Transported to the late 1800s, individuals were able to explore how life once was lived. Moving through the frontier encampment, visitors had the chance to speak with reenactors who also demonstrated a variety of different activities that individuals would once have participated in.
Besides displaying how people would have completed household tasks such as doing laundry, individuals were also shown how frontiers people would have passed the time. A variety of games were presented, which visitors could try out, and get a hands on view of history.
One of the big attractions though was the frontier military artillery demonstration, which were also repeated on Sunday. Trained reenactors demonstrated the fire power of a number of weapons, ranging from a Colt .45, to cannons.
Of special interest was the firing of the Gatling gun. Invented by Richard Gatling in 1861, the Gatling gun was the forerunner of the modern machine gun. Believing that developing a weapon with such a destructive nature would convince nations that war was futile, he was greatly disappointed when the weapon ended up having the opposite result. Instead of dissuading armies from engaging in battle, multiple nations adopted the weapon, leading additional blood shed.
The Gatling gun could provide the same fire power as 60 men, while only requiring five to operate it, and thus to be vulnerable. Shooting 10 rounds a second, the gun was equipped with 10 barrels that rotated. The weapon did have some shortcomings. After around 4000 rounds, the barrels would begin to overheat.
During the demonstration reenactors burned through over 600 rounds, which they refilled that night. However, for the safety of visitors, no live rounds were used. Even with the precaution, the demonstration had to be paused several times as individuals crossed in front of the firing range.
Saturday also was a day to honor those who served in the United States military. As part of the ceremony, “West River Winds” put on a performance at the main stage, set up for the event.
Besides being a chance to explore history, the event was also a time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Custer House. Coming out to join in the dedication was the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Director Mark Zimmerman, North Dakota Tourism Director Sarah Otte Coleman and Senator Heidi Heitkamp.
Speaking of the benefits that the Custer House has brought to the area, each speaker spoke of their own connection to not only the house, but also the park as a whole.
“This is my park,” Heitkamp, a Mandan native, said. “I would come out here and walk the trails … and look out and just marvel at the beauty.”
The house, and park as a whole, also represented something more for the speakers. It served as a reminder not to just our culture and heritage, but also of a wider connection. Heitkamp stated that the area was a remembrance that we shared the place with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara.
“This [park] is part of our heritage, our history and culture,” Heitkamp said.
One of the stronger points emphasized was that the construction of the house was not done in isolation. Prior to construction beginning, there was a lot of research that went into the entire process so that history was depicted correctly. It also required the help of many volunteers.
“This house is here because of volunteers,” Heitkamp said. “They are the ones who built this house.”
On Sunday, visitors also got to witness a unique form of photography. Shane Balkowitsch, North Dakota’s only wet plate photographer, set out to recreate a photo that had been taken at the house in 1875, by Orlando S. Guff.
Balkowitsch produced four plates, which took nearly an hour to produce. Keeping an eye on the small details, the last plate was produced even though the first three turned out well.
“The first three were good, but I just wanted to make sure,” Balkowitsch said.
During the process, Balkowitsch had to run back and forth from his camera to processing station in order to make sure the photos turned out, and that the plates maintained their proper condition.
Next week we will delve more into the process and talent of Balkowitsch.
Fort Lincoln was also the host to a classic car show on Sunday. Dozens of vehicles and drivers made their way out to the park in order to display a different era of history. While spanning years much closer to our own, the show proved to be a popular attraction.
Wrapping up the weekend event, Mrs. Custer hosted tea, where individuals were given the opportunity to learn more about the life and times of Elizabeth Custer.
However, with the closing of the Great Western Exposition, many were able to return home with a better appreciation of not just history, but their own culture as well.
For more photos of the event, check out the gallery at www.Mandan-News.com, or check out our Facebook page, at www.Facebook.com/MandanNews, to see additional photos and videos.