Published Aug. 21, 2007
Last year my plans to visit the Great Trail Festival were washed away. Steady rain fell on my only free day, so I stayed home, remembering the time a couple years before when I stood in mud halfway up my moccasins (not the knee-high ones) while choosing a peasant shirt sold by Spotted Pony Traders, a maker of colonial-style clothing.
That was the day after a soaker, not the day of, so last year as the rain fell I elected to stay home. Sitting at home in my dry clothes, I thought of my friends in the band Fare Passage, huddled under tarps, who, because they were performers, were required to endure the mud bath.
This week I may be in their wet shoes, though, because they asked me to join them for the festival. The forecast calls for chances of rain all week, so I’ll pack my car with several pairs of socks and moccasins.
I first attended the Great Trail Festival in 1983, its second year. My fascination with Eastern Woodland frontier history was exploding, launched by the books of Allan Eckert, who wrote nonfiction in a novelized form. My reading cast out my belief that northeast Ohio was bereft of interesting history, that all the good stuff happened out west, and revealed a land that had been traversed by Indians in canoes and afoot, soldiers following Sandy Creek in pursuit of escaping Indians, and a canal that used two tunnels in Columbiana County and a bridge over the Tuscarawas River to reach the main canal. I learned about the Great Trail, the path used by Indians, frontiersmen and soldiers between Pittsburgh and Detroit, its route following Sandy Creek from the Hanoverton area to Bolivar.
At that first festival, named for that woodland path, I bought something I had wanted since childhood. At an age when many guys want fast cars and electric guitars, I wanted a coonskin cap and a mountain dulcimer. I had bought my first dulcimer the year before, and that year I bought a coonskin cap. I also bought round lead shot, a lead pencil that was simply a stick of lead, a pewter medallion that was a copy of an English artillery medallion, and a tiny hand-painted pewter Continental soldier. I returned in 1984 and bought pewter Continental Army buttons, a red stocking cap like those worn by French voyageurs in Ohio, and a fox fur hat, second in a projected trio of fur frontier hats. (I still haven’t bought the skunk hat.)
I wore a peasant shirt sewn by my mother to the 1985 festival over modern cotton trousers, concealing my 20th-century pockets, along with my coonskin cap and knee-high Minnetonka moccasins I had bought the year before at Mr. Hyde’s Leather in Canton, which looked good if not being historically accurate. I was concerned that my not-quite-authentic clothing would be frowned upon by buckskinners clad in deerskin, but instead I was accosted by a reenactor who asked if this was my first year and said I had made a good start.
Besides the history, I loved the historical music. I watched two string bands play in 1988, the Blue Eagle String Band and Anonymous String Band, and that music, the traditional tunes of the British Isles and early America, resonated deep within me. This was the music for which I had been thirsting almost since starting the violin in elementary school, but I was still an outsider. That, however, was about to change.
After Blue Eagle finished its performance, I asked the leader, Dave Neff, about banjo lessons, and he told me about the traditional music sessions at Quail Hollow. Those sessions broke me into the traditional music microcosm, leading to membership in two bands and participation in a world apart from the busy, noisy rushing about that characterizes so many modern activities. I played on stage with the band Bog Carrot at Great Trail Festival in 1991, and in that and later years I entered the mountain dulcimer and fiddle contests (those contests, unfortunately, are now defunct). When not on stage, I sat around with fellow band members and music friends under a tent in the buckskinners’ rendezvous field, playing just for fun.
Traditional Celtic music now figures prominently in my life, and I’m an old hand in the traditional music community. That means that this weekend I must take the bad with the good — the sodden moccasins with the privilege of playing on stage.