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Blast from the past

FORT STEVENSON STATE PARK – A lot of laughter and quite a bit of smoke floated through Frontier Military Days at Fort Stevenson State Park south of Garrison Sunday.

Held Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m., Frontier Military Days gave visitors a glimpse of life on the plains and a chance to experience what it was like to live in a military fort in the 1870s.

The event was held on the guardhouse lawn, near the shore of Lake Sakakawea. Members of the Frontier Army of Dakota set up authentic tents and gear in front of the guardhouse interpretive center, with daily activities including baking, music and demonstrations of skills used back then.

Some of the demonstrations included candle making, biscuit cooking, rifle firing and ax throwing. There was also live music played on instruments common during that time, including a banjo and washboard. There were also games for visitors to play, including a boat race using a system of strings to move the boats, the popular game of croquet, and a tug-of-war match that had competitors stand on rounded platforms that rolled back and forth, adding considerably to the challenge.

Stacy Majeres of Garrison brought her son, August, 7, and daughter, Sadie, 5, to the park and was having a blast racing August with the boats. Even though her son seemed to get an early start with every race and was winning handily, Majeres was enjoying herself tremendously.

This was Majeres’ first time at Frontier Military Days and she was glad she came. She arrived around 12:30 p.m. and planned to stay the whole day until the live-fire demonstration of the cannon just before 4 p.m.

“We came to see the cannon and the guardhouse,” Majeres said.

After visiting the exhibits in the guardhouse, Majeres said they took in about all there was to see at the event, which was quite a bit. They got their arms limbered up at the ax-throwing station, got a whiff of real frontier smoke at the rifle-shooting station, and watched a candle-making demonstration, which Majeres and her daughter found interesting.

“That was kind of neat. My daughter Sadie liked that,” Majeres said. “She (the demonstrator) showed how the wick and the molds are made and cut.”

They also spent some time looking at the military vehicles on display. August particularly liked that one, as he got to climb into a jeep sporting a mounted machine gun and various military helmets.

“Those were a hit,” Majeres said with a laugh.

She will definitely be coming back in the future, as the event gives Majeres and her children a glimpse into the state’s past.

“It’s really interesting. We’re very fortunate to have something like this so near to us,” Majeres said. “North Dakota’s best-kept secrets in our backyard.”

Gary Miller of Mandan and his daughter, Suzannah Miller, also of Mandan, were providing the live music. Gary Miller played a 5-string banjo, harmonica and a small instrument called a jaw harp while his daughter played a washboard and accordion.

“My family, we just kind of travel around and we like to do historical music, Civil War era and things like that,” Gary Miller said. “Act the parts a little bit.”

Miller was in a Civil War-ear Union uniform while Suzannah wore a full-length dress and bonnet.

Miller said banjos were a popular instrument in the 1860s and 1870s, although more often than not they were hand-made, unlike his professionally-made version.

Although he had a harmonica, Miller said that wasn’t typically an instrument many people from that era would have.

“Hollywood makes it sound like these were real popular, but they weren’t because they were expensive,” Miller said.

Instead of a harmonica, Miller said many people had a jaw harp, which is a small, metal instrument held against the lips and plucked to produce a distinctive metallic twang.

“This is something a soldier would be a lot more likely to take along with him,” Miller said. “Lewis and Clark even gave some of these as gifts to the Indians.”

This is the Millers’ second time at Fort Stevenson. They have performed at many of the other forts scattered around North Dakota, as well.

They originally attended frontier day events at Fort Abraham Lincoln near Mandan and Miller said he always thought they could use more music. Some friends at Fort Lincoln agreed and allowed the Millers to start playing there, and they’ve been doing it ever since.

Suzannah said they have been playing for 10 to 12 years. While the accordion and washboard are her main instruments at frontier day events, she said the organ is actually the instrument she knows best. However, they’re a tad too heavy to carry around, so she sticks with the smaller instruments.

She said reading about life in the past from a history book has its place, but to really learn what people went through back then you sometimes have to put yourself in their shoes.

“I think it’s really nice to be able to look back and get a picture of what day-to-day life is like in history,” Suzannah said.

Performing at frontier day events has allowed Suzannah to appreciate how much work it took to do day-to-day things like washing clothes and cooking a meal. Those lessons are something she in turn enjoys passing on to visitors who walk by and take some time to listen to her music.

“So I’ve really went back and looked at other things in history now that I’ve done this,” she said. “And it’s really nice to come out and just kind of enjoy being outside and interacting with people and sharing with kids how things used to be.”

Donn Vetter of Garrison was trying his hand at the ax-throwing station and decided to quit while he was ahead after sinking a particularly good throw into the wood target. Vetter has lived in Garrison for around 50 years and said his grandfather actually owned the land Fort Stevenson was on. When Lake Sakakawea was created the Army Corps of Engineers purchased the land.

“So he lost his farmland,” Vetter said.

Vetter still has childhood memories of what the area was like before it was flooded to form the lake. Back then it was known as the flats, and Vetter said there is a picture in the guardhouse shop of many of the people who lived there during a picnic. Several of his relatives are in that picture. He can’t remember when the photo was taken, but guessed it was sometime in the 1940s.

“They lived on that farm until the water came up,” Vetter said. “A lot of the buildings were moved into Garrison. The house and things like that.”

Vetter said he has only attended frontier days a couple of times, but when he does come he enjoys it.

Like many people, Vetter was waiting for the end of the event when a live cannon demonstration was held. The cannon was a replica of a 3-inch rifled field piece, which Fort Stevenson had two of in the 1860s.

The cannon’s gunners were Robert Young of Steele, who is a member of the Fort McKean Detachment Old Scouts Society, and Keith Norman of Jamestown, a volunteer with the 20th Infantry in Jamestown.

Young and Norman fired the cannon once to get the crowd’s attention, then Norman talked about the field piece, including the safety measures they take to ensure an arm doesn’t get blown off during loading, as happened to one unfortunate soldier at Fort Stevenson on July 4, 1868 during a flag salute firing.

While the cannon normally had a six-man crew, Young and Norman handled all the duties themselves, firing several shots that arced over Lake Sakakawea before ending in a thunderous explosion.

The demonstration was what everyone at the event was waiting for, and it didn’t disappoint.

Whether it’s the raw power of the cannon or the simple twang of Miller’s banjo, Vetter enjoyed everything at Frontier Military Days, and will no doubt come sometime again.

“It’s just real interesting,” Vetter said. “I thought I’d come out just to get out of the house for a while, and I’m glad I came.”