The what of the what, eh?
The Feast of the Hunters' Moon is an annual reenactment of a French and Indian trading get-together. It takes place in September or October at a site just south of West Lafayette, Indiana and around the location of the reconstructed Fort Ouiatenon. It's one of the biggest events of its kind in the United States.
I understand that the naming is a bit suspect since the feast often falls nearer the Harvest Moon than the Hunter's Moon. It seems that they use the weekend preceding the first autumn new moon. I promise to detain and interrogate the next representative of the Tippecanoe County Historical Association who crosses my path. They may also have to face pointed questions about the propriety of the placement of the apostrophe in the event's title.
Anyway, the Feast reenacts an actual trading event that used to take place in the middle decades of the 18th century. Offically, the period represented is 1717 to 1791. Of course Fort Ouiatenon changed hands several times during this time. The settlement of Wea and allied tribes stuck around until the 1780s. The feast has taken place every year since a few local history buffs started it in 1968 and is now in its fifth decade.
Sounds great and I love history. Can I sign up?
The Feast of the Hunters' Moon is not your average historical reenactment. This is not Billy Bob and Uncle Jim playing civil war soldiers with a wooden rifle and a case of Bud Light. This is not the kind of event where you wear sneakers and blue jeans under your period attire. These people are serious. Every year, rain or shine, as many as 8000 history enthusiasts and professional merchants brave the heat, cold, or mud to camp out on the north bank of the Wabash and do many of the things that people did in the 1750s. Reenactors have to be accredited based either on past participation or on a portfolio.
This means that the kids will be dressed in period costume if you drag them along. You yourself will be cooking over an open fire and engaging in other day to day activities of the period using materials and goods of the period. You can get away with stashing a cooler full of Bud Light in the tent as long as it's covered by a pile of furs or something. Participants are expected to stay in garb and in character as long as the public is around. After hours the reenactors may party like it's the 21st century again. If this sounds like your kind of gig, check with the Tippecanoe County Historical Association and see what else they want.
There are quite a few categories of participants. Some come as voyageurs, solo or in a group, and stage canoe races or other activities that solo participants might engage in. Quite a few, probably over a thousand, build a temporary camp that's more or less a tent city and represents the French settlement that flourished at Ouiatenon until about 1760. Fife and drum corps come from all over the Midwest and compete with the locals. Military reenactment groups representing British, French, and American forces come from all over the eastern United States. Some of the most important battles are reenacted. A whole lot of traders sign the fine print that requires them to be in character and sell only authentic period merchandise. This also means that you'll find Indian articles from the Eastern Woodlands cultures, not tourist art from the Plains or the south-western United States.
I'm just visiting. What can I do and what will it cost me?
Depending on the weather, visitors can easily number over 50000 these days. Tickets are affordable. In 2009 the most a person could pay was $12 for a single day adult pass at the gate. It's worth paying for. I've gotten a lot less for a lot more money. The event is typically open to the public from 8-4 on Saturday and Sunday.
The Feast occupies about 30 acres of the riverfront and very little of that space is unused. You can expect to find around a hundred traders on blankets or in booths selling everything from handmade soap to wooden spoons to very, very nice (and expensive) voyageur trappings and handmade musical instruments. Another 25 or so booths sell food that can be entirely traditional like venison sausage or bean and ham soup or a bit more modern like buffalo burgers. Here's where a bit of anachronism is permitted seeing that the main condiment is ketchup, and the lemonade and Coca-Cola flow as freely as the cider. The Feast is a trading camp in the superlative in the sense that the type of goods available probably matches what you could find at an 18th-century autumn trade festival but the amount of beads, silver trinkets, utensils, artwork, and such is staggering.
Over a dozen stalls have activities for kids so your biggest concern is losing track of them rather than keeping them occupied. The young 'uns can dress up in period garb, learn to barter and tell tall tales, listen to the storytellers, or practice their tomahawk throwing skills. Several merchants sell toys made of wood, reeds, feathers, and the likes. There will be puppet shows, the odd clown, and even a sword swallower. A good sideshow is timeless.
Quite a few booths are there to offer demonstrations and information. The blacksmiths are definitely worth a visit. Like many of the local participants, several of them are dedicated SCA types, some still nursing their wounds from the Pennsic War. Speaking of wounds, the physician's booth offers a fascinating assortment of scary stories and mediaeval-looking medical devices. Woodturning, ropemaking, and other forgotten crafts are also available and can keep the grown-ups as busy as the kids.
The Wea summer village becomes part of the Feast before it closes for the winter. Tribe members make themselves available to visitors. These people are not reenactors but bona fide Wea by descent or adoption and consider their role to be that of "living history interpreters." You may find one of the Clan Mothers or the tribe's record keeper hanging around. Talk to them.
The calendar is packed on both days. Several parades wind their way through the grounds daily on their way to the drill field or to fife and drum competitions. Highland Games can be watched and often provide a lot of
amusement value. Indian stories are told and dances are taught. A few more lighthearted (and less politically correct) acts perform in the stands downhill from the Fort Ouiatenon stockade. In keeping with the event's French character, a Roman Catholic mass opens the program on Sunday morning before making way for temporal entertainment.
OK, I'll believe you. How do I get there?
Getting there is pretty easy. The site is two miles off US 231. Take the first traffic light after the railway bridge (heading south from West Lafayette and I-65) or north after the Wabash bridge (heading north from Crawfordsville and I-74). Expect traffic to be heavy. The two-lane road may be closed in one direction at some points. Many local residents make some pocket money at this time of year by turning their yards and fields into parking lots. There will be no shortage of parking but it might be muddy and rates depend on the distance from the gate.
By far the most hassle-free way to get there is to use Purdue's big stadium parking lot in West Lafayette and avail yourself of the buses that run as often and as long as there are riders for a dollar a ride. Since the city buses aren't allowed to make the run and local tour operators are on the organisers' naughty list (for suing to stop the city bus), every church bus in town will be there making an extra buck for Jesus so your actual conveyance is a matter of luck.
We local residents are veteran visitors by now and always find something new and interesting. Stop by the house and we'll give you the guided tour. Of the feast, that is.