One of the places Tom and I are assigned at Grand Portage National Monument is the Great Hall. This is the place where we dress up in our fanciest historic outfits. Tom is a “gentleman of the fur trade” and I am a Metis or a native wife. The Great Hall is the most diverse place to work at Grand Portage, so there are lots of stories that we can tell while we are in there.
There is the story of the founders of the Northwest Fur Company: a group of Montreal businessmen who got together in 1779 to form the Northwest Fur Company and protect their business interests. We can also tell the story of the class system of the Northwest Fur Company: the business partners and shareholders, the clerks, the guides and interpreters, the voyageurs, and the natives. The partners were always looking to get richer and the clerks were trying to become partners. Voyageurs wanted to become guides. The natives were usually happy with the slightly better life they had as trading partners.
We can tell the story of the Rendevous and how the partners all met in Grand Portage for a couple of weeks a year to work out business contracts for the coming year. During the Rendevous there were about 1,000 voyageurs at Grand Portage, but they weren’t allowed inside the stockade. At night the partners would have dances and parties to which clerks, guides and interpreters, and native chiefs were invited. Many native women would also come, dressed in their finest.
There are four rooms in the corners of the Great Hall and each of them also allow stories to be told. You can visit a “Partner’s Bedroom” – the original use of the four rooms – and see the kinds of things a partner would travel with. You can see how the clerks worked in the compting room. You can check out the furs brought by the natives and the trade goods that they would have traded for in the Trading Post room. My favorite room is the “Streets of London,” where you can see the variety of goods manufactured from the fur products: perfumes, brushes, medicines, as well as clothing and hats.
There are several other displays in the Great Hall. We have a display where we can show people how the Northwest Company went from beaver fur to a beaver felt hat. We have maps that show Alexander McKenzie’s route to the Pacific (he made it 10 years before Lewis and Clark). We have a voyageur contract in French and in English. We have a curiosities cabinet that shows the kinds of things the partners brought back from their travels. We have a dress-up corner where adults and kids can try on voyageur and partner clothing and pose before the hearth.
I like working in the Great Hall because there are so many different stories we can tell. And, although I usually begin with the same five or six sentences to every visitor, you never know where the conversation will take you.