Rendezvous at Fort Union Trading Post

One of the reasons Tom and I drove out to North Dakota so quickly was because of Rendezvous at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site.  When we found out Rendezvous, the biggest event of the year at Fort Union, was being held June 17-20, we knew we wanted to be there.  We wouldn’t be fully trained, but we could help out someplace.

Morning staff meeting

We arrived at Fort Union Trading Post on Wednesday afternoon and showed up to work, bright and early the next morning.  Things were buzzing for Rendezvous with the vendors and some of the campers already set up.  The park staff were all on hand for a meeting at 8:15 to get their assignments for the day.  Tom and I were there in our volunteer uniforms ready to work.  Everyone else was wearing their historical dress.  After quick introductions and learning what we needed to know for the day, everyone took off for their assignments.  During the weekend I worked at the desk and in the Trade House.  Tom was assigned as a floater and muscle for maintenance.

During the day, as we learned more about the park, we also got assigned keys, learned combinations, and found out how to open and close.  We found historical clothing that we wore the rest of the weekend and met many of the 100 volunteers from all over who had come for Rendezvous.  The park only received permission to hold Rendezvous three weeks before it happened, so a year’s worth of preparation had been done in very little time.  Many of the people who usually came as demonstrators or campers were unable to come with such short notice.  But Tom and I were impressed with the quality and quantity of the volunteers who did manage to attend.

Fort Union Trading Post is supported by a dedicated group of living history volunteers called the Fort Union Muzzle Loaders Association.  It took us a while to sort this out, because there are three volunteer groups connected to Fort Union.  The Muzzle Loaders are committed to the living history aspects and have training and guidelines for anyone coming for Rendezvous.  I will be writing more about them in the Volunteers category later.

The Muzzle Loaders and their families were out in full force during Rendezvous.  Most of them stayed for the full four days, but others came and went as work schedules and family obligations allowed.  There was a group of kids that knew Fort Union very well and had obviously spent plenty of time here.  During Rendezvous they lived as Clerks, Traders and and Engagees (laborers) with their families.  During the time Fort Union was operating, up to 100 men would live here at a time and many of them had Native American wives and children.  So all the family groups were very realistic.

Group of children in front of Fort Union palisades
Vendor’s tent
Tom helping out
Customers in a Vendor’s tent

Even though I was assigned to the desk for two of the Rendezvous days, I did not spend a lot of time there.  Volunteers from the local area came in to help out and the Visitors Center is so small that we didn’t really need four people at the desk at a time.  Instead, I got to wander around and talk to folks.

There was a row of vendor tents, which was a first for me at a National Park site.  The vendors were allowed to sell what they brought.  Most of it was period appropriate stuff and I saw lots of children with wooden guns their parents or grandparents bought.  Tom found a beautiful hand-stitched bison hide bag and added that to his living history collection.  A potter sold his wares and gave “throwing” demonstrations.  I especially enjoyed hanging out in the spinner’s tent.  She was gracious enough to let me put my spinning wheel in the tent and spin with her whenever I could get away for a while.  One gentleman brought his birchbark canoe and gave talks every day.

In addition to the vendors’ tents, families set up tents, where people stood and talked like they were at a four-day family reunion.  Some families had three generations represented and there were always family groups sitting on the porch of the Bourgeoise House when we left at the end of each day.  Because of the drought in North Dakota, the families were not able to have fires for cooking, but they were good-natured about making do with what they had.

Visitors could wander through camp, visit the historic site, or attend any of the demonstrations during the day.  The spinner, potter, and birchbark canoeist all gave talks.  Tom hung out with the cooper and there were three men in the blacksmith’s shop at all times.  There were firing demonstrations and children’s activities led by the park staff.  With all the special stuff, the park staff still managed to do their regular job of demonstrating and giving talks about the different rooms in the fort.

Ranger Bess and Volunteer Wendy at the desk
Train going by the camp
Birchbark canoe
Spinner’s tent
Storm coming
Blacksmith shop
Ranger Tara and Volunteer Kris lead children’s activities
Rangers Kristen, Leif, and Ian doing shooting demonstration

During the day, a food truck, Bully Burgers and Bites, set up in the parking lot.  This was another first for us because most parks don’t want to do the extensive paperwork required for a food truck at a special event.  Bully’s was very busy every day, especially around lunchtime.  We were glad they were here because it kept people at the event longer and gave the Rendezvous-ers a place to get food.  I was told their onion rings were especially delicious.

We had beautiful weather for Rendezvous – sunny and just the right amount of warm – except for Saturday afternoon and evening.  It was very hot in the afternoon and a lot of the living history people made appearances in the air-conditioned Visitors Center.  In the evening a storm blew through, drenching everything, but leaving cool, clear air behind.

Despite the short advance notice, the Rendezvous was very well attended.  We had close to 1,000 visitors on Saturday and the gift shop had record sales over the weekend.  Tom and I were glad to be part of the team and found plenty of ways to be useful.  It was a wild and exciting start to our volunteer time at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site.