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War games on the frontier Re-enactors at Old Fort Niagara relive French-Indian War

The 27th annual French and Indian War Encampment at Old Fort Niagara looks like Epcot Center might have, had it been designed by an American colonialist in the mid-18th century.

On one corner of the fort's preserved battleground Saturday, soldiers dressed in blue and silver chatted in French beneath silk banners sporting fleurs-de-lis.

Red-coated Brits marched in another area, and still other groups of ersatz Scots, American woodsmen and American Indians clustered around white tents, swigging water out of wooden canteens.

The annual event, billed as the largest French and Indian War re-enactment in North America, is a three-day affair that regularly draws up to 10,000 spectators and at least 1,000 participants who stage daily musket-and-cannon battles on the grounds.

It is also the fort's largest event of the year, said Ray Wigle, the director of operations, who has been involved with the encampment's planning for 16 years.

"We get a good chunk of our annual operating budget from this event," he said.

Bob Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara, said many people are drawn to the re-enactment because of the integrity of the setting.

"What we re-create here is the most crucial event in the fort's history," he said. "A lot of the sites that [re-enactors] go to are just baseball diamonds, but this is real, and the atmosphere is unsurpassed."

The camp itself included everything from a live smithy to re-enactors selling pots, pelts and homespun fabric. And, like many conventions of people who share the same hobby, it felt like a family reunion.

James Hoffman, the smith in the center of camp, spent two years working at the fort as guide before moving to western Pennsylvania.

"It's about seeing old friends. . . . It's really blurred between business and pleasure for me," said Hoffman, who sells homemade iron pieces full time and started his re-enactment pursuit in 1975. "My daughter talked me into coming [back]; she grew up doing this."

His daughter, Abby, 17, nodded in agreement. "We know most of the people here," she said.

Harry Burgess, who acted as a unit commander on the French side, drove with his local group of re-enactors, including his daughter and her friends, from Port Huron, Mich., where he works as a college history professor.

"It's your own private time machine," he said. "Just last night, a group from Quebec was up in the common room [of the fort] banging on tables, hanging out of windows."

The festive spirit of the weekend includes an officers' soiree and other merry-making, Burgess said.

He called re-enacting, "a hobby that never dies."

Jennifer Julich of St. Catharines, Ont., said she enjoys catching up with friends she rarely sees in person.

"We communicate with people all year round, and we only get to see them now," she said.

Kim Samuels, 21, a flutist in Burgess' fife and drum corps, took to the battlefield dressed as a man and adopted the name Jean-Pierre Rumpal.

"It's not that hard to step into the role, as long as you don't mind the dirt and bugs," she said.

Ghost in the Head, a Huron Indian otherwise known as Todd Johnson, drove up to the fort for the day from his home near Pittsburgh to trade homemade items like gourds, wampum and nets.

"I don't want to read about [history], I want to do it," he said. "I feel that there are people who repeat stuff out of books -- they're fake."

For him, the day was a success.

"I traded well," he said.

After activities beginning at 9:45 a.m., the encampment will conclude today with a final musket firing at 6 p.m.


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