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Work at fort fuels guide's passion for history

YOUNGSTOWN -- After Toby Jewett retired from teaching high school biology, the memory of his college-era job mowing lawns at Old Fort Niagara led him to a new volunteer career and passion for the old stone fort and its history.

"Every time I come home from the fort, I bring another book," he said. "I think, being a tour guide, I don't want to have some kid ask me a question that I [can't] answer."

Jewett left his job at Grand Island High School and began leading tours at the fort about 10 years ago. His new focus connected him to an interest in history he had as boy, when he explored his grandparents' dairy farm near Wellsville, which had been in the family since 1809.

Jewett, 67, who grew up in Detroit, is now on the board of directors at the fort.

This year, Old Fort Niagara will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Plans in the works to mark the bicentennial include an event commemorating the war's June beginning, a Labor Day weekend re-enactor encampment and a re-creation of a November artillery exchange with Fort George at Nigara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

The fort, located at the mouth of the Niagara River, guarded a valuable trade route. The French were the first to recognize the value of the location and built a wooden fort there in the late 1600s.

They also built the largest, oldest structure still standing, now called the "castle," in 1726. As Jewett likes to explain to fourth-graders, that was "six years before George Washington was born."

The British took the fort over in 1759, during the French and Indian War. Even though they lost the Revolutionary War, they stayed at Fort Niagara for an extra 13 years; they didn't turn it over to the U.S. until 1796.

Then during the War of 1812 -- fought, in part, over British interference with American trade -- the British took the fort back.

"After the War of 1812, in 1815, the Americans got the fort back, and have held it ever since," Jewett said.

>I understand the war [of 1812] is one of your favorites to study because it is so poorly understood.

"When I was in high school I [didn't] remember anything about the War of 1812. More happened in this area than any other place in the country.

>And the fort has allowed you to reconnect with history?

Even though I was into the DNA and all the biology stuff, I always had a fondness for history. Fort Niagara is such a cool place. It's got a history that's just unbelievable.

>Why was Fort Niagara so important?

The Niagara River between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie was really the gateway to the West. When anyone traveled, they traveled by water, and that was the way you got west. That was a very important location and the British didn't want to lose that.

>What do you find so interesting?

The buildings on the fort, they're all originals. This isn't Disney World. The buildings from Fort Niagara are all stone. A lot of forts that were built in the 18th century were built for one battle. They had a short life span.

Fort Niagara's life span has been 280-some years. It shows you how important the fort was when I tell you there are buildings from 1726 to 1863.

>You say studying the history helps you lead more interesting tours?

I help with tour guide training. We really hope the tour guides don't just memorize the spiel. If you understand it, then you tell the story. You just don't memorize the script.

>You adjust your tours and explanations of history to suit the audience?

I do about 50 tours a year. I do fourth-graders all the way up to elder hostels and everything in between.

For fourth-graders, you use a lot of show and tell. When we say that the castle was built in 1726 fourth-graders don't understand time. I tell them the castle was built six years before George Washington was born. What I have them do is go up and touch the stones. They're touching stones that were put there six years before George Washington was born.

>What are some of the local highlights ot the War of 1812?

Battle of Lake Erie, with Admiral Perry. Two or three encounters in Black Rock. Black Rock was bigger than the city of Buffalo in those days. The British burned Buffalo. We had a ton of stuff going on in just this little 35-mile river that goes from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

It's not like we were invaded. It's not like we were invading somebody else. There was a lot of politics played in the War of 1812.

>So a flag from that war inspired you to take an interest?

We have the original 1812 flag of Fort Niagara that was taken by the British in 1813 -- 24-by-28 feet. It's huge.

We got it back in 1994 from a lady in Scotland whose relative was General Drummond, who was an officer during the War of 1812. He didn't capture the flag. One of his lower officers did. But he took it to England, and it was in this castle in Scotland. 15 stars. 15 stripes. We've got it on display at the fort.

When you look at it, it almost gives you goose bumps because you realize that flag was flying at Fort Niagara 200 years ago.

Just looking at the flag, that was pretty much it. It got me hooked. The more I read and studied, the more I got involved.

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(Editor's note: Fort Niagara and Fort George will bombard each other today to mark the beginning of the War of 1812's bicentennial year. Ontario Lt. Gov. David C. Onley will hold a New Year's Day levee at Fort George, on the Niagara River at Niagara-on-the-Lake, from 1 to 4 p.m.; at 3 p.m., the Canadian artillery is to fire a salute, to which volunteer gunners at Fort Niagara will reply. The event at Fort George will be open to the public, but Fort Niagara will not be open to visitors today).

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Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com