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Trappers build up campfires when cold descends

Cold, raw weather descended on Old Mines Saturday, causing trappers and their families to stoke their campfires or move inside their tents. But disagreeable weather doesn’t dampen the spirit of those who step back into time when they gather together for La Brigade A Renault’s Winter Shoot rendezvous.

“This is kind of like the first of the year for us,” said Larry Mann of Collinsville as he cooked beef tips on a spit over a small fire. “We sit around the campfire, and get together with old friends. It’s a time for renewal – it’s rendezvous!”

The Winter Shoot continues from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today on the grounds of St. Joachim’s Catholic Church. Admission is free.

This year’s event has about 36 camps from several states, including Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Tennessee, said Tim Daugherty of Potosi, president of the group of historical re-enactors.

The event re-enacts the pre-1840 era in Missouri, when trapping was in its heyday. Participants wear reproductions of clothing from the era and demonstrate old-time skills such as cooking over the fire, throwing the tomahawk, and fashioning flints for rifles.

All participants are expected to live as trappers did in that time period.

“You won’t see soda bottles and other modern things here,” said Pat Campbell of Washington County. “That stuff is contraband and needs to stay out of sight.”

The rendezvous stems from trading celebrations held in Missouri and further west during the “Mountain man” era. Back then, trappers spent much of their year catching fur-bearing animals. In the early part of that century, they brought their furs to St. Louis to sell or trade, then purchased their supplies for the upcoming year.

Some suppliers saw an economic advantage to bringing supplies to their customers in the wilderness and setting up a store. Trappers and their families would bring their furs to the store instead of trekking them to the city. That would cut out the supplier’s competition and provide a way to recover the money they spent on furs.

One of the areas they headed to was this region, which was a “melting pot” of ethnic groups. Rendezvous included Indians as well as Europeans, and farmers as well as trappers.

Suppliers graded the furs, paid the trappers, then collected that same money as trappers bought goods from the store, Mann explained.

By the time they had what they needed for the next years, trappers would have spent nearly all the money they made from the furs. They used their last few dollars to buy whiskey and party for a few days, said Pat Campbell of Washington County. The men often participated in shooting contests using their black powder rifles.

“It was a drunken brawl, and unmentionable things went on back then,” Mann said. “We have stylized this to make it a family event, but we still have the shooting contests.”

Another popular attraction is old-fashioned bread baking. Members of La Brigade A Renault bake loaves of homemade bread in a large clay oven. They built the oven about seven years ago by bending willow branches into a round oven shape. They covered the bent branches with burlap, then piled on a mixture of local white clay and straw. When the clay was about 10-12 inches thick, the oven was left to cure for several days. After that, the members lit a fire in the stove and burned away the branches and burlap, which glazed the inside of the oven.

Daugherty, Campbell, and Jerry Miller of Old Mines manned the oven Saturday afternoon. Between each batch, the men lit a fire to heat the inside of the oven until it was about 450 degrees. At that point, they pull the fire out and check the temperature of the oven. It should be about 400 degrees to bake the bread efficiently, Miller explained. The clay walls keep the temperature even for some time.

“We check the temperature by putting our hand inside the door and counting to 10,” Miller said. “If we can’t keep it in that long, the oven is too hot, if we can hold it longer, the oven is not yet warm enough.

Approximately 20 minutes after the men put the loaves in the oven, the contained heat baked the bread to a rich golden brown.

The loaves are usually sold in minutes.

“Bread was a delicacy back then, Campbell said. “All they had during the year was hardtack, which is like a big, thick cracker that doesn’t go bad.”

The Winter Shoot includes the sale of reproduction pieces and items related to the early 19th century. Participants are eager to share with visitors many stories from history of the era.

Profits from event will be used to buy items for St. Joachim’s school.

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