Recreation & Destinations

30th Annual Autumn Pioneer Festival

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Discover an annual festival that transports visitors back to the mid-1800s, as they learn about the area’s earliest settlers.

Re-enactors fire their weapons during a past celebration of the annual pioneer festival.

Ihat was it like to live as an early settler in the Old Northwest Territory, back when land was plentiful but few modern conveniences of the age were within reach? What did people eat? How did they travel? What kinds of homes did they build? What kinds of other people did they encounter? What did they do for fun?

You might find the answers in books, but attending the 30th Annual Autumn Pioneer Festival Sept. 24-25, sponsored by the Boone County Conservation District, sounds like a lot more fun.

Held at Spencer Conservation Area, on the western edge of Belvidere, the festival offers a chance to mix with more than 80 costumed re-enactors well-schooled in pioneer life. From typical farm families to woodworkers, voyageurs, flintnappers and craftsmen (including a toymaker), these folks understand the challenges – and the rewards – our ancestors experienced. Some of the re-enactors will sell the handmade items they craft, and the rustic goodies they cook.

“The re-enactors are like historians,” explains Bev Kalas, who coordinates volunteers working at the festival. “Some of them are teachers; they’ve done a lot of research. They know the history that they’re trying to portray.”

A re-enactor describes his simple camp setting during the annual Autumn Pioneer Festival.

Even Gen. U.S. Grant and his horse, Jack, will pass through the Territory, as will some Napoleonic soldiers and a few doctors who tended wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War.

Generations of folks, from Boone County and beyond, have made this event an annual family tradition for the past 30 years.
“The festival is a great family outing,” says Kalas. “It’s great for kids and there’s something for all ages to enjoy. We hope that visitors will develop an appreciation for the history of Boone County.”

Along with dishing up local history, the festival is also known for its signature food items, including prairie chicken and rice, buffalo burgers, buffalo stew and fresh doughnuts. Visitors can sample bean soup and apple butter, too, both available for purchase.
But what’s a festival without music? Live folk and country music acts will perform both days.

“We also have a musician, Jim Minch, who strolls around the grounds and plays the banjo all day long,” says Kalas. “There’s always something going on, from the moment we open to when we close.”

Hop aboard a horse-pulled wagon and jump off to visit baby heritage goats and pigs. Stop to chat with re-enactors, and you may find yourself learning to throw a tomahawk or saw a log.

“We keep the festival as authentic as possible, says Kalas. “We don’t have anything modern in sight. No cell phones. Even the cash registers are hidden.”

Once known as “the old fairgrounds,” 350-acre Spencer Conservation Area, owned by the conservation district, abuts the Kishwaukee River for almost a half mile. It’s divided into several sections, each with a special focus, including American Indians, the Civil War, two authentic cabins, and the heritage gardens, lovingly tended by local master gardeners.

Those gardeners will be on hand to sell dried flowers and flower arrangements, and to teach curious visitors about various gardening traditions practiced in our region, with a focus of those planted by Yankees (migrating New Englanders) and immigrants from Norway, Germany and Scotland. The Pottowatomi Garden represents the corn, beans and squash-dominated gardens grown by American Indian women of Great Lakes Woodland tribes.

Also available for purchase will be pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn, jams, jellies and more.

“I try to find one or two new things every year,” says Kalas. “That way people don’t feel like they’re coming back for the same old thing every year.”

Last year, festival organizers invited a guest to teach cricket and organize matches. This English bat-and-ball game precedes baseball. Throughout the day, children and adults were engaged in the game, probably a first for most.

In recognition of the 30th anniversary, the festival will include the dedication of the Dawson River Road Schoolhouse. The replica was built by trade classes at Belvidere North and Belvidere High Schools. The project was started by a memorial fund donated by the Dawson family, whose ancestors helped to settle the area.

The conservation grounds are also home to two authentic burr oak cabins from the 1800s. The Norwegian cabin, called the Newhouse cabin, was built in 1846-1849 by Kittle Nybus, who immigrated from Norway with 100 other people. Once here, he changed his name to Newhouse to become more Americanized. He had four children; two of his descendants will stay in the cabin during the festival and talk to visitors.

“They’ll be there to demonstrate what life was like then,” says Kalas. “It’s their family’s history.”

The cabin was donated to the district in 1988, completely dismantled. Each log was individually numbered and put back together in 1989. The Boone County Conservation District has invested more than $22,000 to restore and furnish the cabin, as it would be seen in the 1860s.

The second cabin, the Murray cabin, is of Scottish design. Built in 1838, it was discovered in 1976, inside another building, on the Illinois/Wisconsin border. It had been used as a hunter’s cabin. Although it was crudely built, the 173-year-old cabin remains entirely intact, with its original logs.

According to records compiled by the conservation district, a family of 13 occupied the Murray cabin at one time, the parents sleeping in the upstairs bedroom and the kids in the living area. Some of the boys slept in the loft of the family barn.

Both cabins are open during the Pioneer Festival and also during a Holiday Walk event in December.

Over time, the festival has grown immensely, drawing 5,000 to 8,000 people in recent years, says Kalas. About 75 volunteers and 20 staff members participate, along with the 80 re-enactors,

“I hope that everyone who visits leaves with a better knowledge of life back in the 1860s,” says Kalas. “That’s all we can ask for.”
Hours of the festival are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sept. 24 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sept. 25.

For more information, go to www.boonecountyconservationdistrict.org. ❚

When Boone County Was Born

The following are exerpts from The History of Boone County, published in 1877 by H.F. Kett & Co. The book may be read online at http://www.archive.org/details/pastpresentofboo00kett.

“From 1835 to 1840-41 might justly be called the ‘log cabin’ age. But after the latter date, the log cabins and shanties began to give way to a better class of houses. Prairie barns, with their grassy coverings, went down, to make room for more pretentious and convenient structures. Now, in 1877, there is scarcely a quarter section of land in the county that does not boast its large and handsome brick or frame residence, with tastefully arranged grounds, fine large barns and substantial fencings. The ox wagon has given place to more modern vehicles, and fine carriages and well-trained horses are among the possessions of a large majority …

“In 1835, when the first settlers came, post-offices were unknown in the bounds of what is now Boone County, and for a large district of country outside. That was long before the days of cheap postage or the prepaid system, and for many months when a settler went to Chicago, the nearest post-office, his pockets were filled with quarters to pay the postage on letters from friends and relatives in the “old homes.” Ottawa was the nearest point for milling purposes until a mill was built at the Napier settlement, now Napierville. Later, a mill was built in Belvidere, stores and trading places were licensed, and gradually the hardships of pioneer life gave way before the advancement of civilization and the better things of more modern achievements …

“ … Many of these early settlers have been gathered with their fathers on the brighter shores of the Great Beyond. A few are left awaiting the summon to join those who have gone before, but who shared with them the hardships and privations incident to pioneer life in this country of the Kish-wau-kee, erst the home of the Pottawatomie chief, Big Thunder, and his people. But all those who have gone before and all those who are waiting the summons to follow, made noble records for honesty, morality, industry and all else that goes to make up noble lives. A record is left to their descendants that will serve as a beacon light to guide them in paths of peace, pleasantness, happiness and prosperity.”

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