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Globe writer Ian Brown dresses up in 18th-century British regalia on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec: 'It felt surprisingly grave.' (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon - info@francisvachon.com)
Globe writer Ian Brown dresses up in 18th-century British regalia on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec: 'It felt surprisingly grave.' (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon - info@francisvachon.com)

Globe Focus

In Wolfe's clothing Add to ...

It was the exact opposite of an event you would re-enact, the antidote to re-enactment: It was emphatically here and emphatically now.

Ogdensburg was not like that. Thunderheads were building over the sunset the last night I was there, lighting the grass a bright, grave green among the darkening trees. You could smell wood smoke from cookfires and smudgepots; someone was playing a fiddle and a tambour, and a lot of people were singing an endless, chanty 18th-century song. Lanterns glowed faintly pink inside the neat, white canvas tents, looking like a field of pointy, luminescent brains.

This was Horst Dresler's favourite time - at night, after the public had left, with everyone in period costume (except me, so I tried to stay out of sight). The camp was lit only by fire and it actually began to feel like the real 18th century.

To my surprise, the more time I spent in the camp, the more I liked it. I liked the way people walked around in their fancy costumes, unselfconsciously debating, say, the role battlefield panic played on the Plains. I liked the way people said hello, no matter who you were. I liked that I could wander into a settler's tent-store and find a book called The Fighting Tomahawk: An Illustrated Guide to Using the Tomahawk and Long Knife as Weapons.

The re-enactors seemed to need to be there. They loved history, but they needed to make it physical and accurate, even strict. There was something dignified and slightly resigned in this. No one ever looked bored.

I met unusual people who did unusual things all over the camp. One was Teresa Gage. She had red hair and was 54 years old, though she looked younger.

"I had a different time frame before," she said. "Norman Conquest. But then my sister was attending an 18th-century event, so I moved forward again to the 18th century. I'm getting more and more modern!" She laughed, but added: "This is as modern as I'm going."

Ms. Gage was an electrical engineer and made her living as a systems analyst at Lockheed Martin, the military contractor. She'd just finished a third degree in "data-technology design," something I'd never heard of. During her time in England studying radar systems for U.S. Air Force planes, "I had an opportunity to get a degree in lace-making, out of the city guilds of London."

Normally that requires seven years; Ms. Gage did it in two.

Her hand-hewn booth was filled with lace - designs and samples and parchment prickings covered with tiny forests of (period-accurate) brass pins, around which she was crossing and twisting and twisting and crossing linen thread (there are only two moves in lace; the hard part is creating a design).

She could make an inch of lace in three hours. Her works-in-progress, with their pairs of Italian or English bobbins, looked so complicated they made me dizzy. "I do it for myself, for pleasure."

Ms. Gage didn't want to live in the past. "I would probably not be alive in the 18th century as a 54-year-old woman," she said. "But the public needs to understand where they come from. It's a value that we ourselves can do things with our hands. I've always found that it's helpful to remember that."

Making lace gave her a concrete sense of what she knew, of her store of knowledge. She had to take up computer science for her job, and worried the subject would be too difficult. "Oh," a friend said, "you'll have no problem. You make lace. It's all ones and zeroes."

But "making lace is way more relaxing," Teresa said. "And it's something I wrestle with singly."

Next she hoped to take up flint-knapping, to make stone tools and firearms.

As I got up to go Ms. Gage informed me that one of the rules of re-enacting was that "you don't ask about peoples' personal lives. When they're here, you can only ask about what they're re-enacting. When you're here, you're a re-enactor - or a French militia man, or whatever." She paused. "I guess it allows you to stretch more."

She was saying it ought to be possible to be something other than what modern society expected of you. The re-enactors were trying to be people they weren't supposed to be, whereas the people who opposed them in Quebec City wanted to stand guard over who they already were. It seemed like a significant difference.

Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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