‘Atmosphere and Tradition’

Max Wischmeier found himself the last in a long line waiting for a fish sandwich from the Driftwood Township Volunteer Fire Department on Saturday at the annual Fort Vallonia Days festival.

The wait didn’t deter Wischmeier, who considers the sandwiches a tradition he has enjoyed since he was a kid.

Purchasing the sandwich also helps the fire department, he said.

The freshly beer-battered fish sandwich is a staple for many who attended the festival, which has been held the third weekend in October since 1969.

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While many enjoy the food, activities and crafts the festival offers, the entire event centers around the fort, which has a rich history that predates the State of Indiana’s admittance to the United States.

The area was settled by French pioneers in the late 1700s and around 1810, William Henry Harrison, Indiana’s governor at the time who later became the ninth president, ordered a fort to be constructed to protect about 90 settlers from Native Americans.

In 1968, a local Lions Club constructed a replica of Fort Vallonia and the following year the festival was born.

Upon entering the replica fort, festival attendees will see the Garrison House, a cabin-like structure built there. The fort also features a tomahawk throw, blacksmith and wigwam.

Mike Wheeler of Hayden, and his wife, Marsha, have set up a tepee inside the fort the last 10 or so years to inform people about how pioneers and Native Americans lived at the time the fort was constructed.

The Wheelers set the tepee up the Thursday before the festival starts and spend the entire weekend in it, even sleeping in it overnight. Setting up the wooden beams and wrapping them in canvas takes them about three to four hours to do, Wheeler said.

“It’s an interesting place to be,” he said of staying in the tepee throughout the weekend. “I mean, you’re inside Fort Vallonia that was settled in 1816 and I love the history here and the fact we are here where the settlers lived.”

Wheeler’s grandfather lived in Vallonia and Wheeler did too for a few years, he said. The festival and setting up the tepee gives him a nostalgic feeling when he arrives.

“It’s almost like coming home,” he said.

Many people ask the Wheelers if they get cold in the teepee overnight, but that’s never a problem as the tepee has a stove in the middle of it. Wheeler said the pioneers and natives would have had an open fire in their tepees.

“Of course they actually had a ground fire, but it’s a lot safer to just put this wood stove in,” he said.

Wheeler enjoys speaking with people and hearing their thoughts about the tepee and festival.

“It’s interesting to meet people and hear their stories and share the history,” he said. Wheeler also enjoys seeing reactions from children as they enter the teepee.

“They come in and their eyes get so big and they ask me if I live here,” he said with a grin.

Sharing that history with children is important because it passes on stories about how people lived during those times, Wheeler said.

“If the kids don’t hear about things that happened years ago, who are they going to hear it from? Some of their parents don’t even know, so I feel like I am enlightening some of the children about how the pioneers and Native Americans lived,” he said.

Jim Bray and his friend, Judy Hendry of Brown County, stepped inside the Wheelers’ tepee to get a closer look. Bray said he thought seeing the tepee firsthand was interesting.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was actually quite comfortable to be in,” Bray said. “He’s got shelter, he’s got warmth and really everything he needs.”

Bray said he was glad he made the trip to Fort Vallonia Days because he likes seeing events that feature American history.

“I’ve always had an interest in older stuff and old ways,” he said.

Another display within the fort was blacksmithing. Paul Bray of Seymour owns Shade Tree Forge and spent the day working on items inside the fort.

Bray, 70, has been a blacksmith since 2001 and said he enjoys being at the festival. He heats malleable iron in a forge until it can be shaped and then uses a hammer or wedge to shape it into a piece he or a customer wants.

He makes tripods, grills, railings, candle holders, yard decorations and more. Many of those items were for sale at the fort.

“Most people here are campers and so I make a lot of things that you can use for camping,” he said.

The business is also a hobby for Bray and he enjoys seeing people come through during the festival to observe and ask questions about what he loves to do.

“Meeting the people and seeing everyone and finding out how well I am making things for them is what I like best about being here,” he said. “I don’t do this for the money because I don’t make much off of it, but it’s something I really enjoy and enjoy sharing with others. That’s why I do it.”

Sharing his trade with younger people is something Bray makes sure he does each year at the festival.

Bray belongs to the Indiana Blacksmith’s Association and said many of its members want younger people to get involved to pass the skill along.

“There is no age limit because we have a little girl who’s three and is getting started with it and now an 80-year-old man that just started,” he said.

Bray’s advice to getting started as a blacksmith?

“Just get in there and doing it,” he said. “All you have to do is heat something up and start beating on it.”

Margaret Carson and her husband, Charlie, have made the trip to Vallonia from Union Mills — which is near Lake Michigan — for the last 20 years to share their knowledge of skills settlers used during the settlement of Fort Vallonia.

Margaret does tatting, a technique for handcrafting a durable lace through a series of loops and knots. The finished product is used for jewelry, borders on clothing, decorative pieces and more.

“It makes nice trims for clothing and quilts,” she said.

Charlie does woodworking and spent most of Saturday shaping wood to construct a kitchen chair.

The couple were at Spring Mill some 20 years ago doing similar work when a Fort Vallonia Days festival organizer approached them to display their skills and work in the fort. They have been coming ever since.

The drive to get to Fort Vallonia from Union Mills is a long one, but Margaret said the couple enjoy the festival so much and seeing all the people.

“It’s the friendly people and it’s a neat atmosphere,” she said. “It’s a real down-home festival with a lot of variety.”

The friendliness, tradition and atmosphere seem to be what people like best about the festival. With the line for a fish sandwich growing behind him, Wischmeier said attending the festival is a tradition he doesn’t want to miss.

“It’s the best and you get to see so many people you know and haven’t seen for a long time,” he said. “Some of them you haven’t seen since you were in school.”