Friendships forged during Fort Vallonia Days

VALLONIA — The small Jackson County community of Vallonia came alive Saturday morning with the sounds of comradery and the smells of fried food and gunpowder for the celebration of Fort Vallonia Days.

The celebration of the fort and the long history of the town began many years after Vallonia was settled by the French in the late 1700s.

Around 1810, the Indians who called the area home for some time became hostile toward the settlers. At that time, Gen. William Henry Harrison, then governor of Indiana, ordered a fort built to protect the 90 families in the area.

According to the Fort Vallonia Museum, no actual pictures were taken of the fort, but descriptions and specifications of the fort were preserved in public records.

In 1968, several interested men began talking about rebuilding a replica of the old fort at their bimonthly meeting of the local Lions Club. Then in 1969, the first Fort Vallonia Days celebration brought 3,000 people to the small community.

The celebration began in the early morning with a contest that has been running just as long as the celebration itself.

As men gathered behind Vallonia Christian Church on Saturday, they began to load their muzzles with gunpowder for the 55th annual Wes Hartley Memorial Shoot.

Range officer Colton Fleetwood said the purpose of this over the log match is all about precision.

“The tightest shot will win,” he said.

With 46 shooters registered that morning, setting a new record, Fleetwood said he always enjoys the comradery and heritage this contest brings to Fort Vallonia Days.

“The sound of the shot and the smell of the gunpowder, it’s as American as apple pie,” he said.

This was Fleetwood’s 15th year going to the event and his seventh year being a range officer. He said it’s the only event that has been occurring every year, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Don Neal, who has been participating in the memorial shoot for 53 years, prepared for the practice round, he said he enjoys seeing the younger generation pick up a historic hobby.

“The younger generation is getting started, and we are seeing all sorts of rifles here today,” he said. “We probably have an age range from 12 years old to 85 years old here.”

Tom Cooley has been a skilled marksman in his 55 years of attending the memorial shoot, winning the contest at least five times.

“It’s a wonderful event with tough competition,” he said.

Now at 84, he has passed on his skills to his son, Colton Cooley, who has passed it down to his son.

“It’s just a wonderful pastime to spend with family and a friendly competition, as well,” Colton said.

The winner received 300 pounds of meat worth more than $1,000 and other prizes.

Stepping foot in the fort, festivalgoers are taken back through time as various activities and hobbies were taking place on the fort grounds.

Across the bridge, blacksmith David Good began to hammer raw material to forge a barbecue fork.

Longtime blacksmith Paul Bray, who has been honing the craft for 23 years, talked about art of blacksmithing.

“There is an artistry to this kind of work,” he said. “I once saw a security gate with very intricate details engraved on it, and I knew from there that I wanted to be able to do the same.”

Bray said he once bought a book of German blacksmithing art only for the pictures to try and re-create some of the pieces in the book.

“I couldn’t understand anything in the book except for the pictures, but I was able to re-create some of the pieces in the book,” he said.

Good, on the other hand, fell in love with blacksmithing when he came home from work one day to a fully functioning forge in his backyard built by his son, who is an Eagle Scout. Since then, he has taken over the forge and made it a hobby for himself.

“This craft is something you never really master,” Good said. “There is always something new to learn.”

Bray and Good said they enjoy coming to Fort Vallonia Days to meet people and interact with others through their hobbies.

On the front porch of the Garrison House in the center of the fort grounds sat a woman in 1800s time period attire weaving various colors of thread together on a loom to make a table runner.

Shannon Wehrkamp started weaving after she retired from banking 10 years ago and said she enjoys seeing people and showing kids a little taste of history.

“This is such a relaxing hobby for me, and I enjoy picking out the different colors,” she said. “The kids ask a lot of questions, and so it’s nice to see the young ones interested.”

Wehrkamp said she learned many difference ways of weaving, but one of her favorite experiences was when she traveled to New Mexico and weaved with Navajo Indians.

“They were wonderful people and put such an emphasis on detail in their weaving process,” she said. “They would die the wool and just use an all-natural process. It was beautiful.”

Inside the Garrison House, Peggy Boyd and her daughter, Rachel, relaxed by a crackling fire while enjoying some mother-daughter time weaving baskets.

Peggy is a retired schoolteacher who originally started basketweaving with other teachers as a way to decompress from long, stressful days of school.

With her family originally from Seymour, her father convinced her to come to Fort Vallonia Days to show off her talent in the early 2000s.

Since then, she has brought her daughter along as they travel around to different shows and festivals basketweaving and selling their homemade merchandise as a mother-daughter duo.

“This is our bonding time and has become a great activity for both of us to enjoy,” Rachel said.

“This is just something I have always loved doing, and it really is an artform,” Peggy said.

Just outside the fort, the sputtering of antique engines greeted festivalgoers as they browsed the field of antique tractor engines.

Dave Wehrkamp bought his first antique engine when he was in eighth grade thanks to the interest that his grandparents had in these pieces of history.

Wehrkamp displayed his 1910 International Harvester, which he said was a barn find and included all original parts on the functioning machine.

“It would normally have paint on it, but it’s so old that the paint wore off,” he said.

Wehrkamp said he enjoys the history behind these engines and spending time with family at the fort since his mother is not far away weaving on the loom.

The smell of diesel, however, is not enough to mask the scent of a freshly fried fish sandwich from the newly built firehouse at the Driftwood Township Volunteer Fire Department.

The department received a $12,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Jackson County to help in acquiring property and the resurrection of a new building.

“This was an ongoing process for three years,” Fire Chief Clint Wolka said. “The community and the fire department came together in April to tear down the previous buildings that occupied this space for free.”

Wolka said Tracie Stidham helped put the structure up, and the department completed a majority of the electrical work themselves.

“We put in a lot of time and effort into this, and we are very proud to give this to the community,” he said. “This new building will offer a bright spot and make the downtown look even better.”

The department plans to use the previous building that was built in 1956 as storage for equipment.

Fort Vallonia Days continued on with the winners of Little Miss and Little Mister contest, winners of the pumpkin decorating contest, fellowship and a festival favorite, the Fort Vallonia Days parade.

The winners of the Little Miss and Little Mister contest were Isabella Neukam and Vayden Flynn Allen, both in kindergarten.

Winners and honorable mentions of the pumpkin decorating contest included different age divisions and categories.

For ages six to 11 in the most creative category, honorable mentions were Amelia Henry, Vanessa Goltry and Vivian Henry.

In third place for the most creative category of this age division was Eleanor Henry, while Watson Caudill was second and Rynn Hilty placed first.

In the scariest category of this age division, Easton Andrews placed second, and Kip Williams placed first.

Honorable mention in the prettiest category of this age division was Laney Anderson. In third place was Brinley Caudill, while Amelia Williams was second and Avery Stahl was first.

For ages 12 to 17 for scariest pumpkin, Samantha Goltry placed first.

In the 18 and up division, Megan Bowling placed first for scariest pumpkin, Mario Ault placed second in the most creative category and Micah Hilty placed first in the same category.

Rynn Hilty won best in show for her colorful and decorated pumpkin.