History: On the Banks of the Mighty Nip

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By Dave Coulter

Rough Edges

"Gone are the days when the ox fall down, he'd take up the yoke and plow the fields around …”
Brown Eyed Women - Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia

A group of us met for a Saturday hike up at Glacial Park, north of McHenry.  This outing had been planned for some time, and as many of you know, we were blessed by some of the best fall weather I can ever recall.  But if any of us were looking for a peaceful commune with nature those hopes were dashed by the Trails of History ( http://www.mccdistrict.org/web/Trail-of-History.htm )
event that took over the park for the weekend.   

Unbeknownst to us, this event drew thousands of attendees…. and it charged admission while closing off most of the trails in the park to boot.  I felt bad that I’d lured everyone out with the promise of a nice hike only to find half of McHenry county sharing the remaining trail with us.   Most discouraging to me personally was the sight of ….. re-enactors. Yes, the dozens of off-white canvas tents clustered along the Nippersink assured us that there would be plenty of well-meaning folk dressed like pioneers and school marms.  We would be exposed to living history!  This is something I would normally back away from, but we’d all driven quite some distance, and it was a fine day, and heck - maybe the youngsters would enjoy the outing.  

I’m sure this says more about me than it does about them, but I can’t explain why the sight of guys dressed like British redcoats inspires the same sort of reaction in me that birthday clowns do.  It’s not as if the pastime is unwholesome or anything.  Just like the times when I have visited the Highland Games I sometimes wonder if this desire to wear a kilt, or dress like a voyageur is an affliction unique to Americans?   I appreciate that some folks might be proud of their heritage, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to beat a grown man dressed up like a gnome on general principle.  

With the prospect of a hike now gone,  reveling in the days gone by was now the order of the day. While the sight of buckskin-clad anything made me smirk I have to admit that I was impressed by the sight of the horses and oxen that were parading around the grounds.  In hindsight I could have spent the day following those oxen around.  They’re enormous, and it’s just not the kind of thing urban folk like me see every day.   They inspire the sort of  respect that a thousand pound animal deserves. Did you know they eat 40 pounds of grass per day?

And the food! Oh my gosh, it was all old-timey.  Here and there people were cooking strips of meat - that I could only pray was beef - over small, tended fires. One guy had turkeys roasting on a spit. We understood these were to be consumed by the re-enactors later that evening when the crowds were dismissed and they could be, uh, themselves.  An interesting sight was the rings o’ pumpkin being cooked (smoked?) over a fire.

Even I can’t be cynical forever.  As we walked about I did see things that inspired respect in my bosom.  I was impressed by the guy making a dugout boat, and the handmade archery bow and the metal hatchets.  There are people that have clearly learned a lot about the way we used to live - not all that long ago.  The unsettling thought crossed our minds that we should pay more attention to all of this: if our economy keeps faltering knowing how to grind corn may come in handy.   For now we can find that online, but I don’t see how the google will help me catch that ox that escaped the pen.    

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