FORT WAYNE — French troops even counted in French as they demonstrated a rifle drill from the days of Garrison du Miami.
Reenactors Max Michael and Tom Wojcinski led a half-dozen 21st-century children in the drill many times during the 2-day Joyeux Noel at The Old Fort in Fort Wayne.
Activities throughout the fort reminded visitors of the half-century that the French prevailed in present-day Indiana before yielding to the British in 1860.
Wojcinski, of Hammond, has been a Garrison du Miami reenactor since 1998. “I started getting into this when I was a young child because my parents took me to a lot of historic sites and I developed a love of history,” he said. “And one day I saw some Civil War reenactors at my local festival and at the tender age of 10 asked how I could join. They took me on as a drummer boy and I just kept going from there and took on other time periods and I’ve been acting now 28 years.”
Michael, of Indianapolis, took up reenacting as an adult 17 years ago. “I got started because a local elementary school where my oldest daughter was going at the time has a Revolutionary War event and and the regular reenactors couldn’t come and they asked who else could do this. I knew (reenactors) at work, so my friends from work came but they made me join in and I’ve been hooked since.”
Michael, Wojcinski and the Garrison du Miami have brought their moment of history to such observances as Koh-Koh-Mah near Kokomo, Fort Niagara and Fort Ticonderoga.
Wojcinski said the French period was an important though perhaps not widely understood period in Indiana history. “Sometimes people are surprised” to learn of the extent of French influence in Indiana, he said. “They only get a little bit of it in fourth grade in Indiana history here in the state,” he said. “But there’s a lot of French history in Indiana — Vincennes, of course Fort Ouiatenon in Lafayette, here at Fort Miami which was the first French fort built here in Fort Wayne. The French were here in large number and in a big way so it’s an important part of our local history.”
The French were here until the end of the French and Indian War, he said.
He said Fort Miami was founded in 1718, and French held the Three Rivers area until surrendering the fort to the British in 1760. Michael and Wojcinski said Garrison du Miami will return to Fort Wayne and to the Old Fort on Jan. 25 for Nouvelle Annee: 1760. Find details at oldfortwayne.org.
Over the weekend, though, The Old Fort was home to a festive Joyeux Noel, celebrating an 1800s French fort Christmas.
According to Bob Jones, event coordinator, it’s the sixth or seventh year that it’s been instated and it’s been successful every year. There’s no cost for admission.
“The turnout is high, thousands of people come downtown,” Jones said.
Historic Fort volunteers work weeks in advance to prepare for the event, planning the menu as well as activities. Past activities for children have included ornament making.
A traditional meal was on display for visitors to see, consisting of tourtier, a mincemeat pie made with pork sausage, a pumpkin soup and other sides of cranberries and apples and turnips.
“Of course, there are breads and fruit pies too,” Jones said. The fort’s commander’s kitchen was spread with all these items.
At the time remembered in Joyeux Noel, residents of the fort would have included fur traders who came from Canada to Detroit and found a market for their wares in the area and chose to settle there.
Other important traditions include the traditional yule log, where volunteers have kids pick the perfect log to put on the fire, which would have been kept lit all night for the celebration.
Another special tradition, a buche de Noel, a dessert made of sponge and jams which is then rolled up and served sliced, covered with chocolate, was at the event. The outside of the buche is made to resemble a log.
“For devout Catholics, the celebration would have had a crèche,” Jones said. A crèche is similar to a modern-day Nativity scene. A crèche was brought in from northwest Indiana for this year’s event.
The event also featured vendors selling a variety of crafts and a bake sale. Each room of the fort featured a different vendor, ranging from jewelers, silversmiths, woodworkers and more.
According to Jones, proceeds from the bake sale go to benefit maintenance for the fort. More information is available at the Old Fort’s website, https://oldfortwayne.org/event/joyeux-noel-a-festive-french-christmas-3/.
(Garth Snow of IN|FW Newspapers contributed to this report.)