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By Carissa Sitki
The Village of Hardin was the place to be on Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., for the annual Piasa Free Trappers Rendezvous along the Illinois River. The festival, formerly held in Grafton, is modeled after the Rendezvous that took place along the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers between the 1820s and 1840s. During that time, the mountain men and trappers would come down from the hills at the change of the season to trade their pelts and furs and to restock their supplies at the designated meeting spots. Rendezvous reenactments now take place across the country, some lasting for more than a week.
The event, put on by the Piasa Fur Trappers Committee, has called Grafton home for the past 27 years, but has now made its way to Hardin. According to Committee member, Tony Coxton, “logistical issues” lead to the relocation of the annual Rendezvous. A post was made on the event’s Facebook page, which read, “Circumstances beyond our control have led us to relocate the Grafton Rendezvous to a new home on the riverfront in Hardin, IL. We are very excited about this fantastic site with plenty of camping space and great parking.”
Going forward, the event’s official title will be “Piasa Free Trappers Rendezvous at Hardin,” according to McDonald.
The plans for the new site were not finalized until three weeks ago, but the turnout was still successful, according to Committee member James McDonald. “We’ve received a great showing of support,” he said. “There were 20 campsites already set up by Thursday.”
On average, there are around 80 camps for the weekend in Grafton. Despite the short notice move, the event still managed to draw a total of about 40-45 camps, according to Committee members, and around 150 reenactors. McDonald said that the new location in Hardin is very scenic and they are “happy to be here.”
There are many people who aren’t familiar with Rendezvous or the mountain men as they are not commonly taught at length in schools. “Rendezvous are a celebration of the American fur trade and westward expansion. It really gets overlooked in a lot of history books,” said McDonald. “People come out to these events to sell their goods and reenact the period.”
The two day long festival has always been family-oriented, with demonstrations of common trades of the time, traditional food vendors, handmade items for sale, root beer, games, and a raffle. The not-so-historical candy cannon is another attraction enjoyed by the attending children. While it may not have existed during the period, the kids all gathered around while the cannon was stuffed with several pounds of candy and lit before exploding into the air and raining down on the crowd.
“People would meet up in the same spot year-after-year for these Rendezvous,” said Croxton. “They were from all walks of life.”
The Rendezvous events today are similar in that way, with people traveling from all over to attend, buy, and sell. The furthest traveling campers came from nine hours away. Another attending family stopped their boat and attended the festival during their journey from Sudbury, Ontario in Canada.
The Piasa Fur Trappers Committee’s “Booshway,” or “head man in charge” is Brad Gold. Gold has been participating in Rendezvous for 21 years. He extended his gratitude to the Village for allowing them to set up the event on such short notice. “We appreciate being in Hardin and everyone has been more than accommodating,” he said. “We’re looking forward to a long relationship with them, going forward.”