Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy Nouvelle Annee from Old Fort Wayne


Fort Wayne, Indiana carries that name because it was the site of several forts in early American history. The original structure was Fort Miamis built in 1697 by French settlers as one of a string of forts between Quebec and St. Louis. It was named for the Miami Indians who lived in the area.

By 1721, the fort had been rebuilt and renamed Fort St. Philippe des Miamis and continued to serve as a French trading post until 1747 when Huron Indians who were allied with the British burned it to the ground. Once again, the French rebuilt the fort and used it during the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763.

Old Fort Wayne is now a living history museum that welcomes visitors. Next month, you can celebrate Nouvelle Annee at Old Fort Wayne and be transported back 260 years to the winter of 1751. At that time, the fort sheltered French soldiers and settlers as well as native people. The war was still a few years off, but Great Britain was already sowing the seeds of unrest by wooing the native tribes with better trade prices and other bribes.

The replica fort is of particular interest to Chicagoans because it was built by John Whistler, an Irishman who served with the British army during the Revolutionary War. Later, he immigrated to the United States and entered the U.S. army. Whistler helped build forts at Fort Wayne in 1798 and again in 1816. The last fort greatly resembles a fort he built in 1803 on Lake Michigan's shoreline - Fort Dearborn. Visiting the replica at Fort Wayne gives Chicagoans a new understanding of Fort Dearborn.

If the name Whistler seems familiar, that's because of an interesting side note. John Whistler had fifteen children with his wife Anna. One son, James McNeill Whistler, became a artist, famous for his painting of Anna, his mother.

The Incident at Fort Dearborn

During the War of 1812, Great Britain was successfully capturing U.S. forts. When Fort Michilimackinac fell to the enemy army, U.S. Captain Nathan Heald was ordered to abandon Fort Dearborn, give away the fort's supplies to the Potawatomi Indians and withdraw to Fort Wayne. There were 93 people living in the fort, including women and children who were the families of some soldiers.

Captain Heald destroyed the liquor and weapons in storage rather than give them op to the natives, which angered the younger braves. William Wells, a legendary frontiersman, was the uncle of Rebekah Wells, Captain Heald's wife. Wells rode like the devil to Fort Dearborn to try averting a confrontation between the soldiers and the Potawatomi, but by the time he arrived, the distribution of stores was completed. The army no longer had enough provisions to stay holed up in the fort and the natives were already incensed by the destruction of the weapons and liquor.

Wells, who lived with the Miami tribe as a boy and was married twice to native women, painted his face with war paint and prepared for the worst. The worst came soon enough.

The convoy was hopelessly outnumbered by the Potawatomi and many were killed, including Wells and 12 of the 18 children in the group. The rest were taken prisoner and on the following day, the fort was burned to the ground.

Traditionally known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre, some are now referring to it as the Battle of Fort Dearborn.

Where History Is Happening

Novelle Annee at Old Fort Wayne
Saturday, January 29
10:00 am - 5:00 pm
Experience a winter with the French of Fort Miamis. French military, civilians, and local native Americans will be recreating the daily life at a Fort on the frontier . Mail call, drilling, scouting the area, cooking, and sewing will be some of the events taking place during the event.

Byron Museum of History
Tuesday through Friday
10:00 am - 5:00 pm Saturday
10:00 am - 2:00 pm
The Byron Museum of History is dedicated to preserving the Byron area's rich history through exhibits, programs, and artifact preservation.
The Museum Complex consists of a large Exhibit Hall, the historic Read House, which was on the Underground Railroad and is a listed site on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and an adjoining Gallery. Built in 1843 for the Read family by Pardon Kimball, the house was a focal point in early Byron.
Admission is free.

Amboy Depot Museum
Saturdays in January and February
10:00 am - 4:00 pm
The Museum is located in a former depot and division headquarters of the Illinois Central Railroad, is completely restored and includes the original brick tarmac surrounding the depot and the grounds of the former rail-yard.Within the museum are artifacts of both the history of Amboy and the Illinois Central Railroad.
The museum complex also contains a freight house with additional artifacts, a fully restored one-room country schoolhouse, a retired steam engine and a caboose.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


If you've lived near Lake Michigan long enough, you will have heard or read something about the Christmas Tree ships. This year, the Christmas Tree Ship arrived on December 3 at Navy Pier, welcomed by escort boats, a band, school choirs and throngs of children with their families.

United States Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw currently brings the Christmas trees for distribution to disadvantaged youngsters, but the Mackinaw is simply re-creating a long-standing tradition on the Great Lakes.

Christmas as we celebrate it today wasn't embraced by America until the mid-1800's. Our Puritan forefathers strictly forbade merry-making at Christmas time and December 25 wasn't declared a federal holiday until 1870. Christmas festivities were more common in the southern states and after the Civil War the custom of celebrating Christmas spread across the country.

Along with the celebration of Christmas came the Christmas Tree. Swaths of pine trees grew in the forests of northern Wisconsin, easy to harvest and sometimes even available for free. Retailers got the buyers lined up and all a resourceful person needed to do was get the trees from Wisconsin to Chicago. In the last half of the nineteenth century, that meant moving them by ship during the golden age of Great Lakes sailing.

Unfortunately, November is a treacherous month on Lake Michigan and many a ship loaded with Wisconsin pines never made it to the Chicago port. The Christmas Tree run was usually the last trip a captain made before the ice and snow made sailing impossible and it was always a calculated risk. If successful, the captain stood to make a profit almost as much as he earned during the whole rest of the year, but if a storm should blow up, he could lose both his profit and as his life.

The Rouse Simmons with Captain Herman Schuenemann at the helm is the subject of a well-known Christmas Tree Ship story. The Captain's older brother went down with his ship on a Christmas Tree run and the Rouse Simmons disappeared with her cargo and Captain Herman in 1912. The Captain's widow and daughters continued with the family business for a few years, stringing the new ship with lights and tying a pine tree to the top of the tallest mast in keeping with the Christmas Tree Ship tradition.

If you'd like to read more about the Rouse Simmons and the other Christmas Tree Ships, there are several good books available on the subject that would make excellent holiday gifts:

The Historic Christmas Tree Ship: A True Story of Faith, Hope and Love by Rochelle Pennington

The Christmas Tree Ship: The Story of Captain Santa by Rochelle Pennington

Lives and Legends of the Christmas Tree Ships by Fred Neuschel

Lutefisk for Christmas

In 1870, during what is known as the Golden Age of Great Lakes Sailing, nearly 65% of sailors on the Great Lakes were Norwegian. Sailing was a skill that many men brought with them from Norway and since the vast majority of Norwegian immigrants settled in the upper Midwest of the United States, the Great Lakes were easily accessible.

During an eight year period around that time, more than 110,000 Norwegians came to America, a migration wave bested only by the Irish. A rapidly growing population faced with limited industrial growth led to large numbers of young people searching for greener pastures outside of Norway.

Most set out for America and many wound up in Minnesota, just like Garrison Keillor's jokes about Sven and Ole on his Prairie Home Companion radio show. The Norwegian immigrants celebrated Christmas as Twelfth night so they had ample opportunity for feasts, including sausages, flatbrød (flatbread), smultringer (doughnuts) and home-brewed ale.

Lutefisk, dried cod soaked in lye, was not necessarily a Christmas delicacy, but as the Norwegians became Americanized, they seized on lutefisk as a unique remainder from the old days and incorporated it into their Christmas traditions. In fact, Madison, Minnesota has a giant fiberglass cod statue named Lou T. Fisk to commemorate their standing as the Lutefisk Capital of the United States.
Carriage Ride in Norwood Park
Saturday, December 18 4 - 7:00 pm
The Norwood Park Historical Society will host a Holiday Carriage Ride in an open horse-drawn carriage. Begins at the Noble-Seymour-Crippen House and proceeds around the Norwood Park neighborhood.
Each ride is approximately 15 minutes long, and the carriage can hold groups of 8 to 10 people. Participants should dress for the weather. Tickets may be purchased in advance; ride time slots are not guaranteed, as they are first-come, first-serve.
$8 for adults and $4 for children. For information and to purchase tickets, call 773-631-4633.
Participants can also enjoy complimentary hot beverages and baked goods inside the Noble-Seymour-Crippen House which is open noon to
4 p.m. and is decorated for the holidays.

Holiday Showcase at Tanner House

Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday until Decemeber 29,
1 to 4 pm
Come join us for our annual Holiday display. The Tanner house will be decorated by local designers; come check out what they can do! You even get to join the fun by voting on your favorite room design.
Normal admission will apply ($4.00 adults, $2 students & seniors, under 12 & AHS members free.)

Holiday Mansion Tours
Saturday and Sunday, December 18-19.
11:00 am - 3:00 pm
It's time to spice up the holidays with a tour of the splendidly decorated Victorian-era Martin Mitchell Mansion, the only home in Naperville on the National Register of Historic Places. Come learn about 19th century customs at our tours which run continuously from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and include an informative tour of the two-story 1883 Mansion and its Carriage House. Tickets are $8 general admission; $1 off for Naperville Heritage Society Sustaining Members; no advance registration required. Please come directly to the Mansion to purchase your tickets. Walk-ins are welcome for this holiday-focused tour with historic ambiance. The Weed Ladies Floral Designers Showroom in the Daniels House also will be open, and tour attendees will receive a special gift certificate to shop.