By Bernie Schmitt
Drums and fifes will sound the call to arms along the Wabash River this Memorial Day Weekend, as the city will celebrate the 43rd annual Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous.
Indiana’s oldest city will host its annual 18th-Century festival on May 25 and 26, re-enacting Revolutionary War battles and taking visitors back in time to the early days of American frontier history. The popular event annually attracts more than 400 re-enactors along with an estimated 35,000 visitors.
The Rendezvous celebrates the capture of Fort Sackville by Colonial troops and the subsequent expansion of the United States into the Northwest Territory. Visitors will experience authentic battle recreations, period clothing, foods, and lifestyles of the era. More than 100 authentic merchant and food booths will have items for sale, and there will also be a living history encampment, craftsmen, children’s games, and a wide variety of entertainment.
The Tippecanoe Ancient Fife and Drum Corps, a fixture at the annual Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous, will be in the spotlight this year, per the festival’s fife and drum corps theme. That group will be joined by the River Valley Colonials Fife and Drum Corps and the Voyageur Ancient Fife and Drum Corps. This year’s Rendezvous button, worn by visitors and volunteers, features a fife and drum corps re-enactor.
“The Tippecanoe Fife and Drum Corps marched over from the Rendezvous grounds to the Riverwalk last year to perform for the dedication of the Sieur de Vincennes statue dedication,” said Mark Hill, Rendezvous marketing director. “We have them featured on our posters and our programs. They have been a fixture at the Rendezvous for years.”
Hundreds of merchants
Among the hundreds of merchants who set up camp to ply their wares are about 10 new or relatively new merchants who will set up their tents at the Rendezvous. One of them, a popular broom maker from San Antonio, Texas, is scheduled to attend.
“He works at the Alamo historic site in Texas,” Hill said.
Vincennes’ Vigo Elementary School PTO will be taking over the fresh, roasted corn booth from the Vincennes Kiwanis Club, and plan to have volunteers selling the product throughout the Rendezvous grounds. The Vincennes Lincoln High School football boosters also will operate a chicken sandwich booth.
Hill said entertainment at the Rendezvous will include some of the regular favorites, although a new band will find its way to the music stage this year. There will be re-enactors portraying George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Franklin, and will provide interactive talks with small groups on the grounds.
While it is still seven years away, a lot of re-enactors and festival organizers are focused on the upcoming 250th anniversary of the Revolutionary War in 2026.
“It’s only a few years into the future, but everyone is thinking about different things leading up to that and ways to tie a variety of events to that,” Hill said.
Soldier re-enactments at the Rendezvous are the most colorful and capture the attention of all visitors, along with the mock battles that will take place (two of them) each day. The Northwest Territory Alliance has been the major re-enactment organization to participate at the Rendezvous for nearly all of its history.
“The challenges we have are finding new groups and more re-enactors as some age and go on to retire,” Hill said. “A few years ago we had the Grand Encampment which allowed us to give exposure to a lot of sons and grandsons of re-enactors who then decided to also get involved. There are also re-enactment groups from the eastern part of the country who have come here, too.”
It is the professionalism of re-enactors, merchants, musicians, and everyone tied to the Rendezvous that has made it a premier living history event in the Midwest.
“It’s the quality that has made this event sustainable,” Hill said. “But the quality of merchants is tied to our re-enactors, since they (re-enactors) are the ones interested in some of the quality merchandise available.”
Authenticity is important
The first Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous, during the 1976 Bicentennial, included western teepees, a stage coach, and even entertainment by barbershop quartets. Over the years efforts have been made to restrict the event to period re-enactors, merchants, and food preparation.
“We have to have some modern things, like bottled water,” Hill said. “But we try to stay as authentic as possible.”
Crowds have been steady at each Rendezvous over the years, weather being the primary factor regarding a visitor’s length of stay. On occasion, rain or thunderstorms hamper the festivities, but people still come to this 18th-Century re-enactment festival.
“While our attendance has been about the same year to year, we are always vulnerable to weather,” Hill said. “We may get the same number of visitors, but some may not stay as long if it’s too hot or if it rains.”
For those who don’t wish to park on the grounds, Vincennes’ public transportation system, Van Go, will provide shuttles to and from the Rendezvous grounds, as well as to the nearby Indiana Military Museum, the Vincennes State Historic Sites, Grouseland — the home of Indiana Territorial Gov. William Henry Harrison, and the Red Skelton Museum of Comedy.
“I think visitors will even get a reduced price at the Red Skelton Museum,” Hill said. “And the State Historic Sites are free to visit.”
In addition, Rendezvous organizers have tried to tie native son Red Skelton in with the event by showing a 20-minute television piece by Skelton saluting the winter American revolutionary troops endured at Valley Forge in 1777. It will be shown at the George Rogers Clark National Historic Park Visitors Center adjacent to the Rendezvous grounds.
“Our mission is to use this event to help promote the entire historic community,” Hill said. “We hope visitors will enjoy the Rendezvous and will come back to visit another time, too.”
Hill said for a city to keep an historic festival of this size and quality going for 43 years is truly significant.
“We could not have done this over the years without the support of the National Park Service and the city of Vincennes,” Hill said. “They are our link to authenticity. We also had lots of volunteers to do an enormous amount of work on the grounds.”
The Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous will take place along the Wabash River, at the Old French Commons, located adjacent to the George Rogers Clark National Memorial grounds, where the soldiers’ military encampment is located.
The Rendezvous is open to all ages from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 25, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 26.