FORT BRIDGER — “Move back everyone, I’m going to need some room!”
Doug Barlow was shouting during the Fort Bridger Rendezvous right after he’d grabbed a particularly intriguing broom from a hook hanging just above his wife Melinda’s head.
Melinda paused her spinning to watch what was about to happen. A crowd began to gather around, anticipating an interesting show.
The broom in Barlow’s hands suddenly shook.
At first, it was just a little tremor here and there. But soon it was wildly veering left and then right, yanking Barlow around.
It seemed the broom might fly out of his hands at any moment.
“It’s ready to go,” Barlow shouted. “Look out!”
The broom actually came within an inch of busting one poor person’s nose. People who’d crept just a little too close to Barlow quickly took a step back. Or two, or three.
Satisfied the crowd had made enough room for his takeoff, Barlow excitedly told two wide-eyed boys what was about to happen once he’d climbed onto the broom.
“I’m going to go around those trees and land right back here,” he said. “So, it will be like a great big circle.”
But don’t blink, he added.
“It’s going to happen so fast, if you blink you will miss it!” he said. “That’s why this broom is called Lightning Bolt Senior!”
The boys promised to keep their eyes wide open the whole time. Barlow then hopped on the broom, holding on as if for dear life.
“Are you ready?” he shouted. “Are you sure you’re ready?”
The boys nodded and Barlow was off, up into the sky and right back where he’d started with a little hop at the end.
It all happened in just the blink of an eye, just as Barlow had promised.
“Did you see that?” he asked. “I’m already back. I told you it would be quick. Did you see it?”
When the two boys shook their heads “no” in a dazed and confused fashion, Barlow shrugged.
“Well, I told you not to blink,” he said, placing the broom right back in its hanging spot.
The broom would have to rest after flying all that way so fast, Barlow said.
“Come back later and we can try again,” Melinda suggested.
‘Jewel In The Crown’
The schtick Barlow and Melinda performed was just one of at least a thousand more little acts and antics by period-correct vendors, campers, and performers. The sheer size and variety are part of what makes the Fort Bridger Rendezvous the crown jewel of all rendezvous.
“I just adore the Fort Bridger Rendezvous,” Tennessee Tarrant told Cowboy State Daily. “You can find anything under the moon — food, clothing.”
Not to mention, flying brooms.
“This is a jewel in the crown,” Tarrant said. “Everyone waits for the Fort Bridger Rendezvous.”
Tarrant was with Brianne Miller at the rendezvous, and both Utah residents were quick to point out they were channeling a slightly earlier period.
Miller is a seamstress and had just finished making a beautiful 1700s Italian gown that attracted a lot of attention from passersby, many of whom asked her to pose with them for pictures.
“This is my third time trying to make this kind of dress,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “The construction of 18th century clothing is so different.”
Pattern pieces look wildly different from modern pieces and, at first, don’t seem like they are going together at all right.
Once Miller was able to get past that, however, everything came together, and with beautiful style.
Miller has always been interested in history and went to her first rendezvous at the American West Heritage Center in Utah.
The Fort Bridger Rendezvous, however, is a must for them both.
A Different Kind Of Magic
Tarrant and Miller were among the crowd gathering around tintype photographer Craig Dinsdale, who had a “magic” act of his own. Plain sheets would quickly acquire a black and white likeness of those he took pictures of with his vintage, period-correct camera.
Subjects must stand very still for the camera to work correctly.
Inside his white rendezvous tent was where the real magic occurred, away from the prying eyes of anxious customers. Each print is carefully washed in a mixture of old-time chemicals that slowly bring out the image captured by the camera.
In one of the photos a dog had shaken his head, creating a ghost face. The “flaw” actually added a nice, authentic touch to the photograph for the couple who’d bought it.
Dinsdale got his first camera when he was just 9 years old. About 10 years ago, he took a class that taught him how to do period correct photography, and he’s been doing that since.
“It’s unique unto itself,” he said. “It’s never the same. You can do the same light and still get a different result.”
Watching each image appear in the finished product is a magic all its own. It’s like the prize in a crackerjack box. It’s cool to root around in the box and finally see what you’re going to get.
“It’s always a surprise, every single time,” he said.
And that makes it fun not just for Dinsdale, but his subjects as well.
150 Years In The Past
The Fort Bridger Rendezvous annually brings about 50,000 people through the area each year, but this year was a special year. It’s the 50th anniversary.
People who have worked the event in the past told Cowboy State Daily they expect about 60,000 visitors this year.
“It’s really hard to overstate the fun this is,” Tarrant said.
“It’s a break from modern reality,” Miller agreed. “It’s good for the soul.”
They weren’t the only ones touting the break from modern reality as the reason for coming to the Fort Bridger Rendezvous.
“You walk across that bridge, and you go back 150 years,” Jim Hamilton told Cowboy State Daily.
He was waiting patiently while blacksmith Jesse Colson hammered a glowing hot key ring into the proper shape for a couple of old-fashioned keys Hamilton has that fit a period padlock.
Finally, the ring was in the proper shape. Colson let it cool first, then heated it up for the last and final step.
Hamilton would quickly drop his two keys onto the ring, between those hot, glowing ends, taking care not to actually touch them.
Once the keys were on, Colson closed up the ring with metal forceps, sealing them permanently on the ring.
The Hamiltons have made the Fort Bridger Rendezvous a family tradition since 1995, they told Cowboy State Daily while they waited for their new key ring to cool enough to touch.
“A neighbor guy would always tell us to come up (to Fort Bridger),” Hamilton said.
Finally, one day, Hamilton did. He and his family have been coming ever since.
At first, Hamilton wore all leathers, but lately he’s been more into Civil War regalia.
His wife, Leslie, meanwhile, is seeking Southern belle attire, so she can dress to match her husband.
Their son, Paden, however, is portraying an 1850s child. Which makes the family a curious time warp — and hardly the only one.
Many people told Cowboy State Daily how their outfit was either before or after the time period at hand. Figuring out such time warps are also part of the event’s fun.
The Clothes Make It
Many Fort Bridger Rendezvous participants are like the Hamiltons. They don’t camp overnight. They come dressed for the era just for the day, and for the fun of being around others who are escaping the modern-day world.
Doug and Marsha Curtis of Utah were among them.
The couple wore brain-tanned deer hide regalia that was handmade by Doug.
Their matching outfits include real fox fur hats that Doug made from animals he has trapped himself, tanned himself, and sewn together himself.
The outfits were a lot of work, Doug said, and not something he’s willing to do for anyone but family and close friends.
Though He and Marsha don’t ever do the camping part of the Rendezvous, they still enjoy being part of the crowd that’s dressed in period attire.
They, too, were quite popular with folks wanting a selfie with someone wearing something cool.
The couple have been showing up for the last 20 to 30 years at Fort Bridger Rendezvous and have made many friends along the way.
“We’re day people. We just come up for the day,” Marsha said. “It just feels good to step back in time,”
Barlow sometimes plays a Native American flute when he’s not fooling around with the Lightning Bolt Senior broom.
He started helping make the brooms as a way to contribute to the Fort Bridger experience he and his wife so enjoy.
“My wife does the pineapple weave, and then I finish with the stitching,” he told Cowboy State Daily.
The couple discovered the event while on vacation 25 years ago.
“We were coming home from a family reunion, and we drove past Fort Bridger,” he said.
Driving by, the two saw this sea of cars parked along both sides of the road, and all this interesting activity in the fort.
“So ,we pulled in and said, ‘Let’s do this, it looks fun,’” Barlow said.
It was a blast. The next year, Melinda made proper rendezvous clothes for herself and her husband so the two could go all in on the rendezvous. They’ve been coming back ever since.
Melinda likes to give little spinning lessons to the children who float by, in between Barlow entertaining them with Lightning Bolt Senior’s antics.
“Everyone has a different speed,” Melinda told a couple of children who stopped by her tent to watch her spin. “It’s like reading. With practice, you can read faster. And you can spin faster, too.”
The wool she’s using was gifted by friends who raise alpacas and know that she uses the wool to teach others.
She handed a fist-sized, fluffy ball of it to a young girl, patiently explaining how the girl could hand-weave it into a bracelet.
The girl started to roll the ball around in her hands, and Melinda gently stopped her, explaining that if she did that it would “felt” up, and the girl would not be able to pull it out and weave it into a bracelet after all.
The girl walked off with her new treasure, which her parents carefully placed in a leather pouch, taking care not to smoosh or felt it too much along the way.
History You Can Touch
Karl Falken of Riverton, meanwhile, had a table full of period artifacts and a big sign that not only encouraged people to touch them, but pick them up, roll them around, and feel the history.
He has acquired bricks of tea from the East India Co., as well as a sugar cone and a period-correct nipping tool used to bite off chunks of tea and sugar. There were games and many other items that would have once been commonplace.
They are all prized possessions, but none so priceless they can’t be touched for the worthy cause of keeping history alive, Falken said.
Perhaps the most prized of these possessions is an 1832 Harpers Ferry conversion musket.
“A friend of mine had it for sale,” he said. “It was rusted solid and not functional at all.”
Falken cleaned the gun up and fixed it. It’s now a surefire icebreaker.
“Do you like guns?” he’ll ask, hopefully.
If that is greeted with a shrug, he says, “Well, do you like history?”
That almost always gets a yes.
He proffers the gun immediately and urges his latest guest to touch the gun and a piece of history.
Falken’s family history has been traced all the way back to the Mayflower. Among his ancestors are also American Revolution figures, patriots of old.
“If they could brave British bombs and bayonets, I guess I can do something to keep history alive,” he said, grinning.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.