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Albany Frontier Festival diminished, not defeated

Chehaw festival challenged by cold and rain

Nick Baker demonstrates the firing of his percussion cap musket at Chehaw’s Frontier Festival. (Staff Photo: Jim West)

Nick Baker demonstrates the firing of his percussion cap musket at Chehaw’s Frontier Festival. (Staff Photo: Jim West)

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Long-time “buck skinner” Nick Baker show the interior of his plains Indian style tepee. Baker said the shelter with a small fire inside is capable of keeping occupants warm in the worst of winter weather. (Staff Photo: Jim West)

ALBANY — History buffs were primed for the 22nd annual Frontier Festival at Chehaw Park this weekend, but old man winter refused to smile on the three-day event. While the festival wasn’t cancelled, previous bitter cold from polar fluctuations wrecked havoc in the lives of some, including many of the “buck skinners” who’d made plans to attend.

One popular draw for the Albany outdoor experience, the “village blacksmith,” sent his regrets to organizer Ben Kirkland, resource manager at Chehaw Park, explaining that the cold had burst his water pipes. Rain and threats of thunderstorms on Saturday kept most would-be attendees from the park, Kirkland said.

Still there’s today, Kirkland said — and next year. Disappointed but not deterred, the buck skinners, those who attend in pre-1840s frontier character, appeared to have a great time in the presence of one another, in spite of the low turnout.

There was black powder shooting, tomahawk throwing, spinning and some opportunities to learn frontier skills from those around them, including Kirkland, who has a wealth of knowledge on the ways of early Native Americans. A major project for this year’s festival was the making of a “dugout” canoe, from a large black gum log, a common and necessary endeavor of early American rural life, Kirkland said.

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Ben Kirkland, resource manager at Chehaw Park, fashions a wooden bow by planing it with sharp chert, or high-quality flint found near downtown Albany. (Staff Photo: Jim West)

“In those days the only modes of transportation were walking, riding a horse or taking your canoe down the river,” Kirkland said.

As the name implies, a dugout canoe is built simply by hollowing out a proper log with axes or “adze” blades until it was ready for a spin. According to Kirkland, early native Americans built their dugouts by alternately burning the top of the logs, then scraping away the charred wood with stone tools or shells. Kirkland said a cypress log would most likely have been used by settlers or native tribes, but the black gum needed to be removed from the park anyway.

Buck skinner Ken Purdy took in a little weekend practice with his flintlock black powder musket. Purdy enjoys attending the festival dressed in the knee britches, long colorful shirt and moccasins, of a pre-1840s southeastern hunter, he said.

“This is my 12th year at the festival,” Purdy said, “Its like a big family reunion. I think we had more freedoms in those days, but it was a tough life. That was when this country was pretty much as it was thousands of years ago before the timber was thinned — before the intrusion of the white man.”

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When the flint makes a spark that fails to ignite the black power, it’s just a “flash in the pan,” said Ken Purdy, primitive weapons enthusiast, at the Chehaw Frontier Festival. (Staff Photo: Jim West)

“My heritage is French-Canadian trapper,” said Andrew May from Leesburg, in between throws of his tomahawk. “We did some research and found out that’s where (my family) is from.”

Helen Martin, a festival regular, had a chance to test out “buffalo down,” the soft under coat of the American bison, given to her by Karen Kirkland, wife of festival director Ben Kirkland.

“It spins like a dream,” Martin said, “Something similar to Belgian Shepard dog fur.”

Karen Kirkland said early settlers would spin “anything they could get their hands on.”

“(Settlers) played with all sorts of fibers to see how they would work,” Karen Kirkland said. “Buffalo down could be picked up when the animal shed its fur.”

Karen Kirkland said that although this festival was much smaller than last year’s “wall to wall people,” she would always be looking forward to the next one.