YOUNGSTOWN – Dave Bybee drives trucks for a living. But on weekends seven months out of the year, the Mechanicsburg, Ohio, native trades his trucker cap for a tri-corner hat and assumes a wildly different role: commanding officer of an 18th century French colonial regiment.
No time travel necessary – Bybee’s transformation requires only a love of history, an active imagination, and a closet full of period-appropriate clothing. As a member of a self-titled “educational living history unit” based near Pittsburgh, Bybee’s goal is to immerse himself in a centuries-old way of life and teach others a thing or two about American history in the process.
“It’s my love for history,” Bybee said. “You get basically a whole new history lesson each summer.”
This weekend, Bybee and about 600 of his fellow history enthusiasts converged on Old Fort Niagara to bring one such history lesson to life. Dressed as French and British troops, Native American combatants, and colonial inhabitants of Fort Niagara, they are re-enacting the fateful 1759 campaign when British forces wrested control of the Western New York region from the French as part of the French and Indian War.
Billed as the largest French and Indian War re-enactment in the world, the annual event runs through today at Old Fort Niagara, and is expected to attract thousands of spectators.
Re-enactors like Bybee are the lifeblood of events like this. Almost all are volunteers – hobbyists motivated by their love of history to travel long distances multiple times a year to take part. Hailing from across the U.S. and Canada, and even as far off as Switzerland, re-enactors bring their own replica equipment and clothing, much of which they make themselves.
On Saturday, Bybee, 45, sported the historically accurate regalia of the Marines du Contrecoeur, a French regiment: a white thigh-length uniform coat, blue breeches, white canvas gaiters covering his lower legs, and a black tri-corner hat with gold trim. He said that a good deal of research went into making his uniform as true-to-life as possible.
“You can’t run down to Walmart or Kmart and pick these up,” said Bybee, whose focus is on French and Indian War re-enactments.
Historical accuracy comes with a price. Many garments were made of thick wool, and re-enactors could be seen sweating profusely in the punishing summer sun.
Alan Eimiller of East Aurora led an artillery demonstration dressed head-to-toe as the corporal of a British gun crew. “If you’re feeling uncomfortable, I have no pity for you,” he told the crowd.
Stuffy attire aside, Eimiller, who works year round at the Fort as an employee of the Old Fort Niagara Association, raved about getting to take part in re-enactments like these for a living. “You get to blow things up, shoot guns, and meet fun people,” he said. “It’s just the best job in the world.”
Another occupational hazard re-enactors at Fort Niagara faced was the prospect of “dying” during the battle sequences staged twice-daily at the fort. Old Fort Niagara executive director Robert L. Emerson, himself decked out in period-appropriate attire, explained that individuals might elect to play dead for a number of reasons – say, for example, if their musket malfunctioned mid-battle, or they became tired. Ultimately, though, “nobody wants to lay out in a field as a bloated corpse for thirty minutes,” Emerson said.
During Saturday afternoon’s battle re-enactment, several participants could be seen playing dead as white smoke wafted over the battlefield and discarded white gunpowder packets littered the ground. British forces advanced toward the wooden battlements of the fort, only to be rebuffed by a French counterattack. Spectators had a birds-eye view of the battle from atop the red brick Civil War-era walls of the fort. As both sides exchanged salvos of cannon and musket fire, spectators seemed caught in the onslaught.
The fighting was all in good fun, though. Re-enactors said that the community was a tight-knit one. Jeremy Moore, who traveled from Mansfield, Ohio, to portray a Native American warrior, said that he recognized at least 50 re-enactors, many of whom he sees six to eight times a year at similar events around the country.
“Three of the guys I clubbed, I knew personally,” he said of his wartime tally on the day.
When asked, re-enactors were eager to share their extensive knowledge of period clothing, military tactics, and history with onlookers. Greg Henning, a 59-year-old social studies teacher from Erie, Pa., dressed as a French military officer, explained that the history lessons available to the public at the Fort Niagara re-enactment could not be matched elsewhere.
“There’s a myriad of things you can’t experience on the Internet,” he said, adding that “we look at it as a little bit of time travel.”