- Associated Press - Friday, September 18, 2015

CREVE COEUR, Ill. (AP) - At Fort Crevecoeur, a tree is planted when a member of the board of directors dies. In the open, grassy space around the towering, wooden fort, there are plenty of young roots.

Like the volunteers who run the fort, the crowd of re-enactors who participate in the fort’s rendezvous events have died, retired from the hobby or moved away, placing the future of the hobby into question.

Ross Bohanon, president of the fort’s board of directors, said the rendezvous, a re-enactment of a trading post where there are no battles, used to be filled with life.

“It would be so full that we would have to share tent space,” Bohanon said. “Teepees had to watch where they were swinging poles because they couldn’t swing without hitting somebody.”

In the 80s, each event would draw more than 3,000 people.

“It was big and it was exciting,” Bohanon said.

Now, a rendezvous is considered a success if there are 10 or 15 teepees there. Less than 20 re-enactors are expected at this weekend’s rendezvous.

The decline in participation has led the fort to add a French and Indian War re-enactment to its summer activities in hopes of drawing more participants, along with revenue it needs to pay its bills. But the re-enactor population in general is graying as re-enactors get further and further from the ages of the soldiers they represent, with few young re-enactors to replace them.

And it’s not just the Fort Crevecoeur rendezvous. Bohanon said re-enactments nationwide are experiencing the same problem of participants aging with no one to replace them.

It’s difficult to convince the younger generations to embrace the hobby, as living history often loses to electronics and air conditioning, he claims.

“Kids nowadays, if they are involved, it’s because they really want to be,” Bohanon said. “They have to be history buffs. They think it’s neat to hold a musket or a sword or sleep in a tent or sleep like the Indians do.”

Other re-enactors give a simpler reason for why the younger crowds are staying away from the hobby- they simply can’t afford it.

“A lot of these young kids don’t have the money to put into it,” said Bob Clark, vice president of the Central Illinois World War II Reenactors.

Re-enacting can become expensive quickly. He said a WWII uniform with a weapon will cost around $1,000, but other items, like a canteen and a tent, can easily add up. Some will invest in larger “toys,” like a Jeep or a $100,000 tank. To help ease the transition, he said groups will loan equipment and uniforms to people until they can afford to buy their own.

The group’s annual re-enactment at Sommer Park has been growing, with 350 re-enactors taking to the battlefield this June, but the popular time period is also seeing interest fade with the generations.

Clark, who is 72, has only been involved in the hobby for a decade. While he said WWII re-enactments are attracting younger participants than other time periods, an average WWII re-enactor is still in his 40s or 50s.

Recruiting the youth

At 18, Cody Catlett, of Shipman, is a rarity in the world of re-enacting.

“When you go to re-enactments, you don’t see many high school kids,” Catlett said.

Three years ago, he got into the hobby after unsuccessfully trying out for his high school’s bowling team. After searching for another team, a friend suggested Civil War re-enacting. As an avid history buff, Catlett was in.

“It’s really cool to be able to be out there and we can show up the older guys,” Catlett said. “We’re younger, we have more stamina, we can take a field better. Some of the older guys, we’re leaving them in the dust.”

He didn’t think about the hobby’s price when he started, until he went to purchase equipment and voiced to a vendor that it was expensive.

“He said, ‘son, you’re going into an expensive hobby,’” Catlett said.

But instead of the rise of electronics, or the cost of equipment, he attributes re-enacting’s lack of popularity with the youth to its obscurity, especially compared to other activities like baseball and football.

Like the WWII event, Delavan’s Civil War Days has been growing. Alex Timmerman, re-enactment coordinator for the event, said there’s a possibility of topping 500 re-enactors for its upcoming fifth year.

The unit he commands, which Catlett is a part of, has placed a priority on recruiting young re-enactors. The group will loan out uniforms to help get people involved, but it’s once they “see the elephant,” or the battle, that they want to return.

“We call it hooking them,” Timmerman said.

After that first experience, he said around 90 percent of them will return.

“You can see it in their eyes and there’s a fire that grows in them immediately,” Timmerman said.

Mark McBride, a history teacher at Tri-Valley High School in Downs, has combined living history and education, drawing students into the hobby. He’s been re-enacting since 1978, but in 1994 began doing a day of re-enactments at the high school. Now, there’s an invitation out to all the schools within 150 miles, and students from East Peoria have come to see the school’s re-enactments, which can draw 1,000 spectators and 200 re-enactors.

His group has around 30 members, 90 percent of whom are high school or college students. Some of them are drawn to the hobby for the chance to shoot a blank gun, while others will come because they’re attracted by the history.

“It is very difficult to get kids interested in something that happened so far in the past,” McBride said. “They don’t often see the relevance in it.”

It fits into his teaching philosophy, where he’ll use his personal collection of period clothing and artifacts to display in his classroom to give his students an idea of what life was like that they can’t get from a textbook.

“I have always been an advocate of hands-on history,” he said.

To help keep them interested between battles, he’ll bring a historically-accurate baseball and bat from the Civil War era.

“We are about as historically authentic as you can get for a unit of our size,” he said.

Other re-enactors aren’t always thrilled about seeing his unit’s young faces on the field, however.

“They look upon us with disdain up until they need bodies,” McBride said.

He said the students don’t know as much about history as the older participants, who can question if the kids are old enough to handle firearms and black powder.

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Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, http://bit.ly/1imBRRu

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Information from: Journal Star, http://pjstar.com

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