Nine Mile Portage Heritage Festival


by Festival Nomad, Gary McWilliams

Living History...

BOOM! Smoke surrounded the boat! The battle was on! BOOM! A cannon from the shore replied! Again, cannon smoke filled the air, this time on the shore! Then musket fire sounded from both the boats and the shore. The War of 1812 Re-enactment was in full swing!

Heritage Park...
Judi and I were standing in Heritage Park overlooking Kempenfelt Bay in Barrie. The Nine Mile Portage Heritage Festival had just begun. Moments before we had been standing talking with event organizer David Brunelle, but as the smoke cleared, I rushed to the water's edge and began taking photographs of the battle. The Nine Mile Portage Heritage Festival is an annual event that begins in Downtown Barrie and finishes nine miles away at the secluded Historic Fort Willow. The re-enactment battle was just the first activity in a day of many events. As soon as the re-enactment battle was over, a platoon of British soldiers marched forward and performed a number of intricate manoeuvers. Once they were through their demonstration, they asked the audience if there were any questions or if anyone wanted their picture taken with them. Many from the audience stepped forward, eager for information or just wanting to be part of history! Then a group of native performers gathered with their drums and began playing and singing tradition songs. They sang four songs. Four representing the four corners of the earth. One song in particular honoured grandmothers. After they were through, David gave the signal for another battle re-enactment to begin.

Historic Fort Willow...
As the battle raged on, Judi and I decided to head on to Historic Fort Willow. As we drove the nine miles to Fort Willow, we reflected on what it would have been like to have been a soldier in 1812. How difficult it would have been marching the nine mile route from the Fort Willow to Lake Simcoe. It must have been a very difficult journey, especially in the heat of the summer! Historic Fort Willow seems to be in the middle of nowhere. We parked our car at Grenfel Hall and took a shuttle bus to the Fort. Once we were off the bus, we walked down a beautiful tree lined dirt pathway to the entrance of the Fort. The Fort had been set up as it might have been in 1812, an encampment with tents set up and campfires burning. Each tent area represented a different service that might have been utilized in an encampment during the War of 1812. As we walked along the pathways of the encampment, we came to such services as blacksmithing, candle making and musket ball making. There was a surgeon showing the different skills and tools of the day. A traveling minister stood talking with one of the officers. All over re-enactor performed various tasks or stood talking with festival visitors. During our walk through the tented area we were able to talk to a number of them. David Brunelle was there in his officers tent and we stopped to chat with him. We also stopped to talk to Fritz Steele. Fritz, who I had met before, is a long time re-enactor, representing a ship’s carpenter, a gunner’s mate and a servant of the company. While we were talking with Fritz, behind us a re-enactment soldier had gathered a squad of young recruits and was giving them instructions on marching and the use of muskets! The kids were loving every minute of it, and so were their parent! Perhaps they thought that the discipline being taught might rub off on their kids! He had just told them that if they were 13 and over back in 1812 would have been recruited into the army, taken away from their parents, and served in the army for 25 years! That is if they lived that long! Judi stopped at one booth and was really taken with his craft. This was the musket ball maker. (Actually I’m not sure if she was interested in the craft or the bullets!) We watched him pore molten lead (at 1800 degrees) into moulds. The lead immediately hardened into the shape of the mould. In this case, musket balls. As we completed our trek through the encampment, we both commented on how much we appreciated the re-enactors costumes and how authentic they appeared! No detail seemed to little. With the War of 1812 Bi-centennial fast approaching, our appreciation of events like the Nine Mile Portage Heritage Festival just keeps on growing!