Every year on the 1st weekend of June Fort de Chartres and the surrounding area comes alive with the sights, sounds and smells of the 18th century. Voyageurs, French Marines and Militia, fifers, drummers, and pipers, kilted Highlanders and Illinois Native Americans once again roam the parade ground of the fort. French and English dandies and ladies and the ordinary folk of the region camp in historically correct tents. Craftsmen demonstrate the skills of 18th century trades, wheel wrights, rope makers, tanners, broom makers, clothiers, potters, weavers, blacksmiths and more. Musicians treat their audience to the sounds of 18th century music and dance. The smells waft from food venders of wood smoke and baking bread, kettle popcorn stirred with boat paddle sized spoons, hot grease sizzles as freshly caught fish turn golden brown. Fresh lemonade and homemade ice cream refreshes visitors and participants alike during the long warm summer afternoon.
The first annual Fort de Chartres Historic Rendezvous was held August 8th and 9th 1970. The event was sponsored by the Interpretation and Recreation Program Division of the Illinois Department of Conservation and assisted by volunteers from all over the State. There was approximately 25 camps of buckskin clad participants who came to join in the experience of reliving the history of the historic Fort and surrounding area. Participants said that the weather was especially hot and humid that summer in southern Illinois. Demonstrations included blacksmithing, pottery throwing, French colonial cooking, and firing the cannon. Some of the contests at this first Rendezvous were the muzzle loading rifle target competition, the tomahawk and knife throw, and a tug-of-war which pitted the buckskin clad frontiersmen against the colorful sash wearing voyageurs. A big crowd pleaser was the greased pole climb where the winner could put the garter snatched from the top of the pole on any lady he wanted. On Saturday evening the festivities moved to Ste. Genevieve, Missouri where participants were treated to a tour of this historic town and a dinner at Cafe Genevieve. At 9:30 P.M. a torchlight parade of voyageurs to the Mississippi ferry crossing began. On Sunday the program began with Mass being celebrated in the Fort de Chartres chapel and a breakfast being provided for the participants. Craft demonstrations were again provided for the public and attendance for the two days was estimated at 8,000 spectators. Thanks to the efforts of all those involved, the first Rendezvous was judged a success and plans were made to do it again.
By the second year the event was called the Traders Rendezvous and enthusiasm for the event had increased significantly. It was changed from August to September possibly to avoid the heat and humidity that always accompanies the month of August. As a result of heavy rains Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday visitor attendance dropped considerably from the previous year. Nevertheless, the number of craft demonstrations, contests, and participants had tripled. Several local and out of town groups set up food stands and sold to the public and the participants.
The 3rd Annual Traders Rendezvous in 1972 was held in June for the first time and after that it settled into being scheduled the first weekend of June from then on. Of course there are always exceptions. In 1976 it was held in July because of conflicts with Bicentennial events that year and it was postponed until September in 1995 because of flooding. But eventually the Rendezvous was commonly referred to as June Rendezvous.
In 1972 with warm sunny weather both days, the attendance soared to over 19,000. Using the Fort as a natural setting, the program diverged into three primary activity areas. Music of the period, cultural demonstrations, and muzzle loading and voyageur contests including a canoe race on the Mississippi River. For the second year in a row the village of Prairie du Rocher hosted a torch light parade and a street dance, thereby celebrating its 250th birthday as the oldest chartered town in Illinois. The town would hold this torch light parade and street dance through 1976.
Over the years more venders, demonstrators and performers were added and the number of participants and visitors rose. During the late 1970s and 1980s the event had record attendance by participants and the public and it really was the glory years for not only the Rendezvous but also the Fort. The State was flush with cash, and was eager to spend it on Fort de Chartres restoration and archaeology and it’s famous June Rendezvous.
Sometime around 1979 the Fort’s flintlock gun club, Les Coureur de Bois de Fort de Chartres started to sponsor the Rendezvous, providing volunteer labor and a audited Site Superintendent Special Event Discretionary Fund to keep the funds at Fort de Chartres. The 1980s saw new restoration and archaeological projects which generated more public awareness of the rich colonial history of the Fort. With that came an increase of visitors to the Park not only at the Rendezvous but all year long. In 1984 the official count of camps was 335, quite a lot more than the original 25 back in 1970. And so it went for the next few years, the Rendezvous kept getting bigger and better.
And then disaster, the Great Flood of 1993. Fort de Chartres is no stranger to floods but this one was different. In August the whole Park was inundated by 15 feet of muddy turbulent Mississippi river water. When the water receded the damage it left was heartbreaking. Picnic tables and shelters were lifted off their moorings, tossed into the raging river and dropped hundreds of yards from where they belonged. Out buildings lifted off their foundations and carried downstream, were deposited unceremoniously where ever they come to rest. All the plant life was dead and brown, everything was covered with mud and sand and huge holes were scoured into the ground from the rivers current. The staff and volunteers started right away to clean up and repair the damage but by early 1994 it became apparent that the work would take a long time and June rendezvous was cancelled. The grounds and museum would finally open sometime in September and the State vowed to make 1995 June Rendezvous bigger and better than ever. But once again the Mississippi decided to raise and by the Spring of 1995 the Rendezvous couldn’t be held due to the flood gates on Rte. 155 being closed and some minor flooding around the Fort. But the State and the volunteers were determined to have the Rendezvous so it wasn’t cancelled only postponed until September of 1995.
Rendezvous did come back, maybe better but not necessarily bigger. The price of gas had gone up so people were travelling less and more and more festivals, rendezvous and events were taking place everywhere so the attendance was spread out through them all. People, especially kids became more enchanted with new technology than old time skills. Also the budget crisis in Springfield started to raise its ugly head and although it would be a decade before the real effects would be felt, something was in the wind. The participants still came and so did the spectators but the bubble had burst and the glory days were over.
Funds collected from visitor parking fees and camping fees from the participants supplied a lot of the money to help put on the June Rendezvous and the State also provided money and labor to prepare the grounds to host the event, but things began to change. For several years the rumor was that the State wasn’t going to finance June Rendezvous or any other special events. The State of Illinois had been fighting a losing battle with an extended budget crisis and it was finally reaching Fort de Chartres and other historic sites. The State laid off workers and cut expenses and finally on December 1, 2008 Fort de Chartres was officially closed, all the special events at the fort were cancelled and the waiting began.
As month after month went by it became clear that holding June Rendezvous in 2009 was in jeopardy, plans had to be made by not only the staff but also the volunteers and participants who helped to put on and attend the event. It began to appear that the only thing besides an historic, catastrophic flood of the Mighty Mississippi that could cancel June Rendezvous was a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats from the state capitol. After five months it was announced on April 23, 2009 eleven State historic sites shuttered by former Gov. Blagojevich due to budget cuts were to be reopened by Gov. Pat Quinn. Plans were made for June Rendezvous coming up in a little over a month. It seemed the crisis had been solved and things were back to normal, but that was not the case at all. The main problem still existed and like what most politicians usually do the can was soundly kicked down the road once again.
And so June Rendezvous 2009 went off without a hitch but things were not back to normal. Hours were reduced, funds for the site were again cut and talk began to start of not funding any special events at all. Word from the top of the Agency that no overtime would be approved for Fort staff limited the amount of time they could spend preparing for events. Volunteers and a new non-profit support group filled in some of the gaps but it was clear the current situation was unsustainable.
The budget crisis persisted to make everyone uneasy but at least there were a few quiet years as far as the River went. Of course the Mississippi would not be ignored for long. In 2013 there was record rainfall the couple weeks before the Rendezvous and the threat of a rising river. Finally it got so bad that State staff drove down from the Capitol, saw the flooded ditches and roads and heard that Prairie du Rocher would probably close the flood gates on Rte. 155, and Rendezvous was officially cancelled on early Saturday morning. The problem was, everybody was already there. And spectators were showing up. So, Rendezvous went on, the drummers drummed, the fifers fifed, the shooters shot, the demonstrators demonstrated and the spectators spectated.
For the next few years the financial situation got worse instead of better and in April 2016, the State of Illinois, in the midst of its self-created budget crisis, abruptly pulled the financial plug on events at Fort de Chartres, including Rendezvous and all other historic and educational activities. It seemed the 45th June Rendezvous might be the last but with a concerted 11th hour effort by the non-profit volunteer groups to gather funds and volunteer labor to sustain it the 46th annual June Rendezvous was held in 2016.
Pulling together and putting on an event was one thing, continuing that and financing the other events held at the Fort was quite another. While the nationally recognized historic site continued in operation for now, the future of events such as June Rendezvous and the other historic events each year was by no means guaranteed.
After successfully putting on and financing the events in 2016 the volunteer groups had continued with that effort and also sponsored the Rendezvous for 2017 and 2018. But again in 2019 the Mississippi said I’m in charge! On May 19th less than a month before June Rendezvous, after assessing forecast river levels and evaluating the state of the grounds around Fort de Chartres, the Rendezvous Planning Committee and site staff made the decision to cancel the 49th Annual Fort de Chartres Rendezvous.
So here we find ourselves in 2020, the 50th anniversary of June Rendezvous. Some things will be the same and some things will be different, but the June Rendezvous will go on. The struggles may be more difficult but the good times will always be worth the trouble.
THE 50TH ANNUAL FORT DE CHARTRES JUNE RENDEZVOUS JUNE 6 & 7, 2020
Click this link to view the 2020 Rendezvous promotional video.