Earlier this month I wandered into a time machine, with the dial turned back to the 18th century.
Shaggy-haired long-hunters lounged about in greasy buckskins, leaning on their slender flintlock rifles. Women in homespun dresses tended pots and skillets over smoky campfires, and youngsters clad in frontier garb romped around log cabins.
The occasion was the Colonial Fair at Bledsoe’s Fort, an annual celebration of life and lives during the 18th century at one of Middle Tennessee’s first permanent settlements.
The period begins in 1750 when long-hunters and other adventurers ventured into the area, eventually followed by homesteaders and their families.
The Bledsoe Fort area could be called Middle Tennessee’s cradle of civilization. The site was originally known as Bledsoe’s Lick, because of the nearby salt lick that for centuries had attracted wild game and the primitive hunters who pursued it.
The area was a prime hunting ground for Indians, whose mounds, caves and other archeological sites still exist. The natives fiercely resisted the intrusion of the whites, and battles were frequent and deadly. Indians killed the fort’s founder, Isaac Bledsoe, along with his brother Anthony, and both are buried in the ancient cemetery near the fort site.
Down the road is a monument to Bigfoot Spencer, among the first long-hunters to venture into what is now Castalian Springs. The monument sits on the site where Spencer survived a winter living in a hollow sycamore tree.
Later on, the historic homes of Wynnewood and Cragfont were built. The well-preserved structures offer guided tours. But the lavish frontier mansions of Wynnewood and Cragfont came long after the rough log cabins and lean-tos used by the first settlers, whose daily hardships and constant struggle for survival is a tribute to the human spirit.
That’s why the Colonial Fair is not just about daring adventurers and Indian fighters, but testament to the rituals and rigors of daily family life, represented by historic re-enactors.
The daily task of carrying water from the spring in the hollow below the fort, for example, was not just back-breaking, but meant risking one’s life from lurking Indians.
The mossy rocks of the 250-year-old spring house where butter and milk were stored for cooling are still there. You can dip your hand in the same pool of clear, icy water from which buffalo, Indians and frontiersmen drank centuries ago.
The Bledsoe’s Fort Historical Park, located 20 miles north of Lebanon on Highway 25 between Hartsville and Gallatin, is open year-round and free to the public.
For three days every spring, the Fort’s past comes alive. The Colonial Fair features 18th century musicians, dancers and other performers; a weaver producing linen on a primitive loom; traders and merchants plying their wares; a village blacksmith at his forge; frontier arts and crafts; muzzleloader shooting; and replicas of long-hunter camps.
Long-hunters, in whose tribute Long Hunter State Park is named, got their name from one of two ways: One theory is that they were named for their long flintlock rifles, which stood as tall as the average hunter. The other is that their name refers to the long hunts they went on, often lasting several months.
The Colonial Fair celebrates not just these hunters and adventurers, but their equally-undaunted families who followed them into the wilderness and – amazingly – survived and endured. Their story is ours.