After the battle reenactment at Bushy Run I decided to fast forward about 100 years in my reenactment experiences. This time it was to the southwestern-most part of Westmoreland County- the industrial city of Monessen, for the Greater Monessen Historical Society’s annual Founder’s Day Festival.
This past Saturday, August 13, when the meteorologists were warning people to stay inside due to the extreme humidity and high temperatures as well as a chance of scattered thunderstorms, I hopped in the car and drove to Monessen City Park. I could have waited until Sunday, but I knew that the American Civil War reenacting group, Company K, 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, would only be doing their Living History demonstration that day. Also, Sunday had a much higher chance of rain.
Getting out of my air-conditioned car was like walking into a sauna. And, silly me, I had parked at the bottom of the park. Armed with a bottle of water, I sweated my way up past the park's amphitheater and towards the red, white, and blue balloons set up around a pavilion and canvas tents set up near the top of the hill.
The Greater Monessen Historical Society had set up refreshments for sale—hot dogs, halushki, kielbasa, chips, and soda pop. They were also selling books on the history of Monessen, as well as raffle tickets for some awesome gift baskets—two wine baskets, a Pittsburgh Penguins’ fan paraphernalia basket, and a gift certificate to Caddie Shak Family Fun Center, to name a few.
According to Dan Zyglowicz, the president of the GMHS, the event usually attracts over 200 people. However, with the humidity hanging heavy in the air and dark clouds threatening the western skyline, it seemed that most people were enjoying this unpleasant summer day indoors. GMHS volunteers were ready to serve customers, and thrilled to see myself and the dozen or so people that were there for the hour that I was there, but the thick air was just making the entire outdoor experience rather miserable.
I then sauntered (or rather, huffed and puffed) over to the Civil War Encampment where, God bless them, the half a dozen reenactors stationed there were doing their best to fight the lethargy brought on by the wet heat. One woman happily showed me a variety of children’s toys, bonnets, writing implements, eating utensils and other Civil War replica artifacts. She and a few of the soldiers showed me how men polished their brass buttons in the Army without removing the buttons or taking them off, and explaining the dangers of having brightly polished buttons (hint: sun glare gives away your location to the enemy).
Then they sent me over to the kitchen, where an older gentleman was busy preparing the reenacting unit’s dinner. Rotisserie chicken, mmmmm.
I was also shown the canvas lean-tos that had been set up as infantrymen would have had them. That’s when I saw a knapsack that literally looked like it was made out of cheap, chipped plastic, sitting just outside one of the lean-tos.
“What’s this material?” I asked as I reached out to touch it.
The older man grinned. “Canvas covered in tar.”
Sure enough, on closer inspection the material did feel like canvas under my fingertips, rather than the cheap black plastic it had first appeared to be. My educator explained to me that tar made the canvas more waterproof. Pretty cool, huh?
After that another one of the infantrymen gave me a brief history of the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, showing me their flag (with a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania seal on it) and telling me about Sallie, the unit’s famous, faithful canine companion who fought with the unit from 1861 until her death in battle in February 1865.
Although Monessen was not settled until 1897, the city itself has connections to the Civil War. Not a few Monessen residents fought in the conflict, while Founder’s Day itself pays tribute to Col. James Schoonmaker, who received a Congressional Medal of honor for his service in the Third Battle of Winchester. In the late 1890s Col. Schoonmaker owned a controlling interest in the land company that sold lots to residents and employers of what became the city of Monessen.
Besides the Civil War Reenactors, the National Guard brought a rock-climbing wall, and Christian W. Klay Winery of Chalk Hill and Plum Run Winery Inc. of Brownsville offered samples of local wines. A few local residents even sold pulled pork, sauerkraut, pop and even coloring books.
Although the participants for the rock wall and customers for the vendor booths were not plentiful due to the bad weather, it was nice to see the booths out there in support of the founding of Monessen. Here’s hoping that the Greater Monessen Historical Society will continue this wonderful tradition next August, and that the weather will smile more kindly upon them next time.
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