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Feast of the Ste. Claire, a local time machine

By Mark Pearson

Independence Day and Memorial Day are fast-approaching.  The nightly firework displays put on by those living here as well as the large displays put on by our Canadian friends and several American communities that will light up the neighborhood sky, as well as the loud sounds emanating from them will soon be a familiar sound.  Now, my question is do the children, youth, especially those born in this century, even know what it was all about?  Did their parents at any time explain to them what has taken place before that gives us all a reason to celebrate these two holidays in the manner in which we do?

Fortunately, I know there are some local people that realize that Port Huron has a unique possession for the last thirty-eight years.  It is the time machine and it was invented by one of our public school teachers.  This teacher doesn’t teach science, quantum physics or space-age technology, but rather History.  His name is Harry Burgess and as many people know, he taught History here at Port Huron High and SC4.

Now this machine that he invented is not of the verity that any Si-Fi junky would be familiar with such as Jewels Verne’s machine that looked like a sled or a more modern conveyance that happened to be a sports car. No, this machine actually covers a lot of ground, and over the years it has actually grown in size.

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If you have not guessed by now, I am referring to the Feast of the Ste. Claire that appears out of nowhere and lands in Pine Grove Park and Waterworks hill each Memorial Day weekend and has done so for the last 38 years.

My family and I were at the park when this unique aberration first appeared back in 1980.  Seventeenth-century tents, campfires, and iron cooking pots along with people who were dressed in strange clothes that appeared to be made out of wool and muslin.  The women wore long dresses and bonnets and the men wore what appeared to be tuxedos. Some of the men carried knives and swords, hatchets and some even carried firearms, flintlocks, they called them. “I have seen people like this before, yes, in the pages of my old history textbook, amazing” They looked like they were quite uncomfortable in this garb as most of the other people there were wearing shorts and loose fitting tops.  These people didn’t seem to mind as if this was the way they dressed all the time.

I didn’t know Mr. Burgess whose vision back then started him on the road to invent this unique time machine.  It was in 2002 that I met and interviewed him for a class I was taking at St. Clair County Community College (SC4) when he was teaching history at Port Huron High School.  I was impressed with his knowledge of the subject and the way he conveyed this knowledge to his students.  I can only wish that I had such a teacher when I was in high school back in the ’60s.  I could tell that he loved history and I believe that this is why he wanted to invent and maintain this means of allowing us to inter this time machine and go back to another time and place and meet the people who lived there.

I met people who lived in this area long before the first Europeans came through here.  Then I met French voyageurs and fur traders who came later.  I met the English soldiers who came and built several forts here in the Great Lakes as the water was the most important means of transportation during that time. Later both the French, English and local tribes got involved in what was called the Seven Years War but were known locally as the French and Indian war. I was able to watch a skirmish between French, British, and Indians who blazed away at each other with those outmoded weapons.

After that, the local colonists got a little hot under the collar over the way King George III of England was treating them so they banded together to throw him out.  Not literally, of course, as he never actually came over here from England, “I did know that!” but his governors, magistrates, and military were.  At the king’s permission and in order to help defray the costs of the war his representatives began to pass laws that were detrimental to his subjects here in the colonies. Another skirmish was fought between the Kings Troops and local militia commonly referred to as Minute Men.

Harry’s Time Machine as I like to refer to it and after all, it is easier to spell, covers a sizeable span of time; more time than a person can take in two short days, but it is fun to try.  I have been entering this time machine on and off since the first time it appeared and have seen such drastic changes in weather patterns during that time.  I have been here when it was snowing, raining, or just plain cold and at other times so hot that you could sweat off pounds just looking at the participants.  This thing has grown considerably over the years when in the beginning it was only on the waterworks property. Now it covers that ground as well as most of Pine Grove Park.

The night before this time machine was officially switched on, my son and I were walking through the grounds and as we were walking, we noticed a helicopter had landed on the roof of the hospital across the street.  There were a few gentlemen sitting around a campfire dressed in 17th-century clothes who were also watching.  I commented on the fact that it was amazing what a span of 300 years makes. I wonder what a person who really was from the 17th century would be thinking if they were sitting around a campfire and saw something like that land right in front of them.

One person that could have dropped in as a result of time travel was Bob Stark AKA Benjamin Franklin.  He has appeared here for at least the last seven years.  He has a business called The Salty Lantern and hails from Midland.  I was talking with him and remarked about the speech he gave just before the signing of the Decoration of Independence.  He stood up and gave that speech word for word.  He has the dress including the waistcoat down pat. He had the long curly hair that he says he got from flying his kite too close to a thundercloud, and the bifocals that that is accredited to him as his invention.  I felt that it was me who was transported through time and was now standing in the Philadelphia State House otherwise known as Independence Hall listening to this great man give that speech especially that part where he says, “If a sparrow cannot fall without the Fathers knowledge then how can a nation rise without His aid.” What an experience.

These are the things that people get to experience when they show up at the feast of the Ste. Claire.

One of the things that bother me though is the general lack of support that is extended to them by the city.  I talked to board members who shared with me how the city charges them all sorts of user fees just for using the park.  Now I realize that fences have to be set up and other expenses that are accrued, but most of the work in putting this event on is accomplished by hundreds of volunteers who are just as passionate about history as the participants.  At the end of the event, you would be hard pressed to tell that they had even been here.  All the sod is replaced in places where the campfires once burned and all the trash has been removed.  All the participants are careful to leave the park as clean as when they entered it. There are several parks along the St Clair River who would love to host this event at no charge but the board member that I talked to felt that it should stay here because of all the history that has taken place here. The participants do all of this on their own dime in hopes that the things that they sell help them to break even.

The museum no longer sponsors this event so it has its own board but its members are reaching retirement age and would like to pass the responsibility on to a younger generation who is as passionate about seeing this event continue.  It would go a long way if the Port Huron City Council would get behind this event and put the same effort and backing as they put into the annual Port Huron to Mackinac sailboat race.

This event is now one of the largest events of its kind in the country and it brings people from all over. People like Dale Smart who has participated in these events for the last twenty years.  Paul Stevens who is related to Harry Burgess and portrays a member of a French fur-trading outfit.  Cheryl Morgan, a local author who wrote Ottissippi, a book on the indigenous tribes that lived in the area for hundreds of years before the Europeans.  I cannot begin to list all the people that I met and whose names I wouldn’t want to slaughter by trying to spell them correctly.  Many of them I met as they were standing in a line for the Saturday evening meal.  This line was several hundred feet long.  I met the caterers whose responsibility it was to feed over 400 participants and all the volunteers who worked there.

A lot of energy, planning and just plain hard work goes into this event each year but I believe that it is worth it.  I am not privy to all the financial details as to how much extra revenue is generated by the local businesses as a result of this event taking place, but I still maintain that it is worth it.  Harry’s Time Machine is worth the effort and should be promoted by the city with the possibility of the fees being waived.

As it stands now there are those sponsors like Blue Water Transit, Preferred Towing, Thumb Fire Extinguisher Service, and Brothers Catering and Party Rental whose businesses should be patronized in appreciation for their sponsorship. Hopefully, more local businesses will join this group in the future.

They along with me feel that it is worth it as a teaching tool and a reminder of the blood, sweat, and sacrifice that went into the founding, building and perpetuating this nation that we call our home.

History comes alive again for the 39th time May 25 and 26, 2019
According to https://feastofthesteclaire.com/: The Feast of the Ste. Claire will be held on Saturday, May 25 and May 26, 2019.  This is the Thirty-ninth year for this living history re-enactment, which is held at Pine Grove Park overlooking the beautiful St. Clair River near downtown, Port Huron, Michigan.

Mark E. Pearson was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo.  In 1970 he moved to Michigan where he met and married the girl of his dreams, Mary Lou Davis, together they have two sons.  He attended Briercrest Bible Institute in Saskatchewan, Canada, and later received his associate’s degree in business from St. Clair Community College.  He was a bookkeeper and worked in retail sales for 30 years and has spent the last fifteen years as a Jeweler at Coughlin’s Jewelers in St Clair, MI.  He is a voracious reader of history and as a result of being an avid reader, he began to write short stories and articles for editorial columns and magazines on current events and comparing and relating past events to current happenings.  

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