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Conventional Wisdom: Military History Fest

Visiting with reenactors through our continued insider look at conventions, with photographer Arthur Drooker

by David Graver in Culture on 11 February 2014

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Through his ever-present lens, photographer Arthur Drooker has taken CH on tours through the delightful, odd and evocative worlds of conventions and convention attendees. Drooker indoctrinated us into Brony culture, introduced us to over 150 Abraham Lincolns and stripped off the veil shrouding sexual fetishes, all while collecting components for his new book, "Conventional Wisdom." His most recent stop was the Military History Fest, appropriately referred to as the Reencators Fest.

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This year, around 1,500 attendees gathered at the Pheasant Run resort in the Chicago suburb of St. Charles, Illinois, from 31 January to 2 February 2014. The 10th anniversary of this particular festival was the most attended it has even been; scattered with costumed historical figures and servicemen, collectors and admirers of past. Although the focus is on the history of war, Drooker's realization was one of peace—in a way, a mind-bending revisionist medley occurs between all the factual accuracy. "There’s Robert E. Lee sharing a laugh with a WWII German officer; musketeers chatting up Elizabethan maidens; and General Black Jack Pershing conferring with an armored Polish hussar," Drooker explains to CH. "A tighter band of brothers and sisters you won’t find anywhere else."

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As with other conventions, friendship and unity stand as two of the most important pillars of the Military History Fest. Event organizer Mike Bollow tells Drooker, “To be in the same room and dressed in your period garb, the friendship becomes real.” Bollow is a reenactor himself, as well as a military antiques dealer. Back in 2005 he organized the initial iteration of this event, then-called the Reenactor Fest. It was the first of its kind, embracing war reenactors across all time historical periods. 600 assembled at the Sheraton Chicago NW and recognized that this was just the beginning. Bollow later changed the event's name to Military History Fest, believing it would broaden the appeal. It did, and caused him to move the convention to the larger Pheasant Run venue.

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At this year's event the venue was split between commerce and play. According to Drooker, "There was a lot to touch on the vendor floor, where dealers sold accoutrement from seemingly every major conflict." He notes that attendees could buy anything from "a reproduction Napoleonic mess kit to an authentic Nazi-era Iron Cross, which cost $250." Commerce factors heavily into conventions, where attendees are often granted access to rare items or are bold enough to buy them when they see for themselves.

An encampment area lay just beyond the vendors walls. There, reenactors put their garb to use while staging historical scenes. The spaces included "a WWI German bunker, a French Revolution guillotine, and a Pompeii tavern, circa 50BC," Drooker explains. These weren't just for looking at, but for engaging with. Drooker also mentions that "conveniently, they were all located near the present day snack bar."

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Like other conventions Drooker has been attending for his project, the culmination takes place at a dance, celebrating camaraderie, friendship and the one time every year when these reenactors are together. At the The Reenactor’s Ball, attendees don their finest period-specific attire to mix and mingle, moving along "to period dances such as the Virginia Reel and the Patty Cake Polka." And in a moment of meta-acknowledgment, the crowning tradition involves the event's theme song, “The Time Warp,” from the "Rocky Horror Picture Show." Drooker explains, "Nowhere else will you see an Indian warrior, a knight in full armor and all their friends jump to the left, step to the right, put their hands on their hips and sing." Although attendees portray varied communities across centuries of history, they stand together a solid community in their own right at the annual Military History Fest.

Cool Hunting was invited to follow Arthur Drooker behind-the-scenes as he continues to survey and photograph conventions around the US. All images in this ongoing series are by Arthur Drooker.

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