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From Lewis and Clark to Revolutionary War: Reenactor makes history come alive
November 22, 2022
The intimidating, rhythmic sound of drums approaches from a distance. A group of 11 men and one large black dog comes marching by. The morning is cool and cloudy, and every man has a stoic, focused look on their face. The majority of the group is decorated with matching blue coats accented in red, with a black, feathered hat atop each head. They appear to have fallen right out of the 1700s, and no piece of modern times can be seen among them.
The man leading the small group wields a lance lined up vertically with his body. The following eight men all wield flintlock rifles with the stock of the gun resting in their left hand and the barrel of the gun sitting on their left shoulder. The man with the dog marches next to the drummer, who marks the end of the group.
“You go down to Fort Massac now and you see his group, and there might only be six or seven there, but there’s a lot more in the group,” explains Gary Emery, a friend of one of the men.
Every one of them will have countless hours of stories to tell about their travels. A particular man situated near the front, with one of the best looking rifles, is especially wise and skilled. A historical reenactor and gunsmith, Jim Wallace is also a vital member of the community.
Over the summer, from late April until Labor Day weekend, Wallace works six days a week at the Bass Farms produce stand in Marion. He can be found peddling a large variety of fruits and vegetables, with strawberries being the biggest seller. Wallace also puts hours of work into his own blueberries and blackberries in order to sell there.
On top of this, he is also always willing to share historical knowledge to whoever will lend a listening ear. Wallace’s favorite subject is Lewis and Clark, and he has even followed their exact path across the United States.
“That trip took three years and 23 days, and I could probably tell it all to you in half that time,” he jokes.
Wallace and his group were extremely detail oriented during their journey.
“Every day when we started out, we put up the flag in the morning and then we’d read the excerpt out of the journals,” he explains. “What they did that day, what happened. We tried to be in the same place that they were, on the same day that they were there.”
Wallace first met the group he traveled with in 1998 at Fort Massac in Metropolis, which has an annual Revolutionary War-era reenactment and mock battle that he has attended for around 30 years.
“Fort Massac was a place where Lewis and Clark originally stopped,” he recounts. “So they came down to just see it. I got to talkin’ to those guys, and I thought this is pretty neat. I think that’s something I’d want to do. And so I fell in with them and been with them ever since, and it’s been an interesting journey.”
Their long journey was planned because it was the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s original expedition.
“They started in August 31st of 1803. We started August 31st of 2003. Of course, the river is quite different now, locks and dams, and barges and those types of things, but you could still get a feel of it, if you just kind of let your mind wander a little bit, you could really get a feeling of it,” Wallace said.
During the planning of their expedition, Wallace and his group contacted many schools and historical societies to come to the rivers and learn about the story of Lewis and Clark.
“I’d say that we probably talked to a half a million kids across the United States. That was quite interesting, and I just hope that maybe one of them remembered what they learned along the way,” he said.
Wallace’s group also built and used their own reproductions of the boats Lewis and Clark used based on the writings within those explorers’ journals.
“We built the boats over in St. Charles, Missouri,” he recounts. “There were drawings and descriptions in the journals of the boats. None of us were boat builders. One guy was a dentist, and several were doctors and lawyers, bankers and farmers, and you name it. One guy was a cabinet maker… He had some skills and he had some tools that we used. NASA had a couple guys that actually helped make drawings of the boats, and some of the things we did were experimental.”
Over the winter, Wallace spends his free time making flintlock rifles and pistols, and he has even made a copy of the gun used by Mel Gibson in The Patriot.
“I’ve made several guns, all flintlock. I don’t make any percussion guns or modern guns… Percussion became popular about 1830, and I think was invented about 1813 or ‘14… That’s too modern for me,” he joked. “My favorite period is like 1760 to 1770.”
On top of the long and detailed task of making a flintlock, Wallace is determined to make the entire process as authentic as possible to the gunsmiths of old.
“I use all these chisels you see lined up here, and files, and rasps… The only two power tools I use are this band saw to make the rough shape of the gun, and then I use that drill over there because it’s accurate…” he shows. “I try to do it like they would have done it originally.”
Jim Wallace’s wife, Sue Wallace, surprisingly does not mind that he spends so many hours in his shop working on guns.
“I’m very happy that he has something to do, that he is interested in, that is not sitting and watching television like most people his age,” she said.
Though he does sell some of the guns that he has made, Jim Wallace does not make them to obtain a profit. He simply makes them over the winter for something to do.
“I don’t make them to sell, I’ll make one for me, and if somebody sees it and likes it and wants to buy it, I might go ahead and sell it to them… I really don’t know how many I’ve made actually,” he said.
Jim Wallace will most likely continue working at Bass Farms, building guns and reenacting until he is physically incapable. While he is still working, he is absolutely worth a visit and some conversation. Anyone could learn many things from this lover of a particular moment in history.
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