Murray McKinley perches on a picnic table, one foot on the top, the other on the bench. Before Luke Acord can finish describing the item in his hands, McKinley starts talking at light-speed to the crowd gathered around him. The numbers he says are the only audible part of his sentences, the rest of the words are lost as he auctions off the painting in Acord’s hands. When it’s finally sold, the crowd, a mix of authentically dressed pre-1840’s surgeons, craftsmen, blacksmiths, Native Americans and those modernly dressed, applaud the purchaser and it’s on to the next one.
McKinley’s fluid talents as an auctioneer are just one contribution of the Big Muddy River Rendezvous experience, which has taken place in Winona for the past nineteen years. Acord, who runs the Rendezvous, uses the money from the auction to help fund the event, all items are donations.
Acord has run the event all nineteen years, and has seen it grow from just a few tents to the few hundred that occupy the campgrounds today. 28 professional demonstrators, hand-picked by Acord himself, are one of the Rendezvous’ major attractions.
“The Rendezvous is a good family-oriented event,” Acord said. “My kids grew up coming to Rendezvous, now my grandkids are coming to Rendezvous and I know my great-grandkids will come to Rendezvous. It’s more than a hobby to me; it’s a way of life.”
The campground is spacious enough to accommodate Acord’s way of life. The 150 to 200 tents cover a considerable portion of Prairie Island Campground. Canvas tents and tepees are the only forms of shelter around. The smell of firewood emanates from several sites across the camp, as it is the only source of heat for demonstrators. The cool, crisp autumn day means suitable weather for the button-up suits and tanned leather outfits worn by the various demonstrators, guides and vendors.
Just off the main path demonstrators sit in their tents, informing visitors on the lifestyles of those in their profession, or demonstrating numerous techniques used to survive in the fur-trading era. Rock candy and other treats are sold in vendor tents, and open fields are used to demonstrate tomahawk throwing.
“These are a bunch of individuals who enjoy history and enjoy teaching kids history,” Acord said. “They are the cream of the crop.”
The demonstrator’s enjoyment of teaching children is put to the test during the week as over 2,000 school kids came through the Rendezvous this year, from Winona to Black River Falls. The kids get a chance to throw tomahawks, watch Scrimshaw artistry made and learn about the fur trade among other things.
“Each person has their own thing that they like,” Acord said. “If you asked 30 different people what they like best about the Rendezvous, you’d get 30 different answers.”
“It’s a place to go see stuff you’d never see in your lifetime,” McKinley said.
Hardly anyone dressed in 1840’s attire walks past Acord without cracking a joke or saying hello and he smiles in appreciation.
“You get people saying ‘oh, it’s like a family here,’ but in this case it really is,” Acord said. “I make sure that every day I hit every tent, and every person. Not many coordinators do that.”
Acord enjoys Rendezvous’ so much he demonstrates at other Rendezvous’ besides his own. He said that sometimes members of the Rendezvous call each other up and have a private Rendezvous. They dress in the same clothes, kick back, have competitions, and relax for a weekend.
But the 1840’s can’t last forever. On Sunday night the tents, the clothes and the shops have to come down, as Acord makes sure everything is in order and clean when everyone is out, begins the wait for next year.