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Military History Fest offers a trip back in time

The 18th 20th 21st centuries collide Military History Fest. | Denise Linke ~ For Sun-Times Media

The 18th, 20th and 21st centuries collide at Military History Fest. | Denise Linke ~ For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 5, 2014 6:24AM

ST. CHARLES — World War I German officer George Reinke was openly fraternizing with the enemy Friday outside a front-line bunker somewhere in France.

“It’s a shared bunker,” the St. Charles resident explained as he helped set up the living history display for Military History Fest at Pheasant Run Convention Center. “People will see German troops, French troops or American troops here, depending on when they come by this weekend.”

The 10th annual event over the weekend highlighted World War I to mark the centennial of the conflict’s beginning. Antique military vehicles from that war — at least one of them horse-drawn — drew crowds of admirers, and several re-enactment groups switched back and forth between 1914-era impressions and their main historical focus.

“The 353rd Infantry Division specializes in World War II, but we wanted to mark the centennial here, so some of us brought World War I gear,” Reinke said. “We even found a 353rd Division that existed in World War I. So this year, half of our space is World War I and half of it is World War II.”

Aquila, which re-enacts ancient Roman military life, went even further in its World War I tribute. Its 50 B.C.-era Pompeiian tavern transformed Saturday afternoon into a 1914 Turkish tavern where soldiers drank with locals and spies met to pass on military secrets.

“My husband is going to be a spy,” confided Hanover Park resident Kathy Westburg as she assembled almond-stuffed dates from an ancient Roman recipe to serve at the tavern. “But he hasn’t told me which side he’ll be spying for. Probably the Germans, the Italians or the Turks, since the Allies weren’t in Turkey in 1914.”

Westburg herself spent Friday as an ancient Roman barmaid and Saturday as an Allied nurse.

The World War I theme didn’t keep away re-enactors in other time periods. Dark Ages Anglo-Saxons mingled with 12th century Crusaders, who rubbed elbows with Union and Confederate troops. British officer Bernie Kazwick of Downers Grove stopped to chat with American colonists Jim and Rebecca Fairchild of Batavia in front of their 18th century tent.

“One of the neat things about Military History Fest is that there are so many groups here representing so many different times in history,” Kazwick commented. “Normally, re-enactors go to events that focus on just their time period, so we don’t see what other people are doing.”

“It’s also nice to visit with friends in midwinter,” Jim Fairchild added. “We usually camp at events, so we don’t get to see our (Revolutionary War) re-enactment friends for months at a time when it’s too cold to hold events.”

Re-enactors also enjoyed shopping at the 70-plus vendor booths that offered everything from actual antique military uniforms, weapons and medals to medieval camp cooking equipment and Victorian ladies corsets.

“It’s nice to have all the vendors in one place so you can get new things or replacements for all the different impressions you do,” Reinke said. “You can also talk with them about the history behind what they’re selling, which is nice.”

Many of the vendors came more to enjoy the atmosphere than to boost their sales.

“We don’t get much business here,” said Annie Faulkner of Turkey Roost Victorian costume shop, which she and her mother, Verna Metz, run out of their Elgin home. “But we get to hang out with old friends and show off what we’ve been making recently, which makes this event just perfect.”

The festival also attracts hundreds of non-re-enactors every year, giving the re-enactors a chance to teach the public about what they do and why they do it.

“A lot of people come up and ask a lot of questions,” Williams said as he stood guard with spear, shield and sling outside the Aquila taverna. “We usually pick up a few new members and some invitations to do school presentations from teachers who visit the fest. Sometimes, teachers will send students here with worksheets to fill out for extra credit.”

Other re-enactors hope to help the public honor the memories of Americans who served in the military.

“It’s significant that we don’t forget the sacrifices people made in these wars, especially in today’s political climate,” Reinke said. “Congress just cut the pensions of these brave soldiers, when they should be honored and respected as much as possible.”

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