Friday, September 9, 2011

A Few Thoughts on the Buffalo Tro and Parties at Chief Richardville’s House

For many years I would have occasion to pass the Chief Richardville House, set back in the trees on a gentle hill overlooking Bluffton Road. I was always intrigued by its forlorn-looking gray façade.

When I joined the board of the History Center, I learned some of the stories the house could tell (going back to 1827) when it hosted the glittering parties of the great Miami chief. Imagine how highly sought this invitation was, when most of Fort Wayne’s inhabitants were living in rough-hewn hovels of sticks and stones!

Two grand, gnarled old silver maple trees frame the house. According to a recent Native American visitor, a member of the Miami tribe, these two old guardians are “spirit trees.” Normally a silver maple will not swirl dramatically, but according to this belief, trees growing in a place of powerful spirituality will manifest this spirit by growing in a manner contrary to the way they are “supposed” to grow. To me, the “genius of the place” is one of welcoming joy and a loving family, although perhaps my emotions are just tricked by the intrinsic beauty of the property.

Even when the house was owned by a gravel company, which tore up the surrounding landscape, no one dared set hand to those two trees. They knew they were special.

Were these trees saplings back when Jean Baptiste de Richardville and his family lived in the house? How many horses and carriages trotted by these trees, the occupants dressed splendidly as they alighted for an important meeting or one of the galas Richardville loved to host?

The descendents of Chief Little Turtle’s family played under these branches. The future of our region was shaped in the elegant parlor. The house itself is the result of hard negotiations with the U.S. Government, bargains driven by the man who controlled the key Portage for the region and sought to protect his tribe.

Stories passed down from the generations whisper of how Richardville became Chief by his mother Tacumwah’s counsel—establishing his leadership by slashing the bonds of a white captive who was doomed to the stake—and how his gold helped to found the University of Notre Dame. (He was educated by Jesuits and was fluent in six languages: English, Miami, French, Greek, Mohican and Latin.)

Under the stewardship of the History Center, the house’s exterior has been restored to its former beauty, and visitors are welcomed. Once a year its bonfire and torches are lit, lights warmly shine from the windows, fiddle music swirls across the lawn, and its doors are opened for an evening of festivities in a manner that recalls the early frontier. This is the Buffalo Tro.

The Tro helps to raise funds to bring thousands of schoolchildren through the History Center for free. Many of these kids wouldn’t be able to attend if their stressed teachers had to drum up support from a cash-strapped school or send that note home asking for a few dollars from a parent who may rank among the high percentage of Hoosiers who are jobless.

I love that the Tro supports these kids, but more selfishly, I love that the Tro helps bring to life the history that I have only read about in books, starting with my 4th grade Indiana history textbook. (I also love that, beer in hand, we get to throw buffalo steaks onto the red-hot coals.)

This year’s Tro will be particularly special, as the house is on track to receive National Historic Landmark status—the only other structures in this corner of Indiana with this designation are the Allen County Courthouse and the Auburn Cord Dusenberg Museum. What a mark of respect to Chief Richardville, his beloved Miami, and the generations who have helped preserve this wonderful house. I have my invitation in hand, and I’m looking forward to the party!

(The Buffalo Tro is Friday, September 30th, 2011 at 6:00. Call the History Center at 260-426-2882 if you are interested in attending. Admission is $50 and proceeds go to the Heritage Education Fund.)

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