Penn's Colony Festival captures Western Pennsylvania's past

| Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, 10:36 a.m.

Seeing history come to life at the Penn's Colony Festival as a child made a lasting impression on Erin Musher.

The event recaptures the era of the French and Indian War, when Western Pennsylvania was the frontline for combat between British and French troops and their Indian allies.

Musher first attended the event years ago when it was held at North Park. On Sunday, she revisited the festival to take in this year's final day with her children and their stepmother, Kate McCaffery of O'Hara, at its present location near Saxonburg.

“I came when it was first starting when I was a kid,” said Musher, 37, of Blawnox. “I had fun, so I thought I would bring my kids to see if they would enjoy it. So far, it's been pretty good.”

Musher spoke as her daughters Kyra McCaffery, 11, and Ava McCaffery, 7, stood a few feet away with their stepmother, transfixed by colonial re-enactor Jim Roberts of Washington, Pa., who played tunes on his Scottish Lowland bagpipes.

A visit to the colonial village and marketplace that comes to life two weekends every September seemed natural for her daughters.

“They've never been to something like this, but they are interested in history and science and learning about the past,” Musher said.

The festival features re-enactments of the frontier combat that took place during that time, complete with musket and cannon fire.

That was Kyra's favorite part of Penn's Colony. “The re-enactments, that was awesome,” she said.

For Ava, it was another military moment. “Signing the paper that said I'm a British soldier,” she said.

“It was really cool to see all that,” said Kate McCaffery, who added that she enjoyed the dozens of shops in the village.

Those shops, most of them in tents, sold everything from pewter to baskets, jewelry, toys and even “poor man's portraits” — silhouettes done in black felt. They were grouped in neighborhoods with names such as “Allegheny Grove,” “Venango Village” and “Mingo Town.”

For re-enactors like Roberts, who has been doing it for 22 years, young people like the McCaffery sisters are what re-enacting is all about.

“One of the reasons I do the French and Indian War is because it is not taught in the schools,” Roberts said. “By being out here, we are teaching them about the French and Indian War.”

Re-enactors R.J. Wood of Slippery Rock and Jack Oelschlager of Canonsburg are part of Trent's Company, a colonial militia unit from Virginia that was commanded by William Trent. Oelschlager said that in 1754, Trent built the first fort where the three rivers meet at present day Pittsburgh, but he had to abandon it when confronted by a large force of French and Indians. The French demolished Trent's small fort and built a much larger Fort Duquesne at the site.

Wood said the French and Indian War appealed to him as a re-enactor because of that Western Pennsylvania connection.

“There's a lot of history connected to this area,” he said.

Jami Beck Ritchey, 36, a Leechburg native who lives in the Cambria County community of Northern Cambria, drove more than an hour with her daughters, Isabella, 5, and Abriella, 3, to get to the festival, which they attended last year.

While her daughters snacked on beef jerky from a shop that also featured venison, elk and buffalo jerky, Ritchey paused to consider the appeal Penn's Colony has for her.

“I don't know,” she said. “I guess just how they all dress up. It's a nice day out, and the food is good.”

Food was sold at establishments with names like “The Fin and Claw,” where fish and crab cakes were available; “The Bird In Hand,” which offered turkey on a croissant; and “The Missing Pig,” which served pork barbecue. Smoked turkey legs, spiced sausage and hot dogs also were available.

It was the first thing Jim Newman, 51, commented on.

“The food is really great,” said the former Kittanning resident who lives in the South Hills. “This is the first festival I've gone to. It's a lot better than I thought it would be.”

His companion, Beth Burgess, 46, from the South Hills, said, “I love the location. It's really rustic.”

Burgess and Newman also mentioned the entertainment as they sat at one of the two festival amphitheaters set among the trees, listening to the two-person group Celtic Shores perform Irish tunes.

As for coming to next year's festival, Newman didn't hesitate in his response.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “We'll be back.”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or

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