Little city to fete French heritage

VERGENNES –– Charles Gravier, Le Comte de Vergennes, a French nobleman for whom the city of Vergennes was named, died in 1787. But on July 14 le Comte de Vergennes will be strolling around the streets of the Little City, stopping to talk to passersby and leading a tour of the city’s downtown.
French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who lived from 1574 to 1635, will also be hanging out in the City Park this Saturday telling his personal history. Craftspeople will be knitting, making 18th century shoes, quilting, blacksmithing and spinning.
All of this, including the impersonators of the famous Frenchmen, will be part of the seventh annual French Heritage Day, which is this Saturday in downtown Vergennes from 10 a.m. until dusk.
The day celebrates the area’s French history, heritage and culture, explained Marguerite Senecal, the event’s lead organizer and Addison County Chamber of Commerce information specialist.
“The area is like 33 percent French,” she said. “Chimney Point and everything was all French settlements so there’s a lot of history there. So we do French Heritage Day, and try to do it a little different than other events, try to be non-commercialized, try to get re-enactors, try to make it historical and show the way people used to live.”
Attendees can enjoy French food such as crepes and crème brulee, learn about Vergennes history, talk to re-enactors, listen to French and Quebecois music, enjoy horse and carriage rides and more. Nearly all of the events are free of charge.
Numerous musical groups will be performing throughout the day. For example, the Addison County band Va-et Vient will play French, Quebecois and Cajun music; the Champlain Brass Quintet will perform at the opening ceremonies and Tim Perron will give a piano concert in St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
There will be re-enactors giving demonstrations as well. Bill Thiesse will return as the Comte de Vergennes, the city’s namesake. Don Thompson will make an appearance as Samuel de Champlain.
“De Champlain tells his story in the first person and sits there with a table of navigational tools and he explains how he uses them,” said Senecal.
The re-enactors will be in full costume, most of which is handmade.
Other performers include the craftspeople, fencing demonstrators and Keith Lawrence, who will be telling interactive Native American stories.
The venue is handicapped accessible, and bathrooms are located in the back of the park and at Vergennes Opera House.
The event is family-friendly, with many activities designed for kids. All events, except the evening meal, are free.
“We have lots of education stuff for the kids, they get to play old fashioned games, we have coloring pages that are written in French and English,” Senecal said. “They can churn ice cream and see just how it really is made. They can see what a ringer washer was and they can pump water.”
Event organizers will hold an auction for picnic lunches with either Samuel de Champlain or le Comte de Vergennes.
“The contents of the baskets will come from 3 Squares Café,” Senecal said. “We have red checkered table cloths that go in the picnic basket, we have a bottle of Vergennes wine.”
There will also be a silent auction, with numerous local prizes including a $100 gift card to Vergennes Animal Hospital, two five-pound jars of raw honey from Champlain Valley Apiaries, free passes for tours and pie at the Rokeby Museum and greeting cards painted by Reed Prescott of Prescott Galleries.
Another highlight is the waiters race. Local waiters can enter and compete in uniform. There will also be amateur adult and children’s divisions. Participants will don an apron and handlebar moustache, and race while carrying a tray of full glasses of water, with the winners receiving prizes from local businesses.
The day will culminate with the Veillée, or evening gathering, which will include performances and supper. Buttons admitting entrance to the dinner can be purchased for $15 at the Chamber of Commerce on Court Street in Middlebury or Everywear for Everybody and Linda’s Apparel and Gifts in Vergennes. The meal will feature traditional French food and entertainment, Senecal explained. Anyone who buys a button will also receive discounts on July 13 and 14 at the following Vergennes businesses: Classic Stitching, Clock Shop, Daily Chocolate, Everywear For Everybody, 3 Squares Café and Linda’s Apparel.
“People used to gather at each other’s homes, bring whatever instruments they had, they would dance, they would bring food to share, so we kind of replicate that,” she said. “From 4 to 5 there’s a group called Voulez-vous danser. They will play music and teach people how to square dance. From 5 o’clock until 6 we will be serving a typical French-Canadian meal. That’s with deviled eggs, pea soup, onion soup, ham, baked beans, coleslaw, tourtiére and pastries.”
In a new conclusion to the day’s festivities, event organizers will light the falls in Vergennes at dusk.
“We’re going to light the falls in Vergennes, the three falls,” Senecal said. “We will keep them lit every night until Aug. 26, which is the day after Vergennes Day.”
Anyone interested in learning more about French Heritage day should contact Senecal at 388-7951 or visit the French Heritage Day page on the chamber website, addisoncounty.com.

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