Buffalo bash: Making the Voyage permanent

An impossibly full moon rose over Pantops Mountain Friday evening, January 17, and over the site of what organizers hope will become Charlottesville's next big tourist attraction.

In a snowy field between the Rivanna River and Route 20, one of the more high-spirited events of last week's four-day Lewis & Clark celebration. Shuttle buses and taxis disgorged attendees sporting an array of full length furs, Stetsons, leather jerkins, and military regalia. They were ready for the Bison-tennial.

"The academic, scholarly stuff is great," said Clara Belle Wheeler, owner of Buena Vista farm and enthusiastic hostess of the $50 per person fete, "but you gotta have a party!"

A small contingent from Long Beach, Washingtonone of Charlottesville's sister cities and the settlement at the Voyage of Discovery's trail-end– whooped in response.

Warmed solely by the prospect of an evening of revelry and a mug of potent grog, the coatless Wheeler greeted her guests and hustled them into a heated tent full of food, drink, and music. Organizers are planning a multimillion-dollar Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center on this site.

Charlie Clark was among the early arrivals. He wore the full dress uniform that his great-great-great Grandfather would have worn as Captain of the Artillery, and for a moment, his parabolic hat stuck in the narrow door of the shuttle bus. After posing for a few photographs, he crossed the field to greet his cousin Bud, who was pointing out the historical features of a 1740s-era log house standing just behind the party tent.

The house, which was moved to Wheeler's estate nearly 30 years ago, is a stand-in for the house in which George Rogers Clark was born, which has been lost. A Revolutionary War hero and Thomas Jefferson's first choice to lead the Corps of Discovery, George– pleading ill health and limited finances– passed up the honor in favor of his younger brother, William.

The log structure will be the architectural keystone of the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center, which will break ground on the site next spring. The Bison-tennial was conceived as a combination fund-raiser, publicity event, and jamboree. But Wheeler says poor planning probably hampered turnout.

"I'll bet we could have had 1,000 people here," she mused. Even so, the party tent was filled to capacity with about 260 history-loving revelers.

Local musicians "Uncle Henry's Favorite" provided period music, vice-Mayor Meredith Richards offered tickets to the next day's sold-out event at Monticello, a group from Iowa held court at one table with an array of 10x12 glossies of their hand-fashioned pirogue boat, and the receiving line for Ken Burns stretched longer than the one for the booze.

"I like the carpet here," said the award-winning filmmaker, tapping his well-shod feet on the near-frozen dance floor. "Of all the events I've been to this week, this carpet is the nicest carpet I've seen. It's very natural."

In addition to Burns and co-producer of the Lewis & Clark documentary, Duncan Dayton, Bison-tennial organizers called upon the Knudsons of Yankton, South Dakota, to say a few words between sets.

Lyle Knudson had arrived that day with two semis full of horses and wagons (one of them a Conestoga, none of them a "Calistoga," much to The Hook's chagrin). Lyle's son, Kyle, is the out-rider and trail boss for another group coming on horseback the entire way of the 4,000-mile Lewis & Clark trail. He's been scouting and piloting the wagon train for two and a half years.

While Lyle and Kyle made the party in time to present Wheeler and the Center with a key to the city of Yankton, the unfortunate wagon team didn't.

"They're laid up just north of Omaha," said Kyle. "Their horses are played out, they're cold. We dropped them off hay and a bunch of yarn so they can knit some more sweaters."

When darkness fell, the moon was as bright as the bonfires, and several revelers sought fresh air outside the tent. A bottle smashed in the catering tent, where buffalo barbecue and venison stew was being prepared over small gas burners.

The Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center had been unofficially christened.