Nerding Out at Old Fort Niagara

March 17, 2013


You guys, I have a teensy little confession to make.

I am a nerd.

I know.

Shocking, right?

Up until now, I bet you thought I was the hippest bombdiggity on the Internet, yo.

(Confession: I have no idea what a bombdiggity is. I just heard it on a commercial.)

But, it’s true, guys.

I’m a total nerdball.

One of my favorite activities to do as a child was to memorize random facts from the set of animal flashcards we had at my school, and then attempt to amaze my classmates with my extensive knowledge of water buffalo. (Mind you, they did a very good job of hiding their amazement. By telling me to go away.)

I spent my teenage years secretly reading historical fiction novels.

Don't let my sophisticated beret-wearing fool you. I was actually a nerd!

Nerd alert. Don’t let my sophisticated beret-wearing fool you.

And you should probably never challenge me to a game of Trivial Pursuit because I will play dirty. Plus, you know, if there’s ever a question about water buffalo, you are so going down. Consider yourself warned.

I try to keep my nerdy tendencies on the down low when I’m hanging out with friends so that, you know, they’ll keep on hanging out with me.

Every once in a while I get a bit tipsy and let on that I know way too much about nerdy stuff like Elizabethan book-binding.

But usually I’m pretty good at playing it cool.



But I have absolutely no qualms about letting my geek flag fly when I’m on my own or in front of random strangers.

Which is one of the reasons why I love traveling solo so much – I can basically be the biggest nerd there is and nobody has to know. (Well, that, and the fact that I can wear the same pants for five days straight and nobody has to know. And, you know, eat two breakfasts and nobody has to know. And pretty much DO EVERYTHING EVER and nobody has to know.)

So I was super excited when the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation invited me to visit Old Fort Niagara and write a post about my experience as a solo traveler there.

Located less than half an hour away from Niagara Falls, NY, the fort dates all the way back to 1726 when it was built by the French as a means of controlling the Great Lakes, and, subsequently, it played an integral role in the French & Indian War, the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The fort, which is now a National Historic Landmark, is open to the public year-round and hosts a number of cultural events.

And, well, as far as opportunities to be a total nerdball in public, it doesn’t really get much better than visiting a 300-year-old military fort, now does it?

At Old Fort Niagara. Things about to get nerdy up in here.

At Old Fort Niagara. Things about to get nerdy up in here.

When I arrived at the Fort on Friday morning, I was greeted by Jason Buckley, the staff member who would be giving me a tour of the museum and grounds.

I felt a bit bad for the guy.

I mean, he probably had no idea he was in for a two-hour nerdy question-fest by yours truly.

We started off the tour by watching a video that showed a brief overview of the fort’s history.

Movie time!

Movie time!

Honestly, it was all a bit confusing for me because it was nine o’clock in the morning, and I was severely under-caffeinated, and, while I am a huge history nerd, I have never been particularly good at dates or really anything that involves numbers.

Plus, the Fort changed hands almost a half dozen times in less than a hundred years – from French control to British control to American control and then back again to British control before it was finally ceded to the United States in 1815.

Trying to keep track of all of that felt kind of like trying to keep track of Taylor Swift’s love life.

Except with a lot less angsty pop songs.

And a lot more funky hats and half-clad Native American dudes.

Not that I’m complaining as I am a fan of both funky hats and half-clad Native American dudes.

Because, I mean, who isn’t?

Why, hello there, sir.

Why, hello there, sir.

What the movie failed to mention, and what I learned later on in the tour of the museum, was that all that warring and fort-seiging and basically the entire colonization of North America was caused by beavers.


You see, apparently, everyone in Europe was all crazy about felt hats like this one:


And, apparently, the best kind of felt was made from beaver fur.

And, apparently, the best kind of beaver fur could be found on beavers in North America – specifically those found in Northern United States and Canada.

And, apparently, the French and English were all like, “Let’s go get us some beaver fur. And colonize a continent. And, you know, have a whole bunch of wars and stuff.”

So, yes, beavers.

Totally to blame.


Which just goes to show you that you probably shouldn’t trust any mammals with webbed feet.

Not to be trusted.

Totally cute. And totally not to be trusted.

Another fun fact that I didn’t know about until my tour of the museum was that back in the day, soldiers drank something called “small beer” for Vitamin C.
Old-timey beer keg.

Old-timey beer keg.

I think this means we can all just go ahead and replace our breakfast orange juice with a nice tall glass of beer. And when someone asks you why you’re drinking beer at eight o’clock in the morning you can reply, “Because HISTORY, okay?”

In addition to its enlightening displays on beavers and beer, the museum also housed an extensive collection of old weapons.


There were also the remnants of the original flag that used to fly over the fort, which just so happens to be one of the oldest surviving American flags.


As fascinating as the museum was, my favorite part of the tour was definitely when we left the museum and stepped out on to the grounds of the fort.

I totally felt like I was stepping back in history.

History, here I come!

History, here I come!

I was tempted to start acting all old-timey and throw out some old-timey slang words. But, sadly, I don’t know any old-timey slang words as they hardly ever have any old-timey slang words in commercials.

While the fort has been the home of almost one hundred different buildings during its history, today the grounds of the fort contain about a dozen different structures, including many of the original buildings as well as some reconstructed ones.

There were a couple big, impressive stone gates.

Ooo, impressive.

Ooo, very big and gate-y.

There was a storehouse that is now full of displays.

Like this one about the different names for barrels:

Firkins and hogsheads and butts and puncheons, oh my!

Firkins and hogsheads and butts and puncheons, oh my!

Which, I’m not even kidding you, was totally fascinating. And I can’t guarantee you that I won’t get drunk some point soon and start pulling out all my newfound barrel vocabulary.

And there was a bakehouse where they used to bake a million-billion loaves of bread each day.

In the bakehouse. Sadly, there were no free bread samples.

In the bakehouse. Sadly, there were no free bread samples. Because I could always go for some free bread.

By far the most impressive building on the grounds is definitely the French Castle. It also happened to be the oldest building at the fort.
The French Castle

The French Castle

This is where you could see how the soldiers really lived.

Which, honestly, didn’t seem that bad to me. I mean, usually when I imagine the lives of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century soldiers (and, yes, I have been known to imagine that kind of thing on occasion), I imagine a lot of hardship.

Not an indoor well decorated with oil paintings.

Indoor well with fancy French-looking painting above it. Ooo, la, la!

Indoor well with fancy French-looking painting above it. Ooo, la, la!

Sure, the barracks room looked like it might be kind of a tight squeeze, especially considering it used to house thirty soldiers.

The barracks room

The barracks room

But, honestly, I’ve seen worse at some hostels.

And check out these officer’s digs:

Officer's quarters

Officer’s quarters

Pretty fancy pants, right?

The officer’s dining room even had a table set up for the serving of booze and hot chocolate. Somehow I never imagined military officers hanging out, drinking booze and hot chocolate.

I mean, add my cat and a bathrobe, and that sounds pretty much like my typical Friday night.

This was where the hot chocolate & booze were served. Again, sadly, no free samples were given out on the tour.

This was where the hot chocolate & booze were served. Again, sadly, no free samples were given out on the tour.

As if my whole tour wasn’t totally awesome enough and so full of interesting tidbits of information that I simply cannot wait to blather on about at the next party I happen to get a bit too tipsy at, I then got to learn how to shoot a musket.


Musket demonstration by Old Fort Niagara staff member

Musket demonstration by Old Fort Niagara staff member

So, in addition to knowing way too much about beavers and beer and barrels, I now know how to operate old-timey firearms.

You all might want to watch your backs.

Or, at least, make a point of not inviting me to any of your parties.

What historic place did you visit and love and then talk about way too much at parties later?
P.S. I’d like to give a huge thank you to the fine people of Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation for arranging my tour and to Jason Buckley at Old Fort Niagara for giving me an awesome tour and for putting up with my countless questions about barrels and beavers and bedbugs and pretty much EVERYTHING EVER.
P.P.S. It’s the last day to vote for the Bloggies! Voting closes tonight (Sunday, March 17th) at 10 PM EDT. If you haven’t voted already, would you please consider voting for me for the Best Travel Weblog? I would love you forever. And I promise not to bore you at parties with talk of barrels. Okay, so maybe I can’t promise that, but I WILL totally love you forever.

I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On March 17, 2013 at 5:22 pm Brett Domue said:

    Oh yes, that would be my Fort Ticonderoga visit! Ever since reading and watching Johnny Tremaine as a kid…when I finally got to visit, just because I found myself passing by. Totally great!
    Brett Domue recently posted..Photo of the Week: Lobster Sliders at Casa Picasso on Ambergris Caye, Belize

    • On March 18, 2013 at 5:12 pm Sally said:

      Sounds awesome. I think I’ve become more than a little bit fort-obsessed, and now I’m thinking about visiting other forts… I’ll have to put Fort Ticonderoga on the list!

  2. On March 17, 2013 at 5:41 pm Priya said:

    Wow, Sally. This was a lot of Nerd. Like, a lot of Nerd. That French Castle was bad-ass, BTW.

    PS: I’m curious, are you presented with press-trips/ related things often?
    Priya recently posted..Your Handbag Does Not Define You

    • On March 18, 2013 at 5:11 pm Sally said:

      I definitely don’t get offered this kind of thing very often — or, umm, AT ALL. I had actually contacted the Niagara Tourism group to ask them if they ever worked with bloggers and they very kindly set this trip up for me. Usually, I do all my own traveling on my own volition and my own dime… which I don’t have very many of these days… hence the reason why I haven’t been doing much traveling lately!

  3. On March 17, 2013 at 5:57 pm Diana Thelen said:

    A friend and I took our granddaughters to Ft. William in Thunder Bay, Ontario last August, and we got to sample fresh-baked bread from the old stone oven there. YUMMY! We also got to see a genuine beaver hat on display – beavers must be responsible for all old forts!

  4. On March 17, 2013 at 8:13 pm Hilary said:

    So…my husband and I spent part of our honeymoon touring Ft. George in Niagara on the Lake. Head was exploding with enjoyment of historical reenactments and demonstrations. I put Ft. Niagara on my list then, and your post makes me want to visit it even more!

  5. On March 17, 2013 at 9:04 pm Penguinlady said:

    Ok, my family did a tour of Fort Stanwix, near Rome NY, when I was in college. There were people dressed up in costumes role playing, and someone asked who we were. My mother then began role playing the part of a Revolutionary general’s wife, and totally stumped the fort employee. She knew exactly where the general was supposed to be during a certain point in the War and schooled that cast member. I guess I come by it naturally.

    The time I geeked out was when on a DaVinci Code walking tour (don’t judge me!) in London. The guide would ask a question about the Templars and I would jump in with, “Friday the thirteenth of October, 1307”. (The date they were all assassinated.) I may have done similar on the Jack the Ripper tour. Both were awesome tours, by the way.

    • On March 18, 2013 at 5:06 pm Sally said:

      Those tours sound awesome. Especially the Jack the Ripper tour. I lived in Scotland for a summer, and went on the underground catacombs ghost tour like, ummm, 5 times. It got a bit annoying when I’d jump ahead of the tour guide and be like, “Ooo, oooo, tell them about that corner over there where the little boy ghost lives!”.

      • On March 18, 2013 at 5:31 pm Penguinlady said:

        You would have loved the other walking tour in London, which was a ghost walk. The guide was fantastic; equally funny and creepy. He had us walk through St James Park quite late at night, while telling us a scary story about people who went missing after seeing a ghost on a bridge. Then, he ends the tour on that bridge! I would do that o e over and over.

  6. On March 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm kathy said:

    Never thought of visiting Old Fort Niagara but after this blog making it seem like one of the best places ever, I am packing up the car and going!
    Oh and I have tried telling people at parties about places I have seen but their attention span is about all of 30 seconds. Not sure if it is me or the booze they are consuming.

    • On March 18, 2013 at 4:54 pm Sally said:

      I honestly never thought about going there myself, either — especially not by myself. But it turned out to be the perfect trip — so many cool things to learn and lots of cool things to take pictures of. Plus, all the staff were super nice. I totally want to go back for one of their events.

  7. On March 18, 2013 at 1:44 pm Jennifer said:

    So glad you had fun! Jason is a good friend of ours and an incredible guy. If you liked your tour you HAVE to come back for one of the reenactment events. They DO have bread at those (especially if you know someone there, hint hint!) And my Husband can teach you how to use a bayonette too.

    The french castle during Castle by Candlelight in December is magical.

  8. On March 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm Andi of My Beautiful Adventures said:

    Just voted! I’m a nerd too btw. This place would have totally fascinated me.
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..Andi’s Pick: Cotton Tree

  9. On March 19, 2013 at 3:37 am Brian said:

    I just came across your site and you had me laughing out loud! As a fellow nerd, I appreciate your enthusiasm for history and your general distrust of beavers. Coming for the beaver state (Oregon), I can tell you that beavers are always up to no good: causing wars, damming streams, cutting down trees – their treachery knows no bounds!
    Brian recently posted..Visiting Old Friends in Sequoia National Park

  10. On March 19, 2013 at 8:01 am cosmoHallitan said:

    This is so up my nerdy alley! And I love how much fun you are having on your local adventures! That musket is big time. If you really want to nerd out on war history, check out Jeff Shaara’s historical fiction novels – I’ve read them all! Having that context makes visiting the battle sights up and down the East Coast so much more interesting.
    cosmoHallitan recently posted..Luang Prabang: Where to Stay and What to Eat

  11. On March 19, 2013 at 1:40 pm Maria said:

    Nice history lesson Sally!
    Maria recently posted..When in Rome

  12. On March 20, 2013 at 12:24 pm Sam said:

    Congratulations on your nerd coming out. Welcome!
    Sam recently posted..El Tren Patagónico: Andes to Ocean

  13. On March 21, 2013 at 6:21 am Peter Lee said:

    I am really surprised by some facts, but I liked your post very much. This historical visit sounds good. Thanks for writing.

  14. On March 25, 2013 at 5:19 pm Ed said:

    Sally, I enjoyed your article. Thanks. Talk about nerds, here is the “nerdest” way to travel. Turn on your PC or wide screen TV and go to this page Islands and country tours select an island and kick back and watch the videos. Just make sure you pick a good island.

    • On March 25, 2013 at 6:09 pm Sally said:

      But how do I know which island is good?

      • On March 26, 2013 at 10:36 am Ed said:

        Good question I really do not have an answer for. I just look at the video for that island and if the video looks good I watch it. Some islands like New Zealand have a tourist video. These look to be professionally done and are great to watch. You really get a feel for what’s it’s like being on the island.

  15. On March 27, 2013 at 10:36 am Rachel Hindle said:

    the new 12st Century nerds are sexy – it’s the new ‘yes’!

  16. On March 28, 2013 at 6:22 pm Angie Potter said:

    I am not only a nerd, but an 18th C. French/ Brittish Fortnerd, a particularly nerddy form of nerd. I am so jealous.

    I really liked your blog about the visit to the Fort. I visited the Fort as a kid when visiting your family and it has scarred/inspired me for life. I always had fun hanging out with you guys in Indiana.

    Now, I reenact the Kings 8th Regiment (stationed at the Fort during the revolution)and named my kids after the officers stationed at the Fort.

    If you did not get enough of the Beaver and muskets, I have flinlock rifles and even duling pistols and cannons you can try out. I even have a beaver hat.

    • On March 29, 2013 at 7:50 am Sally said:

      How great to hear from you! And YOU HAVE A BEAVER HAT??? You are my new hero!
      You should definitely come back and visit… and, of course, bring the beaver hat. 🙂

  17. On March 29, 2013 at 11:21 pm Steph | A Nerd At Large said:

    Firstly, “bombdiggity” is my new favourite word. I don’t know what it means either, but it is fun to say, which is paramount.

    Secondly, Welcome to the world of unabashed nerdery! Don’t you feel better now?

    Thirdly, I am totally jealous of this whole experience, but especially your barrel-laden lexicon and musket shooting privileges.

    In conclusion, Canada would not exist if it hadn’t been for beavers. For reals.

    P.S. I might be your Trivial Pursuit archnemesis.
    Steph | A Nerd At Large recently posted..Foto Friday: The Ridiculous Easter Island Bunny

    • On April 3, 2013 at 11:16 pm Sally said:

      Arrrggh! I actually haven’t played TP in years. I think I might need to brush up in case we ever run into each other. And, yes, you should consider that a threat. 🙂


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