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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Baker County, "Home of the Oregon Trail"

Baker County, "Home of the Oregon Trail"

Stan Wellman harnessed horses during a previous Old Oregon Trail Ride. He will be wagonmaster during a three-day ride for the 10th anniversary celebration of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Stan Wellman harnessed horses during a previous Old Oregon Trail Ride. He will be wagonmaster during a three-day ride for the 10th anniversary celebration of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By MARK FURMAN

Of the Baker City Herald

Stan Wellman's family bought the ground north of Virtue Flat in 1935 when he was 8, and growing up he helped run cattle on ground that the Oregon Trail ran right through.

"I try to put myself in those people's place," he says today of those first pioneers. "What caused those people to want to come out here? My goal was to put myself in the same position."

It's a question Wellman first answered in earnest in 1992 when he was commissioned at the age of 65 to be wagonmaster of a pioneer wagon train reenactment as part of the opening of the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, a $10 million federal facility operated by the Bureau of Land Management.

The trail center marks its tenth anniversary Saturday, May 25, with a black powder rifle salute, and live performances by national-caliber historical interpreters. On Sunday, the celebration continues with the arrival of a 100-person strong wagon train with Wellman, now 75, at its head.

"Put yourself back in Independence, Mo.," Wellman says. "What do we have to take with us? What are we going to wear? What do we have to do to survive?

"Are we going to make it?"

More than a quarter million emigrants crossed the Great Plains and headed West between 1843 and 1860. Many of them took a northerly route through what is today Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon that became known as the Oregon Trail.

The four-day reenactment began Thursday and parallels or traverse the course of the Oregon Trail for 30 miles, arriving at the Interpretive Center Sunday, May 26.

Oregon dignitaries like former Gov. Barbara Roberts and former Congressman Les AuCoin have RSVP'd for the celebration.

The BLM and Baker County tourism officials have bought television time in Portland, Boise and Washington's Tri-Cities to promote the event, billing Baker County as the "Home of the Oregon Trail" and inviting visitors to explore the trail center and the community's other attractions.

Dave Hunsaker held binoculars to his eyes in 1992 as Wellman's wagon train approached the Center.

"All of a sudden I wasn't there anymore," recalled Hunsaker, who was the Interpretive Center's director for nine years and federal project manager on its development. "I was back in 1852 when there were no trappings of today. You watched it happen in from of your very eyes."

It's a journey Hunsaker had imagined before as a recreation planner on the Baker Ranger District in 1976. Then, he helped history enthusiasts establish on Oregon Trail overlook not far from where the Interpretive Center stands today.

It was in the late 1970s that civic leaders in Baker City saw the need to begin diversifying their economy from one based almost solely on natural resources.

Built on a gold rush in the 1860s, Baker City rivaled Portland and Spokane at the dawn of the 20th century. But with the bust of the first boom and cyclical downturns in timber, the county's population of 16,700 residents has remained relatively unchanged for close to 100 years. Baker City's last timber mill closed in 1996.

For Baker City, the trail center has been part of "a real American story," Hunsaker said. The town went from "watching things happen to making things happen."

The book "Trail of a Dream" by Dorthy Wooters chronicles that dream from the early planning stage in 1987 through funding and construction and, ultimately, opening day in 1992.

One part of that story is the late millionaire philanthropist Leo Adler, famous for leaving his entire estate to fund scholarships for Baker County high school graduates and grants for non-profit groups upon his death in 1993. Adler staked the first $103,000 for the center's development.

"That was the next egg for the community to build on," Hunsaker said. "It turned $100,000 into a $10 million project."

The past decade has been a period of ongoing transition for the rural Oregon county, where agriculture remains the leading industry.

Baker City and Baker County have become a nexus for historical preservation and interpretation, capitalizing on more than 30 years of volunteer effort.

Restoration of the narrow gauge, steam-powered Sumpter Valley Railway began in 1970. Today, the train carries passengers weekends and holidays through the summer season.

In 1977, a student intern with Oregon's State Historic Preservation Office first documented 110 buildings of historic signifigance in Baker City's downtown core, research that became the foundation for the district's nomination to the National Park Service as a National Historic District.

Since 1982, the volunteer-run Historic Baker City, Inc. has encouraged historic preservation of buildings in the district. Almost $20 million has been spent restoring 75 of the districts buildings, including the Geiser Grand Hotel and the Baker Tower, Oregon's tallest building east of the Cascades.

Historic preservation became part of a planned cultural tourism initiative, one segment of a 15 year plan developed by state, county and city economic development officials and the local community to diversify the economy into tourism and manufacturing.

The Trail Center has helped tie it all together, according to its current director.

"Since its opening, it is the hub of the tourism industry here," said Gay Ernst, who succeeded Hunsaker as the center's second director. "We have a great draw to bring people here."

In the coming years, the center will expand its focus to the natural history of the region, working with local high school students to grow native plants and revegetate the site to its pre-migration state.

The center, built around life-size exhibits, will also have to contend with a growing need for museum-grade curation.

"People call everyday who want to donate their Oregon Trail treasures," Ernst said. "We just don't flat have room."

The center welcomes thousands of school children annually on field trips about the Oregon Trail, as well as older tourists.

"At least 50 percent of our visitors are 62 and above," Ernst said. "I think they are largely interested in the history and the strength and the endurance that brought the pioneers across the trail."

Wellman sums it up — the trek for emigrants, and today's Baker County — in one word: "Courage."

"We lost all our sawmills, the logging operations changed — a lot of change came into this country," Wellman said. "We got caught in a web of tourism. I didn't think we could put it together."

 
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