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Circle the wagons for education and entertainment
By LISA BRITTON
Of the Baker City Herald
Even the smallest pioneers had their daily duties on the trek of the Oregon Trail.
"There's no idle hands everybody's working at some point," said Bill Armstrong, a living history interpreter at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
Children helped clean the camp, gather buffalo chips and fetch water with their older siblings, he said.
"Mostly, though, they'd be tied to the apron string," Armstrong said.
This weekend's wagon encampment at the Interpretive Center featured a real-life example.
Sophia Armstrong is no stranger to life in camp.
The 3-year-old gave the scorching-hot Dutch ovens a wide berth as she tried to finagle a bite of beans from her dad, who was demonstrating how to cook a meal over an open fire.
Her pangs of hunger netted a juicy plum to hold her over until the simmering beans were tender enough to eat.
Armstrong just smiled as his daughter wandered to the makeshift beaver trapper camp set up among the circled wagons to eat the fruit and play with a rag doll.
Sophia's first experience with living history was about two years ago, when Armstrong performed at Fort Vancouver in Washington.
On Monday, Sophia clad in a red, knee-length Indian dress weaved among the visitors, doling out cups of water and demonstrating how to play checkers while her dad tended the Dutch ovens and showed how to shoot a flintlock shotgun.
The wagon encampment is designed to let visitors get a taste of what life was like on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.
"They're able to put a connection to it," said Nancy Harms, living history interpreter at the Center. "All of a sudden they realize how heavy the pots are, how hard it is to get (the fire) going."
The Center staged two all-weekend encampments this summer, and set up the re-enactment periodically for one-day gatherings.
The encampments will start again on Memorial Day next May.
Pioneers arrive in Baker
Pioneers had been on the trail for 4 months by the time they hit Baker Valley, Harms said, and usually arrived in late August or early September.
Quite a few modern-day travelers took advantage of this weekend's re-enactment, with 500 visitors passing through on Saturday, 600 on Sunday and more than 400 on Monday, said Pam Petterson, visitor information specialist.
The three-day event featured different Dutch-oven meals, displays of supplies common to pioneer wagons and demonstrations of how to make butter, shave with straight razor, carve a bow, make lead bullets and shoot a flintlock shotgun.
Mike Buckner of Vale is a saddle-maker by trade, but spends nearly every weekend re-creating life on the Oregon Trail, from providing Dutch-oven fare at regional gatherings to carving bows and guns from hunks of wood.
His hobby helps keep the past alive more than 160 years after the wagon trains headed West.
"I would have loved it," he said. "We can sit and talk about this stuff all day long, but you have to live it."
Visitors had the chance to see a few of the daily tasks that pioneers performed Buckner sat still while Harms shaved his whiskers with a straight razor and even got to taste victuals common to the Oregon Trail experience.
Once the beans and bacon had simmered to a suitable temperature on Monday, Harms handed out samples of the meal that would have been a delicacy on the Oregon Trail.
"Beans are a three-day occurrence," Harms said.
First the legumes had to soak overnight, then cook all day in a pot over a fire something only feasible when the wagon train decided to stop for more than just one night.
"We've been cooking them all morning it's a rest day," Harms said to visitors who stopped to sample the piping hot bean dish.
Laurie Herdt of Mount Vernon couldn't hide her fascination with the entire Oregon Trail scene on Monday.
"To see it, it just comes alive," she said. "I'd have loved it I was born 150 years too late."