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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Festival celebrates Oregon Trail

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Festival celebrates Oregon Trail

Lindy Freitas of La Grande, who's serving as an intern at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center this summer, stirs a meat dish Saturday during the Pioneer Heritage Festival.  (Baker City Herald/Mike Ferguson).
Lindy Freitas of La Grande, who's serving as an intern at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center this summer, stirs a meat dish Saturday during the Pioneer Heritage Festival. (Baker City Herald/Mike Ferguson).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

They danced. They ate. They climbed aboard the backs of oxen.

Along the way they learned a little about 19th Century history.

The 730 people who turned out for Saturday's Pioneer Heritage Festival at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center were treated to "appearances" by everyone from President Thomas Jefferson to Oregon Trail preserver Ezra Meeker.

"On my last birthday I was 95," said Steilacoom, Wash., resident Ray Egan, who portrayed Meeker Saturday and then helped the Ezra Meeker Historical Society rededicate a monument to the Oregon Trail Sunday at Geiser Pollman Park. "Why do I go back over the same 2,000 miles, time after time? It's to keep the memory of the past stirring in our minds. It's my tribute to the men and women who fought a mighty battle."

Meeker, a proponent of temperance who was known as the Hop King of the World for his Puyallup, Wash., farm operation, traversed the Trail by covered wagon, automobile, and airplane and stopped often in Baker City, said Andy Anderson of the Ezra Meeker Historical Society. It was Meeker more than anyone else whose persistence ensured that communities along the Oregon Trail commemorated the difficult and dangerous journey.

As Meeker, Egan told childhood stories of church services at the Brimstone Meeting House, which catered to "non-Methodists and sinners — and of course, they're one and the same."

When he married, Meeker paid the minister by splitting 300 fence rails — "and I still have the callouses to prove it," the old man claimed.

He described at length his family's journey along the Trail, giving credit for his wife, Eliza, packing just the right amount of food. After a day of jostling aboard the wagon, the milk would turn to butter. She also had the foresight to pack butter inside of cornmeal. When the butter melted, she would turn the contents into delicious shortcakes, eh said.

After a cholera outbreak near what is now Kearney, Nebraska, "graves became so common along the Trail as to cause no comment," Meeker said, noting the one that brought tears to his eyes was decorated with a blue bonnet and a pair of shoes. The gravestone was simply marked "Mother" and was drawn in pencil by a child.

Pioneers used to joke that the water in the Platte River was "too thick to drink, and too thin to plow," Meeker said with a smile.

"What we remember of the Trail is the generosity and bravery," he concluded. "Now you know why I go over the Trail time after time. Sorry is the day a generation forgets to honor its forebears."

After Meeker's presentation, Marge Harding spoke during a slide show she called "Symbolism and Sentimentality." The women who traversed the Oregon Trail, she said, were Victorians, and "they were the same women when they arrived as they were when they left."

But they wore and carried jewelry that modern audiences might find a little odd. Many rings, brooches and lockets contained the hair of a loved one — perhaps the mother they'd left behind — because the Victorians wanted to carry a piece of their loved one wherever they went.

In fact, Harding said, Prince Albert had a charm bracelet made for his wife, Queen Victoria, that featured the baby teeth of all nine of her children. The bracelet was a favorite piece of the queen whose name is synonymous with about half of the 19th Century.

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