Visitors get a taste of the Oregon Trail

July 29, 2001 11:00 pm
Living history performers teach visitors to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center how to have fun, pioneer-style. (Baker City Herald photograph by Brenna Knowles).
Living history performers teach visitors to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center how to have fun, pioneer-style. (Baker City Herald photograph by Brenna Knowles).

By BRENNA KNOWLES

Of the Baker City Herald

The day was July 28, but the year was 1852 at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Centers Pioneer Heritage Festival.

The wagons were gathered closely together and history became a live adventure as people from 1852 and 2001 danced to fiddle music and mingled together in the blacksmiths smoke.

Cora Nite, portrayed by Rebecca Crow, 20, took a break from carding wool to tip back her bonnet and say, No man should be burdened by a wife who cant work. Its the mens duty to obtain the wool for the women and the womens job to do the true work, the hard work; taking the raw wool, doing the washing, the carding, the spinning and turning it into socks and clothes for the whole family.

In a typical day on the trail, she walks, gathers fuel, and takes care of her younger brothers and sisters. The womens work really starts in camp, unloading, packing, setting up, and those long hours cooking over a hot fire, she said.

Nite said the best part of the day is in the evenings, when the work stops for a while and the dancing begins. Its almost as good as a dance hall in the city, she said.

She and her family are on their way to Oregon City to buy land and start farming.

Jeanne Dawson, 21, was also carding wool in the wagon encampment. Like all young women should be doing at this age, she said.

Besides taking on womens work, Dawson had another focus. Im getting late on in years, so Im searching for a man, she said.

Dawson said she had been snubbed because of the bloomer type pants that she wears instead of a full dress. Some say theyre brash and unconventional, but they suite me just fine, she said.

Out of character, Dawson said people who are involved with the reenactment really have fun.

At the end of the day, Dawson said her muscles ache from doing the same work the pioneers did. A lot of the participants are fascinated at how hard the work is, she said.

Dawson added that she was pleased with the amount of detail the actors included in their presentations of pioneer life.

Like a family reunion

Paula Ferrenburg hadnt done her laundry in over a month. In a charming Irish accent, she explained the boiling, rinsing, scrubbing, bluing, drying and ironing processes.

Ferrenburg said, Were on our way to the Dalles, and when we get there we have to decide whether to take this new trail, called the Barlow trail, or float down the river. But I hear the river is rough, so we dont know what we will be doing.

Out of character she said the best part about historical interpretation is teaching people, especially children, about something they have never seen before.

Assisting Ferrenburg with the washing was 14-year-old Fallon Frye. She said she was proud of making her own dress for the festival.

Reenacting is a hobby that I enjoy. Its a lot of fun to see these friends that Ive know for years and do it with them, Frye said. You could call them a humorous group.

Frye added, The challenge is being in the period and talking to the public in first person; some of them dont understand that you are actually a person from that time period.

In the middle of the encampment, David Quinley taught visitors two dances, the Virginia Reel and the Lucky Seven.

Quinley is from Twin Falls, Idaho, and performs with the group Strings Attached.

Quinley said the dances he teaches are ones that everyone can do and learn right here, just the easy stuff.

Hes been attending the festival for seven years, and his favorite part is reuniting with the musicians.

Its like a family reunion, he said. People come from Wyoming and Washington and all around to play their music, and we only get to see each other once a year.

Oxen walk at same pace as people

Josh and Jack, two Brown Swiss oxen, stood in their yolk, chewing their cud and soaking up the mid morning heat. Nancy and Marvin Wootan, a special education teacher and a retired potato farmer from Hammett, Idaho, have brought the animals to the festival for eight years.

Nancy said oxen are any breed of cattle used for working. Her oxen are 12-years-old, weigh 2,000-2,500 pounds and eat hay, with carrots and apples for treats.

Nancy said the pioneers used oxen because they walked at the same pace as a person.

You could walk all day along side of them and not get tired, and they eat during the night, so you dont have to stop all of the time to graze, she said. Other advantages of oxen that Nancy mentioned were their tendancy to group together and spook less often than horses.

They are real mild mannered, they like to be scratched and theyve never hurt anybody, Nancy said of her team.

Martin said that each year the oxen pull a covered wagon across the Snake river at a reenactment of the Three Island Crossing, near Glenns Ferry, Idaho.

We tipped over one year, but everyone got out fine, he said.

The Wootans also take Josh and Jack around to schools in Idaho to teach fourth graders about history. They said the most common question the children ask is Do they lose their antlers every year?

Sasha Trimble, 12, from Ontario gave the oxen a hearty scratch along with her friend Jessica Sherman, 15, from Cambridge, Idaho.

Theyre huge, Ive never seen anything that big before, Trimble said.

Wagon life

Thayer Mohr was busy rummaging through the back of her wagon for cooking utensils. Mohr is a Baker City resident who was putting together molasses biscuits. She said she has been part of the festival for six years and enjoys it because Its an opportunity to live as it would have been back then. Being a pioneer would have been an amazing existence.

Next to Mohrs wagon, Geraldine Kavanagh was teaching penmanship. She fashioned quill pens out of feathers and told her students, Seanna Mitchell, Ella Trimble and Steven Trimble from Ontario, this is a very efficient tool, without the feathers, the scribes, secretaries and accountants hands ache less at the end of the day.

She used ink, made out of crushed Walnut hulls, cooked in a small iron pot. Hold it with the hollow side down, then proceed to write, she said.

Kavanagh is from Terrebone and volunteers at the High Desert Museum. The Trail Centers interpretive specialist Nancy Harms recruited Kavanagh to join in the festival.

Its fun, exciting and the public is great, she said, out of character.

Levi Connelly, 8, dressed in 1852 garb, crawled out of the sun and into the large tee pee to play drums for a while with Susan Sheoships and Kathleen Gorden, Cayuse and Walla Walla Indians from the Umatilla reservation.

Were friendly Indians, Sheoships said. A lot of the children are afraid, they peek in the door and say Theres Indians in there!

Were here for communication and education purposes, Gorden said.