Students travel schoolyard Oregon Trail
Wheelwright Bill Dawson isn’t one to paint a romantic picture of life on the Oregon Trail.
Friday, Dawson, who maintains the Round-Up Association’s fleet of historic wagons, described pioneer life to third and fourth graders at Washington Elementary School’s Oregon Trail Day.
Under his guidance, the students imagined walking hundreds of miles on the rocky trail, cleaning their teeth with crude toothbrushes made of sticks and greasing wagon wheels with rancid animal fat.
Dawson stood next to a covered wagon that he said would weigh several thousand pounds fully loaded. Pioneers chose carefully what possessions to bring west, he said. They left clocks, pianos and furniture behind and packed necessities such as sewing machines, dried foods, stoves and frying pans.
“When you came west in those days, you never went back,” Dawson said. “Everything you needed was in that wagon — you couldn’t go back for another load.”
His students, some wearing pioneer garb, crawled into the wagon and imagined bumping along the Oregon Trail.
Every 20 minutes, a whistle sounded and the students raced off to the next of seven stations scattered around the Washington schoolyard.
Nearby, Tom Bailor and Lloyd Barkley showed eight students how to operate an atlatl (attle-attle), an ancient hunting weapon that predates the bow and arrow. The atlatl consists of a 2-foot-long throwing board and an arrow that fits into a notch. With a sweeping motion, similar to a tennis player smashing an ace, a hunter could launch spears, arrows or darts.
“You can throw 300 times harder with this than throwing by hand,” Bailor said.
The students launched tipless arrows toward a leather target adorned with a picture of an elk.
At an old-fashioned cider press, Mike Townsend tutored eight students in the art of cider making. They fed 16 apples into a hopper, pressed and watched as two quarts of juice flowed along a slanted wooden tray into a bucket.
Students sat in a drum circle at the edge of the schoolyard. Linda Sampson and her son Ian, who once attended Washington, gave a crash course on American Indian drumming. Nearby, others tried out two-wheeled handcarts similar to those used by Mormon pioneers who traveled west as far as Utah. The carts could carry up to 500 pounds of possessions.
Students also learned about native dress and traditional foods and made butter by shaking whey in jars. The event culminated with a barbecue and session with storyteller Woodrow Star.
Two teachers, Kathy Gregory and Beth Hepler, organized the event to let their students get a glimpse of life on the Oregon Trail from the perspective of the pioneers and the Indians who were already here. Gregory said, “We tried to present a complete picture.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2, 2012, edition of the East Oregonian, with story and photo by senior reporter Kathy Aney. It has been posted to this web site with permission from the East Oregonian.