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The Pioneering Life: A Living History Camp along the Barlow Road

A scar across the trunk of a towering pine tree in the Mount Hood National Forest is believed by historians to have been caused by ropes that early settlers used to secure and pull wagons across the White River.

The crevice in the bark is pointed out by U.S. Forest Service officials to students coming to the Living History Camp on the site of the old Barlow Road.

“Most of the students who come here are from the city and it is important for us to tell this story because, if we don’t, there won’t be a story,” said Cora Lee Groce, a retired forest service employee, who founded the camp in 1993.

The word “road” was a bit of a misnomer, according to Susan Buce, spokesperson for the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center.

She said the 100-mile passage, constructed in 1856 by Sam Barlow and Philip Foster, was considered the most harrowing part of a nearly 2,000-mile trip.

Pioneers arrived exhausted after a five-month journey from Missouri, or even farther east, and then faced mud, sheer cliffs and unpredictable weather.

According to information compiled by Buce, Barlow petitioned the Provisional Government of the Oregon Territory, located at that time in Oregon City, for a charter to build the wagon road. Although the official name was the Mount Hood Road, it was called then, and still is, the Barlow Road.

The charge for passage was $5 per wagon and 10 cents for each horse, mule, donkey or cow. The Barlow Road began at The Dalles and headed south to Tygh Valley, where the trail turned west and followed the north bank of the White River. The road then headed north and northwest through Barlow Pass and Government Camp before following the Sandy River into the Willamette Valley.

The only other option the pioneers had was to float wagons, animals and family members down the Columbia River from The Dalles. The waterway that was not yet restrained by manmade dams, churned and tumbled over waterfalls, posing a great risk to pioneer families.

The Living History camp draws hundreds of elementary school age children — the majority in fourth grade who are studying the Oregon Trail — from urban areas. They get to try on the bonnets and hats that early settlers used to shield their heads and faces from a sun that seemed relentless in the summer months on the prairie.

Emily Black of Maupin is thankful to live in the 21st Century and have the comforts provided by medical and technological advancements.

She is also fascinated with history and one of a small group of volunteers that man stations at the camp, which is set up every September.

Emily was so inspired by the rustic setting that she married Phil at the site this year and Mason jars filled with wildflowers are evidence of the festivities.

“We’d been talking about getting married and we decided this was the right place to do it,” said Emily. “More than 60 people from our church in Maupin came out and brought food and a wedding cake.” She and Phil have been taught by Groce and her husband, Roy, a Maupin rancher, how to cook in a Dutch oven over hot coals in a smoking camp fire.

“We do all our cooking and make coffee over the fire,” said Emily proudly. While Phil is preparing entrees like biscuits and stew, Emily shows students the farm wagon used by settlers to carry tools, food and essential living items.

She points out that there is no room for household furniture or other luxuries, and asks them to think how they would feel to leave everything behind for the uncertainty of a new life. “They had to store five to seven months of food in the wagon,” she said.

She said pioneers intended to set out on the Oregon Trail from Missouri, or even farther east, were given a packing list prepared by their predecessors. That list included only essentials, such as the number of livestock they would need to bring and the feather mattress that would help them rest at night.

“I don’t know how they did it, they had to be tough,” said Black. “Everything we know about this time is something that we have learned from their diaries.”

Unlike the heavier and larger Conestoga wagon used to cross the prairie, the farm wagon did not provide enough room for sleeping. Pioneering families were forced to spend the night on the hard ground beneath their wagon.

If someone was ill or the family decided to camp on site for a few days, a tent might be pitched to make their stay more comfortable, said Black.

Cora plays many roles during the week. One of her favorites is showing children how to card wool, a process that disentangles fiber shorn from sheep, and use a drop spindle or spinning wheel. She shows her young charges how wool was used to insulate handcrafted quilts as protection against the winter cold. And she explains the limited fabrics that were available for clothing in the mid-1800s and how they were used.

“We talk about raising sheep and getting wool ready,” said Groce. “It was a lot of work to survive back then and I think they get a better understanding of that once they’ve been here.” Rachel Drake, a forestry technician, entertains students with her dulcimer, banjo and spoons, which the children are taught to play.

Song choices for the crowd are traditional, such as “My Darling, Clementine.”

“These are foot stompin’ fiddle tunes,” she said.

There is a basket of rustic toys the students can comb through, including cloth dolls, yo-yos and the hoops and sticks taken off ruined wagon wheels and made into a game.

Nearby, Mike Drydan, forest service archeologist, is hard at work on a dig that students are allowed to participate in — if they are very careful.

Drydan has them, and visitors in his field, painstakingly combing the earth to find square nails, glass shards and other artifacts that will prove a store owned by Cornelious Gray once stood next to the river. He has found evidence that a structure existed on 1883 survey maps.

“Some of those maps aren’t very accurate so we want to know if this is where the store actually was,” he said.

According to historical accounts, Gray’s store sold blankets, food, medicine, shoes and other supplies to weary pioneers.

“There’s nothing better than kids getting involved in what we are doing to really learn,” said Drydan.

Teachers and parents wanting to bring children to the camp in September 2015, or community members wanting to volunteer, can call the Barlow Ranger District in Dufur at 541-467-2291.

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