Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Champoeg teaches Oregon's ag and political history

Dennis Wiley, Park Manager for the Champoeg State Heritage Area, shows Wilsonville mayor Charlotte Lehan a historic marker honoring the May 2, 1843 meeting that let to the first American government on the Pacific Coast.

By Elaine Shein

CHAMPOEG STATE HERITAGE AREA, Ore. — Holding up a sock monkey, the woman dressed in period costume from the mid-1800s asked the small group of students how many knew what it was.

A few hands rose eagerly in response.

“ A sock monkey!” cried out one. A few others nodded that they too, had successfully recognized this toy that was popular from more than a century ago.

Taking the lesson further, the woman asked “how many pairs of socks do you think people had at the time? And how did they make these socks?”

And the lesson continued at Champoeg State Heritage Area.

Within a few minutes the students discussed whether kids would have had time to play after doing chores, what it was like to be in church on hard wooden pews and what toys they could silently play with there, and how socks could be transformed into monkeys for amusement.

Along the way, the children in this particular group — one of three that day — discussed how tough they think people had it in the past, what chores they might have done, what roles the children had, and what family life was like on farms.

Education on the past

Each year about 3,800 students participate in the educational programs offered at this park. This includes a Pioneer School, where students “take part in a typical pioneer school day, learning what it was like to be student in 1861. What better way to study history than to become part of it?” explains the material from the park. “Students work outdoors with instructors making hand-dipped candles and a button spinner toy. And of course, they enjoy good old fashioned pioneer recess.”

There is a lot to see and do at the part, ranging from hands-on activities to videos and other displays to teach children. Historic markers help teach children how the first provisional government was decided here in 1843, but the kids also learn to respect agriculture and the first farmers to settle the fertile soil in the French Prairie area of Oregon.

According to the Park Manager Dennis Wiley, the Champoeg State Heritage Area draws 350,000 people annually to enjoy its 615 acres that include historic sites, an interpretative center, hiking and biking trails and much more. Near Newberg, Ore., the area continues to draw people who enjoy history as well as nature.

Special events

Some of the special events that draw people include Chatauqua on Saturdays designated in January, February and March each year, Earth Day in April, and Founders Day in May.

Still upcoming for this year is Down by the Riverside on May 20, Oregon State Parks Day on June 3, Free Fishing Day on June 10, Pioneer Farmstead Day on Sept. 2, and Champoeg Holiday Gathering on Dec. 2.

What really is fascinating are the Living History Events that the park offers. These include, according to the literature from the Friends of Historic Champoeg:

Textile Day on July 8: spinning wool, carding wool, rug braiding, quilting and weaving

Blacksmith Day on July 15: Blacksmithing, horse shoeing

Dairy Day on July 22: Butter making, cheese making demonstrations, buttermilk baking

Fun and Games Day on July 29: 19th century games, indoor and outdoor

Wheat Production Day on August 5: Wheat processing from stalk to flour

Household Arts on the Farm Day on August 12: Vinegars, herbs, mending clothes, rug weaving

Farm Yard Arts Day on August 19: Leather harness repair, woodworking, tin smithing

Farmstead Day on September 2: All that was done so far, together!

Barn Dance on Sept. 15-16

Apple Harvest Festival on October 14

Holiday Gathering on December 2: Crafts, food, music, story telling, trimming the tree.

Learning about ancestors

One of the best parts about the programs at Champoeg is this keeps alive the knowledge of what many people’s ancestors experienced. Many farms in the area can trace back their heritage to the first people who settled in the area, and families take pride in knowing they continue to work the land and grow high-quality crops and livestock.

And of course, there is the political history significance of this place.

A modest marker lists names of some of the earliest farming pioneers and the spot where on May 2, 1843, settlers from the Willamette Valley felt it was important enough to get together to organize a civil government. “The Organic Act adopted July 5, 1843, was a provisional constitution for the Oregon country, the first American government on the Pacific Coast,” explains a large sign near the historic place.

Political significance

Wiley put into perspective how important this first vote was. A large number of settlers of the Willamette Valley gathered to discuss whether to be part of Great Britain or be part of the United States. They wanted to protect the interest of Oregon lands, and included French-Canadian farmers, Methodist missionaries, natives, and even fur-trappers. They struggled with language, with half of them not understanding English, and needed to vote a half dozen times before the final conclusion. With a vote of 52 to 50, the people who participated decided to create the Provisional Government.

How important was this?

Drew thousands of Oregonians

For decades after that, this spot in Champoeg State Park attracted crowds of thousands of people to celebrate Founders Day in May. There are stories of how, around 1910 and for a few years after that, more than 3,000 people would come from all over the state, by “steam wheeler, horse and buggy” and sometimes traveled for days to get there, according to Wiley.

“Now, we feel really good about it if we get 100 people,” he said, adding that’s about how many showed up recently for the event. “Generations have passed away with ties to pioneer heritage,” he explained.

This week as farmers tilled the dusty fields near Champoeg, the park manager noted that the land in this area still looks much like it did 150 years ago even though the production practices and technological advancements might have changed. Farmers still work the land that enjoys depths of topsoil from 3 to 8 feet deep, some of the best land in the West. There was a reason farmers first settled in this temperate weather zone and worked this area so richly diverse in agriculture, ranging from berries to nut orchards to grass seed to vegetable crops and nurseries.

Today’s challenges

Unfortunately, like many other special historic places, the Champoeg State Heritage Area is not funded by Oregon income tax dollars and relies on grants, lottery dollars and personal contributions to continue a program that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain and hopefully to improve. Work is needed on trails, as well as interpretative signs, and plans are being made to launch an anniversary celebration in 2009.

Anyone interested in contributing can become a member or volunteer. Membership levels range from $15 for a senior/student to $1,000 for a lifetime membership. For more information, contact: Friends of Historic Champoeg, 8239 Champoeg Road NE, St. Paul, OR 97137 or call 503-678-1649.
Email is or email Champoeg State Heritage Area.

Watching the kids as they learned from the people who work at Champoeg, it is clear that for anyone who loves history, especially of Oregon or agriculture, this is a great cause to support.

Champoeg State Heritage Area.


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