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Holding down the fort

Fort Vancouver's army of volunteers, including Betty Meeks, share stories of this national historic site


by: JIM CLARK/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - (ABOVE) Fort Vancouver volunteer Betty Meeks shows visitors a collection of animal pelts that are stored in a replica of the fort's trading post. What’s this about Soviet pilots landing in Vancouver, Wash., in the 1930s? Gather around Betty Meeks as she shares this snippet of local history. There’s a display all about it at the Pearson Air Museum — part of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site — but it’s more fun to hear Meeks tell it.

It seems the three Soviet airmen were on their way to Oakland, Calif., from Moscow over the North Pole in June 1937 when they had some sort of plane trouble. They made an unscheduled landing at Pearson Air Field, where George C. Marshall — then the commander of the U.S. Army’s Vancouver Barracks — greeted them in his pajamas. Marshall took the Soviets to his house at Fort Vancouver for breakfast and then obtained clothing from Meier & Frank for his unexpected guests, whose only attire consisted of their flight suits.

“I love these little vignettes,” says Meeks, 74, who volunteers two days a week at Fort Vancouver. “It’s the seemingly little things that humanize the whole thing,” she adds as she wraps up the story and moves on to the next display.

“If you’ve never seen a Stanley Steamer, there’s one,” she says, pointing to an early 20th-century automobile made by the Stanley Motor Carriage Company.

Meeks has volunteered at Fort Vancouver since February 2007, “and I love it,” she says. “I love learning; I have a curious mind.”

And she loves sharing her knowledge with visitors to Fort Vancouver. Walking by the residence of the chief factor (the post’s most senior officer), she points outs two cannons in front of the big white house. “Those cannons were never fired,” she says. So why are they here? “It’s a mark of power,” she explains.

Does Sept. 18, 1846, ring a bell? It does for Meeks. “It was the night of the Shark,” she says, the night when news reached Fort Vancouver that the Navy schooner — which had been at the fort just weeks before — had wrecked at the mouth of the Columbia River, “at the Clatsop Spit,” Meeks says. The crew was saved.

She pauses. “That’s what I get for being a history nut.”

by: JIM CLARK/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - The buildings now standing at the Fort Vancouver site are reconstructions of the originals that once served the Hudsons Bay Company, the 19th-century fur-trading giant.

Commerce and military might

British trade and U.S. military power co-existed at Fort Vancouver in the mid-19th century. The Hudson’s Bay Company established the original fort as its Pacific Northwest headquarters and fur trade depot in 1825.

The region became a U.S. territory in 1846; three years later, the U.S. Army arrived to establish a post just north of the trading company to aid American settlers moving to Oregon Country. The first of several buildings the Army constructed, the 1849 former headquarters now known as the Grant House, is the oldest standing building in Vancouver Barracks.

Hudson’s Bay Company continued operating there until moving out in 1860. By 1866, fires and decay had destroyed the original fort structures.

The fort buildings that visitors see today are reconstructions representing life there during the fur trade area. Archaeologists began excavating the site of the original fort in 1947, and reconstruction began in the 1960s, Weeks says. “The digging continues to this day,” she adds.

Loves history, geology, geography

Meeks, who lives in Vancouver, is a native of Portland whose father and grandfather grew celery and lettuce outside Milwaukie. She has been a maid, a waiter, a janitor, a billing clerk, a postal employee, and spent time in Roseburg, Seattle, Denver and Death Valley. She worked at Yellowstone National Park for a concession company that ran the park’s general stores. She spent 25-1/2 years working for Pacific Northwest Bell, later known as US West and then Qwest (it’s now CenturyLink), retiring in 2004.

She attended Portland State University — “I still haven’t officially graduated,” she says — and she loves history, geology and geography, “how they tie together.”

For a time, Meeks volunteered at the Mount St. Helens Institute. “What a place — I loved it,” she says. But she didn’t think she was being used enough there, so she decided to check out Fort Vancouver, which she had never visited. “I went on a ranger trek and the person leading it noticed all my questions and said, ‘You should volunteer.’ So I did,” she recalls.

She works two days a week — Thursdays at the visitors center and Saturdays at the Pearson Air Museum, which lies within the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. The museum commemorates the history of one of the nation’s oldest active airfields, dating to a 1905 dirigible landing.

Meeks also sings with the Vancouver USA Singers, a 100-voice community choir in its 49th season. She reads a lot, too — history, biographies, some fantasy. She’s always learning something new, even picking up occasional factoids from visitors at Fort Vancouver.

“I love factoids,” she says. “The things you learn when you keep your ears open. I’d make a pretty good sponge.”