Keeping Oregon's founding history alive
Despite temperature gauges around Champoeg State Park reading in the 90s on Aug. 26, dozens flocked to the park's 19th Century Living History event. Period-costumed volunteers and park rangers led visitors in authentic crafts and demonstrations, organized and hosted by Friends of Historic Champoeg. From brewing mint leaf tea and sampling rhubarb sauce to woodworking and blacksmithing the way the pioneers did throughout the 1800s, Friends of Historic Champoeg President Kristi Phillips said the event's goal was educational fun.
For event organizer and member of Friends of Historic Champoeg, Donna Hines, the park is a special place not only because of its natural beauty but also because of its historical importance as the birthplace of Oregon and the first territorial government west of the Rocky Mountains in 1843.
As a former schoolteacher, Hines' knowledge of the French Prairie region that Champoeg inhabits and her personal love of the park — as well as living on-site for four to five months out of the year — helped to inspire this year's event, which is a reboot of other harvest-time festivals and living history events popular over the years.
Although these volunteer-powered events are how most people know the Friends of Historic Champoeg, Phillips said the events are only a small part of what the nonprofit organization does.
"Our focus is education and educating young people and people that are in school, specifically," Phillips said. "The pride and joy that we have is our education department, the teachers that we employ and the field trips that we have, covering the history of the park and why it's important."
All field trips are guided by curricula specially created by the education department at the Friends of Historic Champoeg. Organized by grade level, the curricula has been created to check off benchmark criteria in cultural education throughout Oregon school districts, Phillips said.
"We make sure that our curriculum meets those standards so that the field trips are not only educational and fun and exciting, but also help the teachers accomplish their teaching goals, which is important," she said.
Volunteer and longtime Champoeg patron Graceann Koch is living proof that an early introduction to the park and its history can foster a lasting love of both.
"My mother used to bring me here for my birthday," Koch said.
Now as an adult, she loves to share her knowledge of the park and its bounty with visitors, as she did at the 19th Century event by brewing medicinal tea out of mint leaves and other native plants grown in the park's heritage garden.
Despite employing its seasonal teaching staff and offering a variety of programming, including its newly added Merit Badge program in partnership with the Boy Scouts of America, Friends of Historic Champoeg is a nonprofit. A cooperative group that works in conjunction with Oregon State Parks and Recreation, Friends of Historic Champoeg does not receive any funding from its state-sponsored partner.
"We're blessed enough, right now, to have the finances to actually hire teachers," Phillips said. "But we're an independent nonprofit that can only survive with support from the public."
Funded primarily from the revenues generated from the gift shop at the Champoeg Visitor Center and from a portion of parking pass sales, the organization's main focus is on education, but Phillips said that the park is special for so many more reasons.
"I joined the organization three years ago because the organization might not have continued and I felt like that the education and teaching kids was so imperative, not only to the park itself but to the community as a whole, that I was willing to donate my time, even as a working person at the time," Phillips said, adding that her commitment eventually led to her quitting her job to take on the unpaid role of president. "I love this organization and I love what we're doing."
Phillips said that volunteering is a great way to get a better understanding of the park, its history and to open up new resources and understanding for those who already love it as well as other people who are becoming familiar with the park for the first time.
"This place is so important in Oregon's history in particular and it would be a shame if people didn't know that it existed; and there's so much to do at Champoeg, even aside from the history," Phillips said. "I just love that Champoeg can be a meeting place for people, regardless of what you're there to do. You might be there for a family reunion, you might be there for one of our living history events, a picnic or a bike ride or disc golf. It absolutely fascinates me that after all of these hundreds of years that it can still be a meeting place where people are enjoying themselves, meeting their families and having a good time."
Salem residents Mark and Janet Russell were two such visitors Aug. 26 that came to camp and ended up at the 19th century living history event. The couple used hatchets to shape and build their own authentic footstool out of logs and branches.
"This is such a cool heritage site, so we come here every year," Mark Russell said. "Now my wife is building a four-legged stool the way that the pioneers did."
"Any outdoor activity that takes you out into nature and allows you to use the natural resources — especially since there is such an abundance of them here in the Willamette Valley — is wonderful."