Living history tour promises to be a blast from the past
by: KRISTEN FORBES Actors from the Willamette Living History Tour include (from top row, left to right): Franny Heald, West Linn Old Time Fair Queen Sara Gowdy, Maggie Hill, organizer Danny Schreiber; (middle row): Charles Awalt, Diane Awalt; (bottom row): Shelly Wert, Jayne Vorhies and Carol Elliott.

The year was 1908. The Town of Willamette was incorporated near the confluence of the Willamette and Tualatin rivers, just upstream from Willamette Falls. One of the first suburban towns of the early 20th century, Willamette was a flurry of neighborly activity.

Livestock roamed the streets. The town's founding fathers and other significant leaders congregated. In this Edwardian era, lanterns lit the way and horse-drawn carriages were the primary mode of transportation.

Now, it's 2011. The fourth annual Willamette Living History Tour is approaching. On Saturday, historic guides in authentic costumes will take guests through the historic Willamette neighborhood in West Linn by lamplight, giving them the opportunity to watch history come alive.

What began as part of 2008's centennial celebration commemorating the Town of Willamette's incorporation in West Linn has become an annual event so popular, tickets have sold out every year. The tour, which lasts an hour, starts on a horse-drawn carriage before shifting to a walking tour, where costumed guides lead groups through 10 different scenes. These scenes all depict life as it was in 1908.

'It's very unique. There's nothing like this around town,' said Willamette Neighborhood Association President Beth Kieres. 'There are a few towns that have ghost tours, but no living history.'

The scenes are all historically accurate. The characters in each scene are based on real people from the area. The families are associated with the homes they built. There are no cars, but you will see goats and chickens - even a cow. The town is truly transformed. Months of preparation precede the event. Characters are cast, costumes worked out, scripts made and rehearsed and homeowners contacted for permission to use their historical homes. Each year's tour is different from the last, as the houses and cast lists change.

Event organizer Danny Schreiber and his wife, Nicole, were living in California when they first saw a living history tour, produced by the museum where Nicole worked. The couple got involved with the production and had a lot of fun, so they proposed a similar tour here when ideas for the centennial celebration were being bounced around. Initially, most people had never even heard of such a thing.

'We have all the spirits tours and the ghosts tours, but this is really different because we're not dead. We're alive. It's a very different tour. It's a different presentation. We're also different from something like Colonial Williamsburg, where guests interact with the cast. I've realized over the years that this is much more like a theatrical play,' Schreiber said.

'It's as much about the story as it is about the neighborhood,' Kieres said.

The challenge in creating such an event is finding historical documents from the time period. Though the scenes are all based on careful research, a few creative licenses were necessary. For example, Schreiber said there was no historical record of suffragettes in the exact locale of the Town of Willamette, but there are records of suffragette events in Portland.

When visitors encounter suffragettes on the tour, they will be conducting 'secret meetings.' Likewise, though there is no historical record of any Model Ts in Willamette, there is record of a dealership in Oregon City at the time.

At least 70 (there could be more than 80 on tour day; last-minute changes occur) cast members will reenact life as it was on Saturday. Some are new and others have been donning costumes and recreating scenes all four years. Figuring out the perfect costume is always a part of the fun; the group recently got together for a hat-making party.

Tours depart every 15 minutes on Sept. 17, starting at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online for $15 or $12.50 for groups of four or more. Act fast; the tour sells out every year. Visit to order tickets.

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