This year, the last full week of June will mark the 28th official Wagon Train rumbling through the Blue Mountains. In June of 1983, the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Associations sponsored the first trek through the Blues from Ukiah to Pendleton.
This unique event gave the teamsters who helped annually with the Westward Ho! Parade an opportunity to work their animals and participate in an Oregon Trail re-enactment. A limited number of horseback riders were also invited to participate.
Round-Up and Happy Canyon directors were the original committee members and each director was assigned a responsibility.
I spoke to Jerry Schubert, past Round-Up President, who was the organizer of that first event.
"We had been in Portland for the Rose Festival and were coming home on the bus," he said. "I had this idea in mind (for a Wagon Train) so I visited with Bill Morrison and said, 'I'd like to keep the teamsters more active with the Round-Up Association.'"
Schubert and Morrison visited with other directors of both boards. In November of 1982 the first "Covered Wagon Committee Meeting" was held in Room 17 and a tradition was born.
Committee assignments were confirmed that first night: Dennis Moffit, the July 3rd Cook-Out; Jerry Schubert, teams and teamsters; Larry Hodgen, food and beverages; Fritz Hill, people, horse riders, etc; Jim Duff, transportation, regarding wagons, outhouses, etc.; Paul Cimmiyotti and Gerald Swaggart, wagons and equipment; Mark Rosenberg, feed etc. for animals; John Williams, permits, fire equipment; Jerry Schubert, Bill Morrison and John Williams, the route; Bob Schuening, Round-Up mules.
Meetings were held monthly from November of 1982 to June of 1983. Arrangements were made with the forest service and private landowners where campsites were planned.
To lessen the probability of injury, every precaution was taken. A medical practitioner, a veterinarian and a farrier were included in the list of participants.
Rules were established. No firearms or fireworks; all horses recently shod; a kicking horse must be flagged; hay nets are required; no refunds on missed meals; riders will be assigned to wagons; NO DOGS!
Participants signed a waiver of responsibility, paid $87 for meals and hay for their horses and they were on their way to an Oregon Trail experience. Jerry Schubert said, "We tried to make it as authentic as possible."
That first year the weather was similar to the wet spring we currently have experienced.
The Wagon Train began at the Fletcher Ranch in Ukiah and it was so muddy in their fields several vehicles could not pull the short incline to the highway. Four big, black Percheron draft horses were hitched to the bumper and pulled the mired vehicles out of the muck.
Day 2 from the junction of Highway 244 and Pearson Creek Road to the Sager cabin was similar. The caterer's vehicles were buried to the hubs so again the Percheron's were called to action.
By the time the Wagon Train reached the Sager cabin, people had spent 3 nights sleeping in the rain and two days riding in the rain. Kessler's Katering prepared a huge cast iron pot of stew on a tripod over a fire. In spite of the steady rain falling into the stew pot, we didn't hear any complaints. Of course, there could have been a little firewater taken for medicinal purposes and to lift their spirits.
Day 3 was from the Sager cabin to Pilot Rock. From the files of the East Oregonian we read; "on Saturday, one minor incident. Ron Schuening, attempting to go from wagon to horse - on the move - ended up on the ground instead. With a gash on his head. As blood trickled down the side of his face, Susan Sitz, a St. Anthony Hospital emergency room doctor, cleaned the wound. Lacking sterile conditions sutures require, she improvised, tying together the hair on each side of the wound. Pioneer medicine. 'Rocky Steagall I'm not,' Schuening said."
Pilot Rock welcomed the Wagon Train with a parade, a community barbecue and a street dance lasting way into the morning. And hot showers were available at the school!
Day 4 was from Pilot Rock to Bob Rose's home just below McKay Dam. The July 3rd Cook-Out was held that evening with guests and family members. Finally the weather cleared and everyone had a chance to dry their gear.
On the Fourth of July the train traveled from Bob Rose's home to Main Street and the Round-Up grounds, ending a 70 mile trip the participants will always remember.
This tradition has endured thanks to that old-fashioned volunteer spirit Eastern Oregon proudly exhibits.
Yes, there have been changes. Most of the original participants slept in tents or in their wagons. You could count the campers and motor homes on one hand.
In 1983, there were two portapotties that rattled down the road ahead of the Wagon Train (sometimes with an unsuspecting occupant inside.) Today there are up to sixteen sanitized portapotties within a very short walk.
In 1983 there were no showers until the train reached Pilot Rock. Today, Kessler Katering provides hot showers and sinks for a very nominal fee, right in camp.
In the early years the Wagon Train moved the entire camp every day, similar to our pioneer forefathers. Today, they try to move camp no more than twice. They look for large campsites and make rides out and back from different directions.
In 1983 there were few cell phones for instant access to the outside. And the service was always sporadic. Instead, there was a CB radio in the lead wagon and the last wagon and a sheriff's department radio for emergencies.
In 1983, Kessler Katering had a horse trailer and a portable cook shack. Today they have everything from shower trucks to semi trucks carrying every possible necessity.
For more on the wagon train, see next week's Lifestyles page in the East Oregonian.