Waterville woman recreates the lure of the Oregon Trail
For as long as Yvonne Larson can remember, the past was never really past but remained as fresh as today’s headlines and yet somehow more real, more substantive, more historic, if such a thing could be, history being the now and not the then, not something relegated to the dustbins of once-upon-a-time or cloaked in old boring textbooks crammed down the throats of children yearning to be outdoors making some history of their own. No, the past was right there, almost within arms’ reach, and given a little imagination and a longer arm, could be snatched and tenaciously held.
It helped that she was raised on the outskirts of Waterville, itself glimmering with history. And what is history, anyway? For Waterville, history was a frontier at the terminus of the railroad and a brawling cattle town that could have competed any day against Abilene or Dodge City, and did for awhile until, well, history intervened. Almost a straight shot north, over the Little Blue River and the folds and creases of a land sculpted by glaciers, the overland trails converged with the Military Road, the Pony Express Route, the Overland Stagecoach Route, the St. Joe Branch of the California Trail and the Oregon Trail conjoining in a grassy field with a slight westward cant that convinced viewers that the iconic Rockies were just a few miles beyond the horizon. “The road was as far as the eye could see over the plains crowded thick with wagons,” wrote an 1850s traveler at that junction. As far as Larson was concerned, those wagons never stopped rolling.
Or if they did, then it was time to get them hitched to the oxen again.
It also helped that her father, Marc Lamoreaux, was an inveterate regaler of tales, not only of his youth but of the area as well. He told her of coal engines staining the air in billowing clouds of soot and the rhythmic ring of metal on metal, the groaning and rattling of couplings and the long lonesome wail of the whistles settling down like dusk, and of ice skating under a midnight sky blazing with starfields on frozen Coon Creek, and of ice carved out block by heavy block, sandwiched in sawdust and stored in a building long since collapsed and reclaimed, and the creek low now, barely a trickle but visible from their front porch, a silvery snake writhing through the lowlands before disappearing into the green canopy demarcating the path of the river. And he told her of Alcove Spring and its significance to the westward movement.
It wasn’t far. Under the shelter of bur oaks and white-boned sycamores a narrow spray of water cascades over a rock ledge to pool in watercress and flow through limestone outcroppings to the Big Blue, the ledge inscribed with lettering dating back over a century, the upper highlands deeply grooved by the tracks of wagons struggled toward the sunset. It was here that thousands of pilgrims took stock before making the dangerous crossing, spreading across the meadows in noisy encampments, the air filled with the bellowing of oxen and the laughter of children, a nation of emigrants on the move, living the moment and, yes, dying, one man with a ball through his head when his rifle accidentally discharged, others through sickness, the most famous of whom was Sarah Keyes. She was the first of many to perish in the Donner-Reed party, buried by a tall tree whose location has long since been forgotten. Buried alongside nameless others whose shadowed presences may still be felt.
Standing in that lower meadow is like stepping back in time. Parallel ruts score the grass and the deep woods bordering the river are dark and haunted with faint rustlings and birdsong. It’s easy to imagine the course of empire moving inexorably on, and for Larson especially, given her bonds to the past, and given a certain wagon stored in her barn.
It was a New Stoughton, built in Stoughton, Wisc., in 1896, narrow in beam, similar to those taken on the westward route. In the late 1960s her father bought it from a man named Frank Kinley of Edgar, Neb., for around $35, used it in parades and as yard art at the time of the Kansas Centennial, then disassembled it and put into storage.
“Real people stopped there on the way west,” Larson said of Alcove Spring. And if they did, so could she. In 1993 she and her father dragged the wagon from the barn and reassembled it, retrofitting it with a few supplies. She also signed up for a wagon ride to celebrate the Oregon Trail sesquicentennial.
It was, perhaps, the defining moment in her life.
The wagon train started at the school grounds in Westmoreland and ended at Hollenberg Station near Hanover. Larson left the wagon behind and rode a horse instead, mentally preparing herself for another trip a friend was planning for later that year. Though emigrant wagons hadn’t rolled on that stretch of trail for 150 years, there was much of the same enthusiasm, and sense of expectancy, as the original travelers.
“When we left that morning, with me were my daughter—who had left a baby son at home with his dad—my sister and brother plus our driver who was a complete stranger,” Larson said. “Our parents had come out the night before to see us off. Except, of course, that we knew we would see them again, I expect that all of us felt somewhat as the pioneers did leaving home. I was terribly excited. We had allowed ourselves one box apiece and a large white canvas wedge tent. Like the pioneers, we took too much stuff!”
She was nervous because it was her responsibility to make sure they had the proper equipment. But however the others felt about the trip, or would once it was underway, she relegated it to them; she was going to enjoy it no matter what.
“Our driver was an old hand and had done this sort of thing for years,” she said. “His self-assurance was a comfort. I don't think I can describe the emotional impact of following the wagon tracks of our forefathers. This was before cell phones, and mobile phones were rare. I know our driver had one and called his wife every night. So we felt pretty well cut off from everyone. No one got enough sleep. The August days were hot, over 100 degrees a couple of times.
“The third night we had a bad thunderstorm and we got somewhat wet. The excitement and being exhausted kept our nerves on edge. I know I had tears in my eyes when we rolled down the hill and into Hollenberg Station. Everyone in our wagon was quite disgusted when some people joined the wagon train about a mile from the end and rode in with us. We felt it wasn't fair for them to share in the credit when they hadn't shared in the experience. One women even wore a flouncy dress with high-heeled boots and carried a bouquet of flowers! She had asked to ride in a wagon and got turned down.
“The icing on the cake was when a photographer posed a woman in a hoop skirt beside my wagon with her hands nicely manicured and resting on the wagon wheel. She was clean, had on make-up, and was supposed to look as if she had made the whole trip with us! The picture went into the KANSAS! Magazine. After 15 years it still sets me off.”
Shortly thereafter, her own trail became more defined with an offer to perform a historical presentation about the overland trails at the Hollenberg Pony Express Station. Curator Duane Durst asked her to bring the wagon and her supplies to show a group of children. It was to become a new career under the name of Nan’s Covered Wagon.
“I loved the idea of getting to share the covered wagon-Oregon Trail story,” Larson said. “And to dispel some myths. Yes, the wagons really were this small. No, the pioneers did not take Conestoga wagons to California and Oregon.”
The supplies she carries evolved into the present-day conglomerate approximating those taken by emigrants. Everything stores neatly inside the wagon, and when removed and spread on the ground for display purposes the wagon looks empty. She’s quick to point out that it is an illusion of sorts; the wagons were stuffed to the rafters and the people walked beside them rather than hitch a ride. (“If anyone got to ride,” she said, “it was on top of the load.”) Bags of flour, beans, coffee, corn and rice are the main staples, along with boxes of cooking gear, clothing, first aid supplies and bedding. There are also barrels of water, molasses, salt pork and hard tack. Necessary items include a wagon jack, tar bucket for mixing pine tar and tallow used to grease the wheels. And an odometer.
The latter (at right)is a specialty and always snares the interest of visitors to her presentations. She first saw the odometer in an article published in the Overland Journal. After showing it to her father, she asked if he could make one like it. Not only could he, but it was an exact match to one found in the Mormon Winter Quarters Museum north of Omaha, Neb.
Rounding out the supplies are what she considers a luxury—a sheet metal stove—fueled by authentic campfire fuel pellets called “prairie coal,” or buffalo chips. She gets them from a buffalo ranch not far from her house.
Her clothing is fashioned from commercial patterns taken from existing 150-year-old garments. “I try to be authentic 'from the skin out,' the name of a clothing program I do. I wear all the layers: drawers, chemise, corset, privacy slip, petticoats, cap and hat or bonnet. The boots are more difficult to obtain, but I get as close as I can.”
Adults, she found, were more interested in trail history than children. “Children are always learning something, and wagon history is just one more thing to them,” she said. “The exception is those students who have been studying the overland migration. They love to see the size of the wagon and all the stuff that needed to be taken along.”
And they ask the best questions: Are you a real pioneer? Were you around when they signed the Declaration of Independence?
“I’ve discovered that fifth graders are just beginning to form a timeline in their minds,” she said. She quickly, but gently, sets them straight.
Her wagon has been taken on portions of the Oregon Trail several times, notably the stretch between St. Joseph, Mo., to Rock Creek Station, Neb., and from Belvue to Hanover. She’s driven much of the Oregon Trail in a vehicle and also driven the entire Santa Fe Trail.
But most enjoyable are the one- to two-day events, held to inquisitive audiences. Twelve to sixteen times a year she takes the wagon out and explains to young and old alike of the trail, of its hardships and dangers, of a time when America was on the move. Over half a million people left home and hearth for a chance at a new life, hitched their wagons to their oxen and headed west, and for a while, a brief while, Larson counts herself one of them.
For more information on Nan’s Covered Wagon, visit www.historicperformance.com, or contact Larson at 785-363-2365.