The Washington County 4-H Wagon Train is a summer camp like no other. The living history camp takes about 80 youth and adults on a journey back in time, where they get a firsthand feel for what life was like as a pioneer making their way west on the Oregon Trail.
The year-round club and annual summer camp were founded in 1982 by Lyle Spiesschaert, a 4-H faculty member, and volunteers as a program of Oregon State University Extension Service. It is open to everyone.
Campers learn many lessons during the eight-day camp. Teamsters – adults who provide the historical wagons and the teams of horses or mules – teach youth how to care for the animals and operate the wagons and harnesses.
“This program would just be a walk in the woods if it wasn’t for our teamsters and the richness of the stories they share and their interactions with youth,” said Jeff Clark, 2019 volunteer wagon master. “They bring so much. It’s something I haven’t seen in any other program I have been involved with.”
Other adults teach lessons about Oregon’s heritage and environmental stewardship, and practical skills of knot tying, knife sharpening, making a shelter from a tarp and working in a group.
“We create unique achievable goals for the youth, and provide the framework for problem solving and personal growth,” said Tia Adams, who has volunteered for the camp along with her family for four years. Daughter Katelyn serves as the junior scout, daughter Sarah serves as a junior cook, husband Scott is the medic, and his mother, Jill, takes care of their special-needs daughter during the camp.
The wagon train’s trail changes each year. In 2019, the train traveled a section of the Oregon Trail in central Oregon near the Metolius River.
Youth may walk alongside or ride in the wagons. At night, the campers pitch in to set up camp, care for the animals, prepare and serve food and sing songs around a blazing campfire.
While organizers try to keep the experience authentic, a few modern conveniences make the trek a bit easier, like portable toilets and a mobile kitchen. The “cook shack” is scheduled for renovation and a fund-raising campaign has been launched.
The Washington County 4-H Wagon Train club holds meetings and activities year-round and new members from in or outside Washington County are always welcome to join.