March 21, 2013

"Oregon Trail" Comes to Life at the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin

  • By: David Weible
A school group gathers in front of the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin. Credit: Volunteers of the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin
A school group gathers in front of the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin.

If you spent any portion of your childhood in the 1980s or '90s, then invariably your favorite part of the school day was bucking the lesson plan in computer class and rabidly killing bison, fording rivers, and visiting Chimney Rock in the Oregon Trail video game. If you were unfortunate enough to have missed this phenomenon of modern pedagogy, then suffice it to say that the game, in which the player acted as the wagon master for a family that set out on the Oregon Trail from Missouri, was the greatest video game of all time.

In the video game, once you made it to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where many who traveled the actual Oregon Trail between the 1840s and 1860s settled, you were safe from the dangers of the trail and your educational experience ended. But in the case of the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin, located about 40 minutes southwest of downtown Portland on the banks of the Willamette River, the education and the danger (albeit not from raiding parties or diphtheria), continue today.

“There are very few log cabins left, as you can well imagine, and even though this one isn't an original log cabin from the 1840s and '50s, it represents that structure,” says Judy Van Atta, director of the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin and the nearby Robert Newell House. “Everything within the cabin is an artifact that came across [the country] on the Oregon Trail, so it represents our beginnings here in Oregon and for the nation, the westward movement.”

A view of the annual Harvest Dinner taken from the cabin’s loft. Credit: David Krapes/Studio 315 Photography
A view of the annual Harvest Dinner taken from the cabin’s loft.

The cabin was dedicated in 1931 and sits on a piece of land originally claimed by Robert Newell, the first man brave (or crazy) enough to bring a wagon overland into the Willamette Valley and a pioneer of the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. Today, the site serves as an educational experience for thousands of school children each year to learn about the Oregon Trail, Oregon government, and other elements of the state’s history. On the day that I spoke to Van Atta, 85 second- through fourth-graders were visiting.

But even since the construction of the original cabin in the mid-1800s, the ground beneath it has been directly in the crosshairs of the Willamette River. In 1861, the flooding river washed away what used to be the nearby town of Champoeg. In 1891, the original cabin was swept away. In 1996, another flood rose to the mantel of today’s cabin and caused significant damage to the foundation.

Van Atta explained that because the cabin is located on the outside of a curve in the river, what was 75 feet of land between it and the water in 1931 is now just eight, and the threat of another flood grows larger every year.

“We have a hundred-year flood, they say, on the Willamette, which comes every 30 years basically,” says Van Atta. “Our only option is to move the cabin.”

Pioneer Mother Carrie Friedrich hosts a school tour. A local music teacher, she has also brought the music of the pioneers to the cabin for the children to enjoy. Credit: Ronald Peterson
Pioneer Mother Carrie Friedrich hosts a school tour. A local music teacher, she has also brought the music of the pioneers to the cabin for the children to enjoy.

The problem is that because the structure sits within a state park and is part of a historic archaeological district, they can’t disturb the land around it. Cutting down the surrounding trees so it can be moved in one piece to its new location at the nearby Robert Newell House, just above the floodplain, is also not an option. That means the cabin must be taken apart, log by log, catalogued, and rebuilt in its new location.

The museum has already completed the planning portion of the project and secured the variances needed to move the structure. Since introducing the idea to the public, they've raised roughly $75,000 and hope to raise another $75,000 privately before seeking matching grants to help reach the nearly $500,000 it will take to complete the project. It won’t be an easy task, but it’ll be worth the effort.

“Think of yourself as a second through fourth grader and you walk up to the women who are there with your school tour that are dressed in pioneer clothing,” says Van Atta. “It transports children in time... and to have children come up to you and talk to you like you actually are the woman that lived in this house when it was first built, it is amazing to see the looks in their eyes and the wonder at the fact that you lived like this.”

That’s something the video game could never quite do.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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